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Character Therapy


Characters are the hearts of our stories. We don't fall in love with plot (usually), we fall in love with the people. So when creating the characters for our stories, we need to pay careful attention to create three-dimensional believable ones. Our characters should have full, rich backstories of why they act the way they do. (Even if this backstory does not make it into the actual book, we need to know it.) If we treat them like real people in our head, then hopefully they will translate as authentic people on the page.

When I start crafting my characters, I often begin with a simple sketch. This usually involves a big circle with the characters name in it, then branching arms as I list their qualities. Very high tech, I know. However, once this is done, I'm only left with a two-dimensional person. Okay, the guy is pig-headed, impatient, paranoid, etc. But why? This is where the work comes in. What made him that way? None of us exist in a vacuum, we are the way we are because of our experiences. So how do you dig deeper and find out?
One day when I was struggling with this, I started rifling through my psyc books from college. Then, I stumbled upon a paperback I bought when I first started interning as a counselor at the college counseling center. I was in panic at the time because I didn't feel prepared to offer people therapy yet, so I started looking for books that would help explain things in layman's terms. A cheat sheet, if you will.
I still feel sorry for those who were subjected to my inexperience during that year. The students knew they were seeing a grad student, but still, I was terrible. My first marriage counseling session with two grad students ended with the guy throwing his wedding ring at his wife (after she admitted to cheating with their roommate) and storming out with a threat of suicide. (I stopped him from leaving with the help of my supervisor, he was alright--although, I wasn't.)
Anyway, I bought the book Think Like a Shrink
to help. (Insert snort at the name--I know.) However, this has now turned out to be an invaluable resource for character backstory building. The chapters are barely a page long and cover the reasons why people act like they do. Some of the title chapters:
Those who don't remember their childhood may want to forget it

The ills of the mothers, or fathers, really are visited upon the children

Boundaries define people the way borders define countries

The way people feel about sex is critical to their psychology

Women do not suffer from penis envy nearly as much as men do

Needy people immediately create chaos in relationships

Don Juan had an absent father

An extramarital affair is less important than what led to it

Beware unsolicited denials

We can tell alot about people by the way they say goodbye

What is one the outside is often the exact opposite of what is one the inside

Vain people marry accessories

Those who can't get comfortable in their own skin may claw at others

People regress to earlier behaviors under stress

Doing nothing can be very pushy
I don't agree with everything this guy says. He can be a little Freudian at times, but a lot of it rings true. And anytime I pick it up it gives me great ideas for characters. I highly recommend it.
So what do you do to make your characters three-dimensional? Do you interview them? If so, how do you decide on the answers?


Reader Comments (10)

Neat suggestion. I think I might have to look into that book.

August 18, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterquixotic

I agree with quixotic. I'll have to check into the book. With my first ms, my characters just developed themselves. The end result was that I had way too much backstory, but I cut it (at least most of it). I think it served it's purpose while I was writing, but it wasn't necessary in the end. For the sequel I'm working on now, the characters were already established. On the stand-alone project I'm working on, I did do character sketches, but I find some of the traits changing as I write.

August 18, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterLazy Writer

Hmm... what a critical discussion. In my case, my novel (currently in revision) sprang from a visit to Mammoth Cave National Park. So, the setting came first, then the characters, then the conflict. And, while this might sound like cheating, my characters became three-dimensional because they were heavily influenced by real people (including me). Of course, now there's too much backstory, so, as Lazy Writer did, it's time for me to trim, trim, trim. Which is why beta readers have been so helpful. :-)

August 18, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterLaura Martone

Think Like a Shrink. Making a mental note to check it out. It's important to create multi-dimensional characters true to life.

August 18, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterStephanie Faris

I guess I don't have to tell you about the award I left for you on my blog. Congrats! Thanks for the book info. I'll check it out.

Lynnette Labelle

August 18, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterLynnette Labelle

Oh, this reminds me of a fellow blogger...her name is Jeannie and she runs a blog called character therapy. She is a licensed family therapist but applies her help and knowledge to our characters. You can write to her blog w/ questions and she'll give you the real psyco-answers. It's an interesting blog! you can find her at If you go..tell her I sent you :)

August 18, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterTess

Lazy Writer, I hear ya, backstory can sneak up in all kinds of unnecessary places. I have to watch myself too.

Laura, I often use real people to influence my characters (it's hard not to! I hope I hide them well enough so that the people I'm channeling can't tell if they read it.)

Quixotic, Stephanie, Lynnette, It's a great book. Hope you find it helpful.

Tess, cool, I'll have to check it out.

August 18, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterFictionGroupie

Well, I am not a writer of any sort.. but when reading said books... You are right, the character either pops out at you, or he/she doesnt. What makes them pop... Their life, their tone, their attitude, their passion, their jealousy, their feelings, all being described with those "best fit" words. Me being able to identify with them. Saying that either "I know someone like that, I wish I knew someone like that (normally when a said hero is extermely hot... lol), or damn they just described my life" When a character is just a boring, fickle person, they dont pop. Most readers want to identfy with the characters to a point, because come'on.. the reason we read is to get lost in a story... that we know will not likely happen to us. So, I want to see him looking at her and feel his eyes boring down on her... I want to feel her heart beating fast the closer he gets to her.... but i want to know the whys. Sorry... didn't mean to babble!!!
I hope you guys have a great day!!! And a wonderful tomorrow!

August 18, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterCecile

Accumulating all the back-story on a person is my favorite part of a story. Even still, once I start writing them, they give me a whole lot more information. This is an interesting post; cool list! Thanks.

August 21, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterjbchicoine

hey...thanks for checking out my blog. i clicked on your follower button to follow you, too. cool post! i haven't heard of this book....but sounds like one down my ally. :)

tess is super sweet to recommend my blog to someone! :) i'll have to thank her.

August 26, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJeannie Campbell, LMFT

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