A Psychological Self-Help Tool for Fiction Writers

TJoe Burgo post imageoday’s guest is Joseph Burgo, Ph.D., psychotherapist, fiction writer, blogger and author of numerous books.  Joe’s personal blog, After Psychotherapy, draws over 50,000 visits per month.  He writes for Psychology Today and is a regular contributor to The Atlantic.

Joe’s most recent title is  Cinderella:  A Tale of Narcissism and Self-Harm, a novella-length retelling of the classic fairy tale in psychological terms.  His previous book, Why Do I Do That?: Psychological Defense Mechanisms and the Hidden Way they Shape Our Lives, offers not only keys to better self-understanding, but also, some surprising tools that can help writers grow and develop fuller characters.

Welcome, Joe!

A Psychological Self-Help Tool for Fiction Writers

Like most fiction writers I know, I have a day job to support myself:  I’m a psychotherapist in private practice.  While some overlap obviously exists between them, my work with clients occupies a very different mental space from writing fiction.  Even writing non-fiction feels separate and apart from the composition of a novel.   My recent book on psychological defense mechanisms, Why Do I Do That?, condenses 30+ years of experience as a psychotherapist and has nothing to do with the writing of fiction.

Or so I thought.

Last December, in a post on The Grub Street Daily blog, author and instructor Michelle Seaton explained how she’d been using Why Do I Do That? to develop her fictional characters.  “Recall a moment,” she instructed readers, “when you felt envious, jealous or even humiliated.  The key is to focus on a painful moment, one you normally refuse to think about…. Now spend a few minutes writing a description of the event.  Don’t focus on why it happened or why it was a big deal.  Write instead about how you reacted physically in the moment, how your body felt, the fantasies your emotions stirred up.  You might even describe how quickly you judged yourself for feeling this way.”

This exercise, it turns out, is one of many included in Why Do I Do That, designed to help readers identify their defense mechanisms – those little white lies they tell themselves to avoid pain – at work.  Michelle had used the exercises to clarify not only her own motivations, but those of her characters.  The painful truths they wanted to avoid, the ways they were lying to themselves.  I was pleased but also shocked:  it had never occurred to me that Why Do I Do That? could be used for that purpose.

Looking back, I now wonder how I failed to see the book’s potential value for fiction writers.  After all, the book describes the driving forces in human nature, or “Our Primary Psychological Concerns.”  It defines “The Emotional Landscape” – the broad range of emotions we feel as human beings, why and when we feel them.  It discusses the sources of pain inherent in the human experience and the ways we typically lie to ourselves in order to evade that pain.  All of this applies to fictional and real people alike.

Many of us who write fiction have an intuitive understanding of these issues that unconsciously informs our work, often through repeated revisions as we struggle to find what feels “true” and “right” for our characters.  It’s possible that the exercises in Why Do I Do That could help to shorten that process, reducing the number of drafts before we arrive at emotional truth.   By developing a psychological profile through the book’s exercises, we might better conceptualize our characters as we immerse ourselves in their fictional reality.  It’s the sort of knowledge that should probably fade into the background at some point, a subconscious understanding that infuses the creative process as our characters take on a life of their own.

Certain exercises in Why Do I Do That? help readers to identify those areas that give rise to pain and conflict in their world, focusing on three issues at the core of the human experience:

  1. Need and Dependency.    Desiring connection with other people and coming to depend upon them to meet our emotional needs is an inevitable part of the human experience.   Some people can’t bear their own needs and defend against the awareness of them in characteristic ways, often becoming entirely self-reliant.  Some people become overly dependent on others in ways that may come across as clingy or manipulative. You might ask yourself how issues of need and dependency influence your fictional characters: 
    • Is she a mistrustful sort of person, who shies away from reliance upon other people?
    • Does he eat and drink to excess in order to avoid his emotional needs?
    • How much does sex matter in this character’s life?  Does she repress desire because she can’t bear to feel it?  Does he treat sexual partners as interchangeable in order to avoid depending on any one of them?
  2. Managing Intense Emotions.     Learning how to tolerate and not be overwhelmed by our feelings is (optimally) a part of growing up.  Some people have a limited ability to bear strong emotion and lead lives of detachment, estranged from the people in their world.  Others seem to experience too much feeling and are often overwhelmed by it, exploding or behaving impulsively as a result.
    • Is your character uncomfortable with strong feeling? Does he or she ever cry?
    • Does she tend to lose control of her feelings, blow up and feel guilty about it later?
    • Does he often start new ventures and quickly lose interest because he can’t sustain strong interest over time? Does he tend to go dead emotionally?
  3. Self-Esteem.   Because we are social animals, feeling our own worth in relation to others in our “pack” lies at the heart of the human experience.   Instead of developing self-esteem, however, many people are mired in shame and self-hatred.   They may defend against the awareness of that shame through typical defense mechanisms:  narcissism, contempt, blaming and self-righteousness.
    • How does your character feel about herself at heart? Does she hate herself or does she feel some self-respect?
    • Is he overly preoccupied with his looks or how other people view him?
    • Does she tend to beat herself up for the mistakes she makes?

Identifying how these primary psychological concerns impact a character’s life will surely make them fuller human beings, more emotionally resonant for our future audience.

Other exercises help readers to identify the typical defense mechanisms they use to cope with their difficult needs and emotions.  Applying the same exercises to a fictional character will promote a more complex psychological portrait, making you ask questions like:

  • Is he prone to idealizing people or situations in a way that leads to poor choices and disappointment?
  • Does she disown and project her feeling onto others?
  • Is he in denial about certain facts and feelings he can’t bear to face?
  • There’s an additional, perhaps more important way the exercises in Why Do I Do That? might prove useful for fiction writers, one more in keeping with my original intent.  The sage old advice to authors – write about what you know – applies to the psychological/emotional realm most of all:  I believe we can’t effectively describe experiences we don’t know about on an intimate level, however “imaginative” the plot in which we embed them.

    The psychological concerns that give us the most trouble in our personal lives – the emotions we can’t bear to feel, the needs and conflicts we can’t tolerate, the shame too painful to face – may impact our writing as well, limiting its depth and emotional power. By identifying and eventually “disarming” your defenses, you may come into contact with pain you’ve been avoiding most of your life, but I firmly believe it’s (almost) always better to know the truth than to avoid it.  In my experience, discovering personal truth eventually leads to a richer emotional life, better relationships and higher self-esteem.  Discovering your own personal truth may also make you a more powerful and effective writer as you bring your characters to life.

    What do you think?



    1. says

      Very informative piece! I couldn’t agree with the last paragraph more. Disarming my own defenses and tapping into some long and deeply buried emotions has helped me write characters more truthfully in tense and painful situations.

    2. says

      Boy, did I squirm during this post – lawd – um, for my character, yes, that’s it – for my poor character, who is kind of a hot mess.

      Love this post.

    3. says

      Thank you for this great post. For the first time in five books I’ve written, the last one is my best because I’m injecting a ton of psychological feelings that I’ve experienced. I love your suggestions.

    4. says

      What a thoughtful post, especially the last insight regarding the author’s own defenses and denials and how these might limit the depth of the work. Rings painfully true…

    5. says

      Brilliant! And gives me insight into my own avoidance tricks. A keeper.

      Dr. Eric Maisel’s _What Would Your Character Do? Personality Quizzes for Analyzing Your Characters_ is another very helpful book that offers inside savvy to help create your cast.

      Personally, I’m fond of reading the agony columns in the Washington Post online, and the blogs in Psychology Today, just for the insights into human nature, of course — heavens no, that’s not an avoidance tactic, it’s, um, research.

    6. Kathy Daché says

      Wow. I love this! The hidden yet impact full motives of the human heart are fascinating to me. Thank you for in peeling this onion a little bit. Now I am going to go out and purchase your book. I can’t wait to gobble it up!

    7. says

      Thanks so much for posting this. I’ve bought the book and look forward to devouring it.

      I’ve used the 7 or 8 psychological lies people believe about themselves for a long time for my characters. It changed the way I write, but this sounds like it takes that a step deeper. Thanks!!

    8. says

      Very helpful piece for developing more complex characters. I need to sit down and write some character sketches soon and this will definitely play a part in each character’s personality. Thanks.

    9. says

      Thank you, Joe. As I start a new ms., this is helpful in discovering the characters and how their emotions drive their actions — and also in looking at some of my own responses.

    10. says

      Fascinating. I will come back to this when I return to my own novel draft. In the past I’ve tried “interviewing” my characters, at least the main ones, but never thought of this approach. Thank you. I will check out your blog, too.

    11. says

      This sounds like a helpful post for fiction writers.someone I was visiting with today said our characters should be less mere stereotypes than lots of people we meet in life for the reader to believe in them.

    12. Monica says

      This post helped me see something in my current work in progress that I haven’t made clear to the reader. Thanks. Now I’m off for some manuscript tweaking.

    13. says

      This sounds helpful, though I suspect you’re right in that, at some point, it’s better to be aware of it subliminally as one writes. Will check it out.

    14. says

      write about what you know – applies to the psychological/emotional realm most of all: I believe we can’t effectively describe experiences we don’t know about on an intimate level.

      Yes, yes, yes! I’m buying your book and checking out your blog. I tend to write from personal emotions – sometimes too much so for comfort – but my readers LOVE IT!

      Can hardly wait to read your book!

    15. Julian Greene says

      This is great! I recently did something similar. I was having an awful time understanding why my protagonist was the way she was because I still didn’t like her very much and knew the book would not be successful unless I came to at least have compassion for her. So I googled, “Why Ladies Love Outlaws,” and found an article by a therapist that gave me just the info I needed.

      I will definitely seek out your book; with so much that I write being psychological, I’m sure it will be a great compendium!