Well, as a matter of fact, there is! Her name is Jeannie Campbell, LMFT—a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in California who is in the house today to provide therapy for those stubborn characters in our novels who deal us a fit!
As Head of Clinical Services for a large non-profit company, Jeannie enjoys working mainly with children and couples. She has a Masters of Divinity in Psychology and Counseling and bachelors degrees in both psychology and journalism. Two of Jeannie’s “therapeutic romance” manuscripts have garnered the high praise of being finalists in the Genesis Contest for unpublished writers, sponsored by the American Christian Fiction Writers (ACFW), of which she is an active member. She writes a popular monthly column for Christian Fiction Online Magazine and has been featured in many other e-zines, newspapers, and blogs. Please join me in welcoming Jeannie today, a friend of Seekerville, a "Character Therapist" whom many of us know as "The Therapy Doctor." So, sit back and put your feet up (in the therapy couch!), take two bagels and call us in the morning—preferably this morning—with your comments, questions or character psychoses, and you will be eligible to win a free character assessment, per details at the end of this blog. Without further ado, here's Jeannie ...
As the author of these surly characters, you have to be like a therapist in order to get them past this resistance. What noncompliance tells an author is that you’ve increased your character’s anxiety so much that it’s threatening to overwhelm him or her. When this happens in therapy, it means that the client is determined not to go a step further.
Resistance manifests along a continuum. It can be overt or covert, blatant or quiet. Below are three common types of therapeutic noncompliance. We’ll look at each and then delve into how writers can overcome these in your fiction.
Usually this occurs in the beginning stages of writing, but it can pop up at any time. The character will just want the writer to save them. Make their lives more appealing, easier. The writer, ever willing to help, rushes in with thoughts of black moment salvation and glorious character arc endings.
When this happens in therapy, it’s a trap for the therapist. The therapist, feeling motivated by a sense of responsibility, will begin to take on more and more, and the relationship shifts so that the therapist is doing most of the work, not the clients.
With writing, the author becomes more and more direct with tasks to put the character through or events to make them endure, but instead of the character getting “healthier” and taking on his or her own life, the author comes back to the keyboard the next day with more of the same helplessness.
Perhaps you’re writing a scene in which your character is simply grocery shopping or eating dinner when—Wham! They are suddenly off on a random tangent that is nowhere near your outline and your fingers are flying, hardly able to keep up with their tirade. You finish, panting, only to reread what you typed, highlight it, and press delete.
Likewise in therapy, pseudohostility carries with it the power to rivet the therapist, temporarily distracting them from the agreed-upon goals. It’s even more effective when clients can get the therapist to engage with them in battle. If most of the session time is spent attempting to negotiate a settlement or compromise, the underlying issues take a backseat, unaddressed.
When a character argues with you over trivial concerns, such as the color of their eyes, their fashion sense, or how they talk, it’s really a smoke screen to avoid the deeper issues your novel is making them handle. You got too close to a hot-button issue, and it set them off. If you find yourself joining the fray and attempting to argue with them, you’re toast. (And should probably call a therapist for real!)
Just as children or adolescents will go stony, refusing to speak when spoken to, so can characters. As they stare at the proverbial laptop floor, not giving up their innermost thoughts or feelings, you feel desperation as your deadline approaches. What do you really know about this hero or heroine? Where are they going in the story? What’s the next step?
In therapy, a client might answer in monosyllables or not at all. Their silence is a defense mechanism. Perhaps they fear that they will erupt, as their issues are too close to the surface for them to know how to handle. Perhaps they want to get make you angry as a way to get back at you for putting them on your couch. Whatever the reason, a novice therapist will usually attempt to fill the void with words.
In fiction, an author might fill in the silence, so to speak, by attempting to flesh out the character against their will. This resistance ends with the same result as helplessness, with the author becoming more and more frenzied and doing more and more of the work.
Do any of the above scenarios sound familiar? They should. While our characters are fictional, very real, flesh-and-blood people develop them. We project what we know of life, people, and ourselves into our stories. Our own issues frequently pop up, so is it any surprise, then, that we’ll face resistance from our characters? It’s really resistance within our own selves. (I won’t even attempt to psychoanalyze writers and why we are the way we are. We’re a queer bunch.)
So how do we handle our own resistance? Here are a few suggestions:
Evaluate the threat.
Take a step back from the manuscript. You’ve got to change your tack and approach the characters from a different, more personal direction. Ask yourself, “What is threatening the character (myself) at this time? What makes them (me) uncomfortable?”
Acknowledge the reality you uncover.
We deal with hard issues in our fiction. Accepting that difficulty and going easy on yourself for your response can go a long way. When you oppose the resistance, it makes the resistance itself more of an issue than the underlying problem. Diffusing the resistance renders it more ineffective. (In cliché lay terms, knowledge is half the battle.)
Use fictional judo.
As a martial art, judo uses the weight and movement of an opponent to one’s advantage. As a fictional tool in your toolbox, it uses resistance to enhance growth, whether that growth belongs to you, your characters, or your readers.
It’s ironic, but the very existence of noncompliance signifies that change is occurring. In the middle of your creative tension, appreciate your predicament for what it is: working through disequilibrium to promote growth.
Jeannie has agreed to give one lucky commenter a free full assessment for one character (a $14.99 value) via her new website, The Character Therapist. Leave your email address below in a non-spam format (jeannie at charactertherapist dot com) to be entered. While you’re there, sign up for her newsletter and receive her Writer’s Guide to Character Motivation for free!