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When Your Characters Need Therapy

By Lorna Carlson, Flickr's Creative Commons
By Lorna Carlson, Flickr’s Creative Commons

Please welcome back guest Lisa Alber [1] who writes the County Clare mysteries. Her debut novel, Kilmoon [2], was nominated for the Rosebud Award of Best First Novel. Kirkus calls her second novel, Whispers in the Mist [3], a “worthy successor to Kilmoon in tone, mood, complexity, and keen insight into human failures and triumphs.” She balances writing her third novel (Midnight Ink, August 2017) with gardening, dog walking, and goofing off. She lives in Portland, Oregon.

You can find Lisa online on Facebook [4] and Twitter [5].

When Your Characters Need Therapy

A few months ago, a writer friend enthused about her novel in progress. Her characters had taken on lives of their own, and she was in the flow, she was transported, she was SO EXCITED about her novel.

We sat on my patio sipping Tempranillo—honesty: she sipped, I guzzled—with my little dog Fawn snoozing on the lawn chair. The hydrangeas and geraniums and marigolds and begonias were ever so jaunty … But never mind all that nicey-ness, I was grumpy, and made even more grumpy by my friend’s enthusiasm.

Obviously, her characters were well adjusted. There was apparently not a wishy-washy story arc or murky primary motivation among the bunch. Meanwhile, I’d stalled on the first draft of my third novel at about 70,000 words.

My main characters, Danny and Merrit, had gone silent on me. I knew how the story ended, the problem was getting there, and at 70K words, I was heading into the climax and resolution, and I had no clue what to do. I tried thinking about my dilemma purely in terms of plotting to see if the characters would wake up from their own personal Zombielands. I spent a week banging my head against my desk. My brain doesn’t do plot without the deeper character connections to give the plot points SOUL. Yes, SOUL—a.k.a. the internal storylines. Plot points are great, but without soul I couldn’t write them.

So I returned to my characters. I remembered one of my earliest writing lessons from bestselling author Elizabeth George in her craft book, Writing Away: “I become my character’s analyst.” She’s referring to writing character analyses as part of her development process.

I’m a big fan of the therapeutic process, so I decided to engage my characters in a little therapy, en media res, as it were. I pulled out my novel journal, a black-and-white composition book, and tackled Merrit. It went something like this:

Me: The last time you deigned to talk to me, you were a total bitch. That came out of nowhere—what gives?

Merrit: Oh, I don’t know … Whatever.

Me: Don’t ‘whatever’ me … You’re the one who shot off your mouth in my scene and then went silent. It’s obviously about Danny.

Merrit: Duh.

Me: Tell me how you’re feeling about Danny.

Merrit: Remember when he dismissed me in Chapter 2? That hurt my feelings, but you brushed right over it as if I wouldn’t have a reaction! What’s the point of his dismissiveness anyhow? I don’t get it. If you’re trying to get something going between us, at least let me have a reaction. Or drop the whole thing and figure out what I’m really stewing about.


unnamedCome to find out I’d strayed off my original first thought for Merrit’s story. I write a crime fiction series set in Ireland, and Merrit and Danny are the continuing characters. Although they rub each other the wrong way at times, they’re not frenemies, or enemies, or out to hurt each other, or engaged in I-hate-you-no-I-hate-you foreplay. I realized that I was missing Merrit’s deeper story as a newcomer to Ireland. As an outsider, she’s pining for a community to call her own. That’s where her ache/internal story arc resided.

I needed to adjust both Merrit’s and Danny’s internal arcs, and when I did, I started to see how to write to the end. In other words, when I reconnected with their internal arcs, the external plotting toward The End fell into place (for the first draft—revisions later!). I needed to follow the characters’s hearts.

The most interesting thing about this thought experiment was that when I dug up my initial character analysis for Merrit, I’d written, “Have to deal with her loneliness and the fact that she might be alone, without close friends, after Liam (her father) dies.”

We all know that there’s no book without a first draft. Our first drafts can be as shitty (in Anne Lamott’s famous words) as can be, but what happens if you’re stuck even with tacit permission to write utter crap? Go back to your characters. Revisit their heads. Ask yourself what they would do next. Remind yourself that stories need to come full circle—reread your first chapters and your development notes. Where did your characters’s internal story arcs begin and how will they end?

Remember my annoyingly perky friend? I’m happy to say that once I did what I’ve just described, Merrit and Danny came alive again, and I returned to only sipping red wine (well, not guzzling it anyhow). The ending didn’t come easy—oh hell no!—but it came at long last. My characters came through for me, and with them came the plot points.

My biggest lesson learned from writing the third novel? Write out my first thoughts in big letters and plaster them to a wall somewhere I’ll see them every day. Maybe near the wine …

What do you do when your characters go silent? Have you ever tried using therapy or talking to your characters to help sort out your stories? What strategies or other techniques help you?