Take Your Characters to Therapy

“Every character should want something–even if it is only a glass of water.”  –Kurt Vonnegut

Vonnegut was right, of course.  But we need to know more than what our characters want.  To truly empathize with our characters, we need to know why they want the things they desire.

What makes our characters tick?  What limits our characters, and what pushes them forward?  How have they been hurt in the past, who has hurt them, and how will these injuries affect them going forward in their lives?  How will our characters’ pasts color their abilities to make the choices they face as they approach the climaxes of their stories?

People are endlessly fascinating puzzles; that’s why we can’t stop reading or writing about them.  As writers, we have multiple tools at our disposal to figure out these puzzles.  We’ve all lived through a certain amount of life experiences, and, presumably, we’ve all got some imagination (or we wouldn’t be writing fiction).  We’ve got friends, family, insatiable appetites for reading and–admit it–penchants for silent observation and eavesdropping.  We consult books and interview people who do what our characters do for a living so that we can better enter our characters’ heads and understand how they think and feel.

But there’s something else that can help us as we build our characters and pit them against the obstacles they encounter.  Psychology is an entire science devoted to understanding human behavior, and psychologists and psychotherapists can guide writers through unfamiliar pathways of the human mind.

The characters in my WIP, for example, suffer a deeply personal loss in a public tragedy.  Each character brings his or her own backstory to this event, and, as a result, it affects each of them differently.

At the outset of this project, I could imagine my characters’ reactions to this loss.  But never having gone through anything like this myself, I wanted to gain a deeper comprehension of what happens to people, both internally and externally, when they’re forced to cope with a trauma both public and personal.  So I turned to the experts.  I took my characters to therapy.

I sought out psychotherapists (in some cases, they were also social workers) who had worked with people who actually lived through this event.  I explained to them what I was working on.  In every case, they spent hours with me explaining the fundamentals of trauma, loss and grief, and then we got specific.  They discussed–without revealing anything private about their clients–what they had seen in the people they treated and how it was or was not illustrative of what might be considered “normal” psychological behavior.  Where it differed, they told me how and why.

But that wasn’t all.  We actually put my characters on the therapists’ couches.  I gave the therapists the profiles of my major characters, including the relevant pieces of their backgrounds, their relationships, their motivations and the plot points I thought the therapists needed to know.  They confirmed the reactions I’d imagined for my characters and occasionally pointed out inconsistencies.  Where one of my characters came to the tragedy with a previous trauma in his past, the therapists not only affirmed that his reaction would be more severe, but they added depth and complexity to my understanding by explaining that my character’s brain would essentially operate in two disassociated spheres, enabling him to take what seems like drastic, irrational actions on the one hand but function perfectly normally in other ways at the same time.  An alcoholism counselor spent more than two hours walking me through one character’s potential addiction, so that I left her office with understanding and empathy I couldn’t have imagined before.  A specialist in child trauma spent several hours with me working through the plight of the four-year-old girl in my novel, confirming what I’d suspected about how the child’s complicated emotions would emerge through tantrums, terrifying night-wakings and play that would disturb the adults in her life, but correcting me by telling me that the girl was probably too young for art therapy and offering alternative methods of working with kids if I wanted to use them.

One note of caution, however, about using the tool of psychotherapy for understanding and developing fictional characters: drawing an accurate psychological portrait of one’s characters is not sufficient.  A character may meet all of the DSM-IV criteria for, say, schizophrenia, but still lie flat as a textbook on the page.  The life of the character will come from how she copes with that schizophrenia, how it has shaped her backstory and her present relationships, how it blends with other aspects of her personality, the fears it has contributed to forming deep within her and how those fears mix with the obstacles she faces as the story progresses.  Will the schizophrenia play a direct role in the plot?  Will it be only one of many influences on this character’s actions?  That is for you, the author, to decide.

There is no therapist’s couch for that.  It’s just you, the blank page, and your character, trying to figure out why she wants a glass of water.

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About Tracy Hahn-Burkett

Tracy Hahn-Burkett has written everything from speeches for a U.S. senator to bus notes for her eighth-grade son. A former congressional staffer, U.S. Department of Justice lawyer and public policy advocate for civil rights, civil liberties and public education, Tracy traded suits for blue jeans and fleece when she moved to New Hampshire with her husband and two children. She writes the adoption and parenting blog, UnchartedParent, and has published dozens of essays, articles and reviews. Tracy is currently revising her first novel. Her website is TracyHahnBurkett.com.

Comments

  1. says

    This is great advice and really fascinating! At one time the prospect of talking to experts about my characters might have intimidated me, but I’ve found that people really love sharing what they do with others. Oh, and the picture made me laugh :) Great post!

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  2. says

    I had to chuckle a little bit after reading about all the experts’ input on your characters b/c I found myself thinking, “Geez, are ALL her characters traumatized?” Glad I’m not one of the characters you torture! :P

    Hehe but seriously, this is great advice, and the warning in the last paragraph is so key too: do your research, make sure you’re believable (if not 100% “realistic”) but don’t forget that everyone reacts differently, AND don’t forget that at the end of the day, your writing has to breathe life into the characters, not their various ailments/traumas.

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    • says

      Thanks Kristan. It’s true: my characters don’t have easy lives. If it makes you feel any better to know this, though, there have been plenty of days lately when they’ve been torturing me right back.

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  3. says

    Brava to you, Tracy, for taking the extra step and contacting experts to ensure your story and characters could be portrayed authentically. I’m a big proponent of research, and this is one of the key steps often missed by storytellers, imo.

    I look forward to hearing more about your work-in-progress!

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  4. says

    Laura,
    Thanks for the great advice. I never thought about doing what you’ve done. I’ve always believed the best characters have a complexity that’s difficult to achieve without really getting into their heads. Thanks again.

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  5. says

    Certainly an in-depth method of building characters and far more accurate than what I might come up with on my own. Thanks for the compelling idea on character development.

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  6. says

    I love this! I’ve never heard of this strategy, and it would reap such excellent passages. Thanks for this tip. I’ll spend some time with my characters at the therapist before I start revisions.

    Excellent post!

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  7. says

    This is very cool — I’ve really wanted to take my MC of my WIP to therapy and I will try harder after reading this. Thank you for the incentive and thank goodness she’s still being edited in revisions!

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  8. says

    I found the suggestions useful and interesting but have a question which Jamie Raintree alluded to indirectly. Do all these experts generally provide hours of their time for free? Do they expect an hourly fee? If not, what sort of compensation is customary?
    Steve

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  9. says

    I had a therapist contact me once to say I hit my character’s “stuff” ‘spot on’ and that was a nice compliment – mostly I try to put just enough to seem to know what I’m talking about even when I’m not sure what I’m talking about – it’s like telling a lie; the more detail I add, the more I tie myself up on the lie-knot to be found out, the less I say and the way I say it makes it more believable – *laugh* Um not that I make a habit of lying . . . lawd.

    Of course, my father was a social worker turned physchologist. I grew up with social workers hanging around all the time. To boot, I grew up with a crazy-arse family (not me of course teeheee). Lots of study going on whilst growing up!

    But now I’m imagining my characters on the therapist’s couch, . . . lawd, it ain’t purdy :-D

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  10. says

    Steve, none of these experts charged me for her time. As with people I interviewed for other aspects of my WIP, I approached each of the therapists via a professionally worded email. In the message, I introduced myself and my project, explained why I thought the expertise of the person I was approaching could be instrumental, and requested the opportunity to interview her.

    A few people were uncomfortable with my request and said no, but this was generally because of the confidential nature of their profession rather than any financial concern. More common was the experience I described above, where therapists were generous with their time and information. They even connected me with further specialists where that seemed useful; I found the alcoholism counselor and child trauma specialist I mentioned above through one of the first therapists I interviewed. And most of them offered to answer follow-up questions later on if I had any.

    I sent each of the people I interviewed a prompt thank-you note, and, should I get the novel published, they will all be included in the acknowledgements. Maybe someone already published would like to weigh in with additional suggestions?

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    • says

      Dear Sharon,
      Thanks a lot for your reply. I have completed one manuscript which didn’t require the help of experts, but I have now started developing a story involving a police detective and a Catholic priest. And I don’t know anything about how either really performs his or her job.
      I hd picked out a city which satisfies my requirements for size and infrastructure and was thinking about writing directly to the Chief of Police and a priest there. It was easy to find their names in the internet.
      Now I will certainly give it a try.

      Yours,
      Steve

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      • says

        I meant Tracy, of course, but “Sharon” appeared at the top of this window as I was typing.
        And if it is possible to edit one’s own entries, I haven’t figured out how yet.

        Steve

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  11. says

    Psychological accuracy is critical for me as a reader. I love that you took such care with your research.

    I’m not surprised you had such a good response. In my experience, most psychologists and counselors have a mission to educate. You’d probably be surprised how much you gave them with your enthusiasm and willingness to learn and to extend that knowledge in a fresh direction.

    And now I’m intrigued about this WIP…

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  12. says

    Cannot thank you enough for this post, Tracy. What you’re talking about is what I call “emotional research”. So many authors don’t bother with it.

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    • says

      Thank you, Don!

      To your point, in case anyone harbors misgivings about the time spent doing this, it was actually a lot of fun. (Grief, trauma…yes, I know.) I walked out of every one of these sessions feeling like I’d gotten to know my characters better, almost as if they were real people. I couldn’t wait to write about them.

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  13. says

    Great advice and it sounds like it might even be fun. I’m not sure if I can take another round of revisions right now, but I’ll file the idea away for the future. Thank you for sharing even if, ugh, it means more work. Excellent article.

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