How to Interview Like a Pysychologist: Why Back Story is Important!
by Carrie Fancett Pagels, Ph.D.
I write “romantic” historical fiction (while I realize historical romance and historical fiction are two different entities, I manage to blur the two lines—more than “with strong romantic elements.”). But before I wrote, I was a licensed psychologist for 25 years. And a huge part of therapy is figuring out what is behind the present condition. How did this person get to where they are now? I propose that in most genres/subgenres of Christian fiction, it is helpful to interview your characters like a psychologist would. I would make a few exceptions—while thrillers might not need background history to move the story line and enhance the plot, most other genres do. I am also going to use a Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy model in this post.
So some questions you might ask your characters are:
Why are you here? Add another similar question—how did you get to this point in your life? Tell me about your parents. Your grandparents.
Maybe your characters will blink at you, like a client in therapy might. What does that have to do with what is going on now? Might not have a whole lot but it could and furthermore, the characters’ reactions to the present situation will be affected by previous experiences.
A Rational Emotive Cognitive Therapy approach.
Let’s do an example of three separate characters developed by Julie Lessman: Charity, Faith, and Emma. Let’s say they are currently older teens being introduced to a long-lost family member (the Event or Trigger.)
SPOILER ALERT—don’t read if you haven’t already consumed Julie’s wonderful stories. Given Charity’s history of sexual abuse her filter will be—this is a relative, I was abused by my uncle. Emma, despite having a bad marital history did not report a bad experience with an extended family member—so she may have the filter of—this is a long-lost relative, I’ve had no issues with my relations. Perhaps Faith has had very positive experiences with long-lost family members. She might think—how fun, I get to meet more of the family!
The section of this model is giving voice to how the previous experience may impact the upcoming encounter, i.e., self-talk or belief. Charity may say, “No way am I about to hang out with some old pervert who I might have to run from.” Emma might think, “Could be fine to spend some time with this person and ask them about some of the other family members because I don’t see what it could hurt.” Faith might tell her mother, “I am so excited to meet more of the family—more to love!” SAME EVENT, remember—DIFFERENT previous experiences and DIFFERING beliefs about what is likely to happen.
Some therapists, including myself, believe that the next result is LABELING our emotions based on our experience and by what we tell ourselves (not shown in the diagram below.) In the case I outline above, the characters will all have a different emotional reaction to the SAME experience—with a different label to the emotion that they give the situation. Charity says “Awful, grim—I feel angry and irritated at being asked to join in.” While her sister Faith doesn’t understand and says, “This will be so fun. I’m so happy and excited.” And Emma opines, “I don’t truly care one way or another. I’m fine with an evening together.” For each of these emotions there is a different consequence—Charity may isolate and miss out on meeting a truly kind great-uncle, Faith may experience a disappointment if the present relative is a prickly pear, and Emma may have the consequence of not experiencing the pleasure of anticipation for what turns out to be a lovely family member who is great fun. Just an example, but I hope you see how our experiences and thoughts affect our feelings and our outcomes.
If you were looking at a character arc, you’d look at challenging the character’s perception that because of her previous experience that this current encounter will result in similar feelings. So a therapist might be asking if there is validity in the current belief or are they reacting irrationally, based on previous experience that may not apply to the current situation. You see this over and over in fiction—a previous bad result, in particular, causing a character to believe something untrue and irrational that has negative consequences for them. Perhaps Charity has believed all men are pond scum and want only one thing—so they are to be manipulated and controlled.
All of this model contributes to POV. So to get to the POV voice of your character you must know what their previous experiences have been. And the reader needs hints of that to explain why the character feels the way they do. But you as the author have to assist your characters in getting past their irrational beliefs, if they hold any.
If you ever get frustrated with your character because you don’t know why they do something they do try this exercise—sit them in the chair across from you. Visualize them. Make them comfortable. Offer them a Seekervillian tea and some cake. Then ask them and don’t be afraid. I think we get fearful of requiring our characters to explain themselves. Too much back story we think. Waste of time because it can’t all go on the page. You don’t need it to all go on the page, but I argue that you need to know what drives your characters if you want the storyline and characterization to ring true.
Behavioral Observations by Psychologists:
Why do you do that? Does your character have an action beat they frequently do? Find out why. Usually it is related to some emotional event in their past. Not always, but frequently. For instance, the girl who was slapped by her stepmother whenever she displeased her may now, as an adult, press her splayed hand across her cheek when she is embarrassed or has made an error. And she might, if she realizes why she does the behavior, try to curb the tendency. So she might shove that hand into a pocket once she realizes she’d been pressing it to her face and recalls the many slaps she received as a youngster. Make sense? As a therapist we’re trained to observe every behavior and investigate whether there is a link to something in the past. The client who tugs at their collar or one whose voice chokes off when they are highly emotional may be someone who has been strangled at some point. Sad but true.
Patrick O’Conner, as we know from reading Julie Lessman’s recent release, A Light in the Window, was quite the lady’s man himself. So when young men come calling on his daughters, he’s no slouch when it comes to recognizing another rogue like he had been. And with his background as a rejected and emotionally abused son, he has that hair-trigger temper that simmers beneath the surface and is only controlled by God’s love, especially as manifested through his marital relationship. So anything that threatens that marital love affects his mood in a big way. So we have the why of Patrick’s periodic curmudgeonly behavior. That doesn’t all get dumped into the story. But the writer needs to know.
Question: Did you learn something in this post that you can apply to your writing?
Giveaway: Leave a comment and answer the question for a chance to win a lovely gift basket with a Swarovski crystal heart necklace and earrings set with “Faith” on a silver charm that drops from the necklace, a colonial finger vase from Berkeley Plantation in Charles City, Virginia, a beautiful ornament of the Great House from Shirley Plantation, where Carrie’s last completed manuscript was set and chocolate, of course!
Bio – Carrie Fancett Pagels, Ph.D.:
Carrie Fancett Pagels (www.carriefancettpagels.com) writes “romantic” historical fiction. She is represented by Joyce Hart of Hartline Literary Agency. She is owner/admin of two group blogs: “Colonial Quills” (http://colonialquills.blogspot.com) and “Overcoming With God” (www.overcomingwithGod.com). She is a contributor to a nonfiction anthology God’s Provision in Tough Times by Cynthia Howerter and La-Tan Murphy, releasing in May 2012
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