Before we can create rich characters, we need to understand their wounds and potential for growth. Jeanne Veillette Bowerman suggests using the therapy couch to improve character development.
Writers are often called crazy—for our neurotic tendencies, for our desire to spin stories out of thin air, for our intravenous coffee addiction. I, for one, embrace that title, taking my characters with me wherever I go—even to my therapist’s couch. After all, we are our characters. They come from us. We will them into existence and bleed their worlds onto the page.
Maybe you already apply your Psych 101 lessons to your characters, but if not, come lie on my therapy couch. Get comfortable. We’ll be here a while.
Emotional evolution requires conscious understanding of one’s internal wounds. This understanding also applies to fictional characters. A writer needs to not only identify a character’s wounds, but also why the character has not yet gone through that evolution prior to the moment in time your story begins.
Whether called a character arc, evolution or growth, the change in our characters from start to finish showcases the theme of our stories and makes the journey relatable to our readers. First, we need to find their wound. Because we often write what we know, start by taking an honest look at your own life experiences.
What affected you deeply as a child? What pushes your buttons or makes you want to recoil into the fetal position? What about your friends’ wounds? Surely you have a friend with a train-wreck life. No? Then go to a coffee shop. The wounded breed there.
Let’s say your character never stands up to people, but what she wants and needs to achieve requires an incredible amount of personal strength and direct confrontation. To help her, you must understand where that inherent submissiveness originated. Perhaps she shared a bedroom with an older sister who had borderline personality disorder. One minute the sister loved her, the next she’d scream venomous threats. The young girl never knew what mood would greet her at any given moment. How would that affect a small child’s psyche?
She might withdraw or feel a pull toward manipulative and controlling people, because that’s her comfort zone—it��s all she knows. She desperately yearns to please everyone so she can finally feel loved and accepted. Imagine the potential for plot points that intertwine people with toxic energies, thwarting her ability to succeed.
See how that works? Find her wound and a plethora of potential conflicts appear. I already want to follow this woman and see her break out of old patterns.
How a person copes with conflict influences their evolution. Coping skills develop in early childhood. Because children rarely stand up to adults, they either trust them blindly or freeze in fear of them. But when we become adults, we rarely adjust our manner of coping. Those skills are ingrained in us and in our characters.
In life, we attract people who are familiar, which means we attract those who mirror people from our childhood—people who either emotionally scarred us or fiercely loved us. If our childhood overflowed with people who ripped apart our self-esteem, we would likely attract those who keep us in that familiar place of insecurity. The opposite holds true if we are surrounded by love and support.
Who would your protagonist attract into her inner circle?
You might be tempted to surround him with angelic good guys, but if his friends are that dull, your readers would be asleep in five minutes. Let’s face it: Today’s audience is too savvy for a remake of “Leave It to Beaver.”
Which of the antagonist’s traits attracted the protagonist to him? Does he subconsciously remind her of the very person who inflicted her childhood wound? I say “subconsciously,” because if she’s conscious of it, there is no room for discovery and evolution.
Now, drop your antagonist onto the couch. Obviously, this dude has flaws. But beyond his sexy, bad-boy traits, there must be something humanizing in him. After all, everyone is born pure. If you saw We Need to Talk About Kevin, however, that theory might be debatable. For the sake of this exercise though, let’s assume that the stork dropped off a perfect bundle of gooey goodness. What happened to him along the way that marred his potential? Brainstorm a question that would make your protagonist’s eyes tear when answering. As my therapist always says, what makes you cry exposes the real wound that hides deep inside. Reveal that, and you can create rich layers in their story.
Even if your antagonist kidnaps and slaughters orphan children, you must make the audience see a little bit of themselves in him when he’s on screen. Well-written antagonists, like Hannibal Lecter, get the audience to root for them. In Schindler’s List, we see the love the Nazi officer Amon Goeth has for his Jewish servant. We know he truly cares for her, but he hates himself for it. Conflict and tension mount in every scene. Will he be kind or will he beat her?
The more emotional complexities you add to every single character, the more invested your readers become, and the better the acting talent you’ll attract.
Don’t be afraid to dive deep into their weaknesses. If I only shared my healthy qualities with my therapist, she’d be yawning. Instead, I spill my ugly sins, fears and flaws, leaving her frantically scribbling in her notepad, truly wanting to help me.
On her couch, I’m like a movie character myself. She roots for me to change, but I can’t change unless I make that cognizant, honest choice to do so.
If your characters don’t eventually make the difficult choices, your story won’t advance or have meaning. They have to overcome their internal demons. It’s why we create them—to add conflict to the story.
Writers who avoid their own emotional evolution will struggle to challenge their characters. You don’t actually have to see a therapist. Use your imagination. Visualize yourself across from a therapist who is probing you with questions. Will you lie? Will you keep repeating mistakes? Or will you resolve to evolve? If your character had your problems, what would you tell her to do?
My guess is you would push her to change.
The best writers welcome being ripped apart, broken and bawling on the bathroom floor—metaphorically naked and lost. They must feel the intense pain of breaking before they can grow.
Push your characters not just to the edge, but over the edge. Destroy their world. And just when you think you have them in pieces on the floor, bring in … the wound. (Cue dramatic music.)
She has to face that fear head on in order to overcome it. The narcissistic sister who has borderline personality disorder doesn’t even have to be alive or in the room, but some symbol of her does. In order for your hero to achieve her outer goal, she has to overcome what haunts her and what has kept her a prisoner to her childhood wound. Confront the monster. Control it. But most importantly, survive it.
We don’t want to watch someone “change” just for a moment. We want to know they have changed forever, hence empowering them from this day forward. The audience craves that lesson—if the hero can overcome, so can we.
Explore the corners of your characters’ minds. Take their hand and show them, and your readers, the power of change.