An Interview with Dr. Linda Edelstein

Author of The Writer''s Guide to Character TraitsProfessional psychologist and author, Dr. Linda Edelstein, speaks about the uses of psychology in current fiction and how writers build the characters we read-- From criminals to cult members and everyone else in between.
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Q: What is the Writer''s Guide to Character Traits? What made you feel compelled to write it?

A: Call it a crash course in psychology for writers--and readers. A friend referred to the book as "psychology light". I think of it as a "people ingredients," an unintimidating reference and a source for ideas at-a-glance.

Q: How should it be used?

A: I want people have fun with this book-- leaf through it, get excited by the possibilities and take some creative risks. I hope that writers who want to tackle serious issues can use my book to get a clear and detailed picture of events, personality and behavior lending authenticity and consistency to their writing.

For example, a novelist who wants to address family dynamics could examine the relationship between a gay adolescent and his or her parents. They''d turn to Chapter Eight -- "Turn of Events" -- which describes some coping strategies of a gay teenager (such as avoidance of knowledge that might confirm his or her sexuality) and the next list goes on to detail additional difficulties that might arise in the family, such as fearing rejection, feeling guilty, a threat of abandonment by parents, or just withdraws.

Q: Although it was written with writers in mind, it''s a fascinating read for anyone. You''ve outlined disorders, styles and behaviors that we can recognize in people we know. Would you consider it an "Everyman''s Guide to Psychological Disorders and True-Life Personality Traits"?

A: I did write the book with writers in mind, however, since it has come out, I get equally excited responses from non-writers. Some have told me they use it as a reference when reading fiction. I''ve even heard about grad students who turned the book into a game -- looking up classmates'' traits and analyzing people they knew.

Q: Best-sellers like Wally Lamb''s bestseller "I Know This Much is True" deals with paranoia and schizophrenia, while Cameron West''s biography "First Person Plural" tells of his struggle with Dissociate Identity Disorder. As a licensed clinical psychologist for more than 15 years, are you seeing a trend toward more frank discussions of real disorders?

A: If it is a "literary trend" or not, I''m happy it exists--I prefer the openness of people discussing these things. Secrets choke people and keep them locked up inside themselves. Discussion not only provides information, but people reconnect with each other and that is healthy. People are also writing moving autobiographies, like Kay Jamison, MD and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, both about depression.

Q: Why do you think we like trying to "get inside other people''s heads"?

A: Trying to "get inside someone''s head" is not really about the other person - it''s about us. People are fascinated by a peek behind closed doors. And we all want to understand ourselves. We want to feel safe and connected to other people so we need to figure them out, or at least convince ourselves that we understand them. I don''t believe that it is possible to fully understand anyone, even ourselves. That is why psychology is never boring, often humbling, but never boring.

Q: Certainly there are other guides on writing characters. How is this guide different?

A: As a psychologist, I wrote about people, not about characters. More than 400 lists are included--all documented with a couple hundred references for authenticity and further reading. There are no orders and no instructions. I present some information, options, and understanding and writers, like my clients, make their own decisions.

Q: Not all the material deals with mental disorders in the clinical sense. Can you use the guide to create characters with other, perhaps more subtle, personalities quirks?

A: Most of the traits in each list of Styles can be used sparingly to create a subtle character attribute, but if a writer has fully formed characters and simply wants some quirky highlights, the chapter on Career Traits might offer some possibilities, such as thrill seeking in a mountain climber (258). Also, the chapter on Sexual Styles has some off-beat traits that would not color the entire personality, for example, a mild fetish (page 145) or sexual aversion (page 143). If the writer did not want to tamper with the character''s personality, put him/her in a new situation, like falling in love, and watch jealousy (page 162) develop.

Q: Are the "From the Files," (mini-case studies) really from your private practice? You could probably write a hundred intriguing characters from those alone. Do they prove life is sometimes stranger than fiction?

A: "From the Files" are true but not personal to one client. They are composites of several people or significantly changed in ways that preserve anonymity. Everything that happens in my private office stays in my private office. Yes, life is stranger than fiction. I''ve been in psychology since the late 70''s and I am still regularly stunned by peoples lives, feelings, relationships and emotions.

Read more about The Writer''s Guide to Character Traits.

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