Friday, July 22, 2011

HOW TO HANDLE RESISTANT CHARACTERS ... Guest Blogger Jeannie Campbell (AND Giveaway!)

Help—quick!! Is there a doctor in the house???

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Jeannie’s “therapeutic romance” manuscripts have garnered the high praise of being finalists in the Genesis Contest for unpublished writers, sponsored by the American Christian Fiction Writers (ACFW), of which she is an active member.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.

1) Helplessness

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.

2) Pseudohostility

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!)

3) Silence

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!


  1. I can relate to the resistant character syndrome. Would love to win! authorkathyeberly(at)gmail(dot)com

  2. This is a new concept for me. I'm not sure what to think of it. I can't say I've had the sensation of the characters fighting with me.

    I'd love to win a prize and learn more about this.

    cathy underscore shouse at yahoo dot com

  3. Ok, I knew I should have taken psychology in college! I feel like I'm reading a foreign language. I'll have to go through this post again... And check out that fun-sounding website!


    Talk about resistant characters!! My "Charity O'Connor" gave me (and my readers!) a real run for my money. Where were you when I needed you, Jeannie????

    Anyway, you're here now, and we are THRILLED to have you! To celebrate, we have plenty of psychoses- and guilt-free cyber food, from kitchen-sink omelots to chocolate chip pancakes, peach cobbler (Michelle's special recipe!), caramel nut streusel, brown-sugar ham, link sausage, maple-cured bacon and veggie-overload hash browns. Hazelnut coffee is brewing (so Helen can sleep in!), along with Cinnamon Pecan and a variety of teas. Dig in, first to the food, then into your characters!!


  5. Hey KATHY EBERLY -- then you came to the right place, girl! Here's to a win!

    CATHY ... A new concept, yes, but OH, so fascinating, isn't it?? One of the ways I've encountered "resistant" characters was in my John Brady character who was a Billy Graham-type hero that I just couldn't warm up to because he was almost too nice! He seemed to resist me, so I delved into his past and came up with something that just might drive a man all the way into the arms of God. Maybe there's a character who's resisting your approval somewhere?

    VIRGINIA, me too!! I've never been the textbook type, only the fiction-book type of gal, so I often have to reread most technical or nonfiction things to make heads or tails of it. But we both get there in the end, right, and that's really all that matters.


  6. You mean I can't just slap 'em? Cause it's worked so far, LOL!

    Jeannie, thank you for coming over to Seekerville and big, huge congrats on those Genesis finals. Love that contest.

    It's awesome to have you here. You're a thinker, and I like thinkers. A lot.

    Julie, amazing breakfast. I bow to the master, and this flavored coffee... oh my stars, deeelightful.

    Jeannie, in all seriousness, why/how did you start this? And I'm a big DIY person (you can tell this because of the leaky plumbing around my 160 year old farm house...) so I'm always in the market for self-help tips that keep my characters from misbehaving.

    VINCE will say they can't misbehave if I don't let them...

    But it's so much more fun to let them, LOL! :)

  7. This is a great blog. I love this concept, and could have used this lesson with the hero and heroine in my last ms. As one they chose to stop talking to me and wouldn't budge. I used the "locking horns and grinding it out method" and finally got things going again, but what a struggle.

    I just signed up for your newsletter, Jeannie. Thanks for the information.


  8. Welcome again to Seekerville, Jeannie and thanks for the tips.

    And congratulations on your Genesis finals! Wow! FINALS plural? Wonderful!

  9. Morning Jeannie and welcome to Seekerville,

    I love psychology. And its a great idea to have a pscyologist look at your characters. I have done that and she showed me how people react to the situation my character was in. So helpful.

    What a super gift you are offering to our friends here at Seekerville. Thank you.

    And the breakfast is to die for, Julie. Love the combination of maple bacon and peach cobbler with my coffee.

    And you do a great job with your characters Julie. smile

    Congratulations Jeannie on your finals. woo hoo.

  10. Wow, Dr. Jeannie, just gotta say, when you said to, "put your feet up" I'm afraid my head flashed to stirrups and a paper hospital gown. I'm going to have to shake that visual off now.
    Picturing all of us here today in Seekerville with that ... 'posture'.

  11. Pseudohosility vs silence
    Both 'resistance' both signs that you're getting into something important.

    Pseudohosility vs silence
    Aggressive vs passive maybe?

    Like if I'm mad I pout...thus silence
    And if someone else I know well He-who-shall-not-be-named, gets mad he yells?

    I"m trying to apply this to my own characters in my books. It's interesting. I never do pouters in my books, well rarely. I'm more in favor of in you face types.

  12. Interesting post Jeannie
    & Website,

    Viewing characters as "real people" and handling their resistance works very well!


  13. Hi, Jeanie! Welcome to Seekerville!

    I'm not sure I understand a lot of what you're saying. But this I got: "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."

    I totally agree.

    The thing I've struggled with the most is when I come to a difficult situation, I want to take the easy way out. But, that's not the best for my story. It's laziness. So, I have to take a deep breath and plunge into the work. The second reason I struggle with delving in is uncomfortableness. The types of emotions my character is dealing with are painful and so I tend to tiptoe around them and then the reader can't get into the characters head. So, these are the things I'm working on in my revisions. In fact, I'm meeting with my heroine's counselor today. :D I had to finally break down and admit she needed a good Christian counselor. So, that's what she'll get.

    Thanks for visiting us today and sharing your expertise!

    lr dot mullin at live dot com

  14. Thanks, RUTHY -- I always eat more on Fridays, which pretty much shoots the old diet right down the tubes. One step forward, two back ...

    KIRSTEN!! Sooo glad it worked, but yeah, it's sure not easy. Therapy hurts in real life before it helps, so I'm guessing it has to hurt a wee bit in fictional life too! Good luck in the contest!

    TINA ... thanks for reminding me to congratulate Jeannie on finaling in the Genesis. Duh. SUPER CONGRATS, DR. JEANNIE!!

    Aw, thanks, SANDRA!! I tend to use and abuse my characters, but that saves Keith SO much wear and tear, you know??? And poor Jeannie ... as a therapist, I'm guessing friends are always tapping her for advice like I do with my DIL who's a doctor. "Uh, Katie ... does this mole look bad to you?" "I have this pain in my butt, do you have any idea what it is??" No, I don't actually ask her that last question because I'm pretty sure she'd tell me it's self-induced!

    MARE!! Actually it was me that told you to put your feet up, not Jeannie, so the negative image is all mine ... AND yours! Don't want to blame the doctor, you know.


  15. Hi Ruth:

    I think you know me all too well.

    I may become redundant.

    God may combine me with another character if shortness is incumbent. What a loss it would be as I so much enjoy strutting upon the stage. Even with all its sound and furry, a tale told by an idiot is more comforting than the celestial silence.

    When it comes to character therapy, I’m a psychological behaviorist. All character problems stem from the preceding text and those that don’t are the purview of the author’s mind.

    To paraphrase the bard: “The fault lies not in our characters but in ourselves.”

    Would you psychoanalyze a ventriloquist’s dummy for misbehaving?

    I think a Freudian would and it would work.

    You can change either side of an equation and have the same effect. Change the author or change the text – just use the way that works the best.

    But for me, it’s central casting. I am the creator and I know the part and if Sam won’t play it, I’ll hire Art.


    P.S. If truth be told, it's my characters who complain about me!

  16. Hi Jeannie:

    This is a great post! I love it! So much to think about. Please come back.


  17. This is SUCH great stuff. Jeannie is pretty awesome, and I'd LOVE a character assessment! Please enter me.
    joanne(at)joannesher (Dot)com

  18. Okay. I want to know how on earth you knew I'd need this article today? Really.

    Just yesterday I sat down to do character creation sheets for a new hero. Heroine was done, I need Hero nailed so I can move on with fleshing out the plot and start writing. But would Hero co-operate? Nooooo. He stonewalled me. And he's such a nice guy usually. The more questions I threw at him, the harder his jaw became. I was ready to use his own long-handled spade on his head. Seriously.

    "It’s ironic, but the very existence of noncompliance signifies that change is occurring." hmmmm. Gotta go jot that down on my plot pages...

    Thanks, Jeannie! Great post!
    (and just in case I need to leave my email addy, here it is: patterly {at}gmail{dot}com) ;-)

  19. So glad to have you here, Jeannie!

    I was nodding my head at every point!


  20. I'm just going to throw this because, what the heck, y'know? But my characters pretty much do what I tell them to do.

    However, sometimes, especially secondary characters, become so well liked by me that I want to give them a happily ever after. So that's somewhat out of control.

    ps I'm planning to work the words Out of Control into everything I type for a while.

    Be patient.

  21. Julie - Charity was totally on my mind as a reader! I had my doubts that you'd be able to redeem her enough that the reader wouldn't still hate her for what she did... I should have known better! She's a favorite of mine...not sure what that says about her...or you! Ha!

  22. Virginia! Thanks! The new site has been a lot of fun! I hope you'll find some useful stuff there.

    Ruthy! When I first joined ACFW and decided I needed to get on the blog bandwagon, I thought long and hard about what I could bring to the table. Psychology and the live of writing seemed to point to this. And Susan May Warren and Rachel Hauck had already taken the Book Therapist title....

  23. Kirsten! Thanks for signing up! I'll be sending out my first issue at the end of summer probably.

    Tina and Sandra! Thanks for the congrats! I technically was only a semi-finalist this year, but I figured that it would be too hard to explain that on my bio. :-)

  24. Mary, I think you're on to something. The aggressive personality would definitely be more hostile while the passive one would be silent. Isn't that the way it is in real life? I like that comparison.

    I'm awfully sorry that you have that mental picture in your mind. Let me know if I need to pencil you in later due to PTSD or something!

  25. Janet - if I didn't look at fictional charters as real, I wouldn't have a "job." :-)

    Linnette - getting them a good Christian counselor can do wonders. I do have a therapeutic editing service where I read over manuscripts (full or partials) to look for therapy stuff--you know, to make sure it's realistic.

  26. Vince - can you tell me where you got that quote? It's one for my books for sure.

    Joanne - thanks for your kind words! So encouraging to me!

  27. Patty - good luck with the drawing! That guy sounds like he could use a soon on the couch!

    Pam - hope it wasn't TOO real.... Lol!

    Mary - I think you should kill off more secondary characters. That would be so out of control.

  28. How fun, Jeannie! I loved this post. We're so glad to have you with us again!

    I just visited your amazing website. Such a great idea to do character therapy. I may be calling you soon! :)

    "The thing I've struggled with the most is when I come to a difficult situation, I want to take the easy way out ... and the second reason I struggle with delving in is uncomfortableness."

    LOL, Linnette, then you and I are polar opposities because the more angst and pain I can subject my characters to, the better I like it!! Maybe I need Jeannie to analyze ME ... oooo, cold chill!!!

    To paraphrase the bard: “The fault lies not in our characters but in ourselves.” Ah, Vince -- LOVE this quote, neatly confirming my comment to Linnette above. :)


  30. JOANNE!!! I totally agree -- Jeannie is VERY awesome!!

    "But would Hero co-operate? Nooooo. He stonewalled me. And he's such a nice guy usually. The more questions I threw at him, the harder his jaw became. I was ready to use his own long-handled spade on his head. Seriously."

    LOL, Patty -- you are TOO cute, and I say go ahead -- use the bloomin' spade!!!


    "Viewing characters as "real people" and handling their resistance works very well!" HEAR-HEAR!! I TOTALLY AGREE!

    "However, sometimes, especially secondary characters, become so well liked by me that I want to give them a happily ever after. So that's somewhat out of control."

    Yep, Mare, I had that problem, too, with Brady, Emma and Luke, but the "out of control" part came from what I did to them AFTER they got their own story ... :)

    "ps I'm planning to work the words Out of Control into everything I type for a while."

    Yeah, uh ... we noticed that, you promo queen!!


  32. JEANNIE!! I figured Charity would catch your eye. What can I say, the woman has issues with a capital "I," which come to think of it, points to ME!! But I'm glad you ended up liking her because she is one of my favorite characters as well. And, yes, I'm pretty sure that says something realllly bad about the both of us! :)

    PAM ... Yep, I was nodding, too. Kinda like one of those bobble-neck dogs in the rear window of a car.

    MISSY: I need to be hiring Jeannie soon as well ... for me, not my characters, that is ... for mental cruelty.


  33. Actually, Julie, it's not a matter of lack of angst. My characters are filled with plenty of it. It's the digging in and dealing with their actual feelings that's hard for me. Showing the emotion, the angst like I should. I hate feeling their pain because I've lived with enough pain to last a few lifetimes. But, I know I have to do it if I want to reach my readers where they are. You know... make it real and all that. ;-)

  34. Jeanie, that's awesome! I just met with Bobbie today and was very encouraged to find out that I'm on track for the most part. The manuscript just needs a couple corrections and tidbits added here and there. Apparently, I've been using correct coping mechanisms my whole like and didn't know it. Maybe that's why I'm still hanging on to a bit of my sanity. LOL :D

  35. Jeannie, I just signed up for your newsletter and got the free article on motivation. Great info!

    I have a question. Can you give tips for making a character sympathetic if his main motivation is for power?


  36. Hello Jeannie:

    The quote comes from Julius Caesar, act 1, scene 2.

    “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
    But in ourselves, that we are underlings.”


  37. Great article! My characters usually come to life on me and I let them be who they are, but I do stick obstacles in the way to keep them going in the general direction that I want. Sometimes I guess wrong about how they'll respond, but I don't recall ever not liking how they handled it. I like it when it feels like I'm reading when I'm writing, eager to see what they'll do next. :) I do find that blocks and silences often are connected to us being not comfortable on some level with the subject matter. I recall reading a story about a detective handling a child abuse case totally devoid of emotion because the writer had defensively distanced himself from the pain. He's still working past that.

    andrea (at) dimknight (dot) com

  38. Thanks for signing up for the newsletter Missy! If a character desires power, more than likely to make them sympathetic, give them a backstory where they had NO power. Perhaps as a child he was abused, something like that? What do you think?

  39. Andrea - I LOVE that feeling of reading what I'm writing. But I'm a SOTP writer and often find myself going back to read what I wrote, chuckling or whatnot. So fun!

  40. OMG, Jeannie! What a keeper! This is an excellent post not only dealing with difficult characters, but maybe making too likeable ones a tad bit more reserve.

    I love it.

    I'm always making my characters too comfortable and easygoing in my first draft. The toughest part for me is drawing them into difficult situations, feelings, relationship because I don't want to deal with it.

    Doesn't make for very good reading for my fans.

    Maybe I should pay more attention to my kids -- analyse how they can constantly fight yet be the best of friends, LOL!

  41. Great website, Jeannie. I just signed up for your newsletter. Can't wait for the first issue.

  42. Linnette said: The types of emotions my character is dealing with are painful and so I tend to tiptoe around them and then the reader can't get into the characters head.

    Audra said: I so absolutely agree wiath you, Linnette. I tiptoe around others pain in real life, it pours right over into my characters.

    I've got to get over that not only for my characters but for the sake of my friends and family, too.

  43. Would you psychoanalyze a ventriloquist’s dummy for misbehaving?

    Perfect example, Vince! Even a bad ventiloquist can stir up emotions since that tiny layer of self-removed is involved. Amazing how the dummy can say outrageous things and we get mad at IT!

    I've got to remember the words that come out of my characters belong to my characters. Pretty tough thing to manage.

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