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Thursday, April 30, 2009

Thursday Therapeutic Thought - Countertransference

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Last week I mentioned I would talk about countertransference. To understand what countertransference is, though, you have to understand what transference is. Freud was the one to coin both these terms. Transference was thought to be the patient's emotional reaction to the therapist (a present relationship) based on unresolved, early family relationships in the past.

By default, then, countertransference is the opposite of that: emotional reaction on the part of the therapist to a patient in treatment. I like the original meaning of thes word (from Freud) than the more broader generalizations it carries now. Originally, Freud said that countertransference came about not because of the patient's personality traits (they are sulky or beligerant) or disorders (think too highly of themselves or are annoying because they worry about everything. No, he said it originated from the therapist's own unresolved conflicts.

Ah-ha!! Gold mind for digging deeper into our own psyches as writers! From Freud's perspective (and no, I'm not a Freudian therapist...but he had some interesting theories), the therapist's conflicts were unconscious, yet tapped into by something about the patient. For example, one woman might remind a male therapist of his mother or ex-wife. A young high school student about to enter college might reflect the therapist's own child at that stage in life.

What does this mean for our manuscripts? I honestly beleive that our unconcious conflicts play a much greater role in our writing than even we know. Why do we write what we do? Why do we chose this character, with red hair and brown eyes, over another? Why this quirk over that one? Why this particular backstory and not something else?

I think if you look hard enough, or maybe not even hard at all, you'll see little bits or yourself in each character. You'll see a pet peeve you have reflected on the page of a secondary character and it makes you smile as you use the medium of your writing to really jab at people who drive to slow on the left lane. You'll see anger issues about the same thing you have anger issues about. You'll see a character description that is exactly like the friend who moved away in eigth grade who you still think abotu and wonder what became of her. You'll see real-life issues like divorce, adoption, abuse, adultery and other heavy-hitters because you or someone you know went through it.

I did a whole series of posts on why we write to heal, starting here. And I think that's where our countertransference comes in. The transference isn't necessarily to the writing itself, but more o the characters. Have you ever written in a character you loved to loathe? What about one that made you cry out of compassion for the things YOU YOURSELF were putting her through? Really...what's that about? A sadistic impulse for your character? Or a masochistic one for you as a writer?

Q4U: What are your thoughts about countertransference with your characters? Do you see it happening in your books, or do you think I'm a quack (which I am, folks)?

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Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Treatment Tuesday - Reactive Attachment Disorder

Photo by bricolage.108

Today’s assessment comes from Jaime, focusing on her heroine Goldie.* To give a little backstory, Goldie is a 20-year-old daughter of a wealthy shipping company owner living in Michigan during 1870. She was named Goldie because her father’s dream is to be a miner. Even though she is a living “mascot” of his dream, he rarely has time for her other than to harp on her shenanigans, which she performs to get his attention. Goldie doesn’t like her name or being a symbol, but wants to be loved unconditionally for who she is as a person. Her mother only wanted to use Goldie as a “social beauty toy to gain status with.” Goldie does have an older brother, Lance,* who was the only person to spend time with her and be affectionate, but he left home at the age of 11 to join the Civil War and when he returned, he wanted no reminder of his past.

Enter Conner,* a haunted hero running from a history he greatly regrets but finding himself falling in love with the spitfire Goldie who cannot trust him or his love because she finds no value in herself.

*Names have been changed to protect the fictional.

Jaime writes, “I think Goldie is primarily struggling with a deep desire to have personal value beyond her name and to have unconditional love, yet she cannot trust it when it is presented to her.” She wanted to know my thoughts on this subject.

Goldie’s emotional issues are definitely a product of her family of origin (by this I mean her immediate family). She’s in this weird triangle relationship between her father, who doesn’t spend time with her, and her mother, who only wants to use her. Her brother, the one person she had a connection with left her (read: abandoned…as this probably would be how Goldie would feel), and then added insult to injury in wanting nothing to do with her when he returned (which could seriously send the girl into a depression).

Goldie could very easily suffer from Reactive Attachment Disorder of Early Childhood, mainly because both her parents have persistently disregarded her basic emotional needs for comfort and affection. There could be two ways Goldie would behave as a result of this deficit, so you have to ask yourself how you want Goldie to initially interact with everyone else in the book until her internal healing comes. She could 1) have a failure to initiate or respond appropriately to most social interactions by being overly inhibited, hypervigilant or ambivalent/contradictory responses—approach/avoidance/resistance—to others, or 2) be overly familiar with strangers or lacking selectivity in who she chooses to try to bond to. These types can be called inhibited or disinhibited, respectively.

Personally, disinhibited might have more to work with. Goldie could naturally seek love anywhere she could find it, and that might mean less-than-savory sources, which lands her in more trouble. This would set up the hero, even though haunted with his own history, to feel protective of her.

But to make your story really pop with reality, you’ve got to give Goldie some role model of what true, unconditional love really is. She doesn’t have that in her parents or even her brother, so how would she recognize it when Lance presents it to her, much less trust him? In reality, she probably wouldn’t…unless she had something to compare it to. Some other couple in the book, perhaps? Or maybe even in an old collection of love letters from her grandparents? (This way you wouldn’t have to create a new character.) Something to guide her to a Scriptural understanding of what true love really is? Her inability to trust will have to be overcome by some big event in the structure of the book that helps her see Lance isn’t going to ignore her like her father, abandon her like her brother, or use her like her mother. Do you have something up your sleeve?

Anyway, these are just my initial thoughts. As always, I welcome writers with assessments to feel free to email me with any further questions or to throw additional light on the subject.

This service is for fictional characters only, so any resemblance to real life examples is entirely coincidental. Any other fictional character assessment questions can be directed to

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Thursday, April 23, 2009

Thursday Therapeutic Thought - Family Relationships

Photo courtesy of Minnesota Dept. of Health

Since we've spent some time discussing triangles last week, I wanted to talk about how these triangles form the structure of a family. We'll be borrowing some terminology from structural family therapist Salvador Minuchin, a giant in my field.

Since all our characters have family (whether they want to acknowledge them or not), this is applicable to all our work. Family structure is defined as recurrent patterns of interaction that define and stabilize the shape of relationships. Families have different subsystems (triangles definitely apply here, but also dyads between two people or even larger groups) determined by generation, gender, or even common interests. For example, teenagers in a home and their parents make two subsystems based on generation. This is called overt coalitions - unconcealed. But covert coalitions are usually more significant - those that aren't as obvious, such as a mother's tight bond with her only son that excludes everyone else.

Every family member plays many roles in these subsystems, just as our characters do. I'll use myself as an example: I'm a wife, mother, daughter, niece, sister-in-law. In each role, I'm required to act differently. if I'm mature and flexible, I'll be able to smoothly move from one subsystem to the next and vary my behavior accordingly (i.e., I can scold my daughter, but not my mother or husband). Ah...but how many of us are going to make our characters be "mature?"

Individuals, subsystems and whole families are defined by interpersonal boundaries: invisible barriers that regulate the amount of contact with others. These boundaries are to protect the autonomy of the family and/or subsystems by managing how close they allow others to get to them. Rigid boundaries that permit little contact with outside subsystems result in disengagement: independent but isolated individuals/subsystems. This type boundary is so stiff and hard that practically nothing can get through. Disengagement promotes automony, growth and mastery, but also limits warmth, affection and nurture. For example, parents who don't hover/fight battles for their kids force their children to develop their own resources. However, if the children are kept at such a distance, the affection is minimal and the parents will be slow to notice when children need support and guidance.

Diffuse boundaries result in the opposite: enmeshment. (We already had a Treatment Tuesday devoted to this.) The boundary is permeable...almost nonexistent. Support and affection are heightened, but at the expense of independence and autonomy. Children tend to become dependent on their parents and are less comfortable on their own or relating to people outside their family.

In between these two extremes is what Minuchin considered normal, or balanced. Normal boundaries are clear. They are neither rigid or diffuse. The subsystem can decide for itself what to "let in or out" in relation with other systems.

Application: When I'm writing a novel, I try to think about how I want my hero/heroine to react to others. Typically, their actions result from boundaries developed through their family structure. It's not imperative to define this for your reader, but it IS imperative that you be consistent with how your character reacts. To do that, you need to have defined for yourself how your character fits into the structure of their family, and whether that family has diffuse, rigid or clear boundaries.

Hopefully I haven't bored you with talk about family structure. Family therapy is a gold mine for character development, but I don't want to camp out here too long. Next week, we'll take a look at countertransference with your characters, so stop back by!

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Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Treatment Tuesday - Wearing Masks

I really appreciate all the emails I've gotten of late for character therapy! I'll be answering them in the order in which they came. Today’s assessment comes from Susanne, and focuses on the hero from her WIP, Luke,* a 26-year-old living in 1818 in Britain. (Finally got a man to work with!)

So I’ll jump right to it with Luke’s backstory. This is a time of rigid class structures as well as the “golden age” of smuggling. Luke’s father is Scottish and his mother the daughter of a English duke. At 11, he goes to a British boarding school where he is made fun of for his Scottish brogue. Luke buries the accent, but also learns how to be a good fighter defending himself (i.e., quite the chip on his shoulder). This chip gets even bigger when, at 20, he learns his childhood sweetheart married his brother.

Six years later, Luke has found God and is working for the Revenue Service as a secret agent (read: a spy). In order to do this, he’s had to bury all his aristocratic upbringing and hang out with lowlifes, trying to bring down the brains behind the smuggling operations. He wants to escape his “double life,” but he has to bring down one really bad guy first. But the heroine gets in the way of this final case inadvertently, forcing Luke to accompany her back to London for the Season, essentially as a bodyguard. This means he has to reacquaint himself with a society, manners, and eventually a love he has been without for years.

*Names have been changed to protect the fictional.

Extensive history, I know…but imperative to understanding Luke’s psyche. Here are Susanne’s questions: How would compartmentalizing parts of a self damage a person? How would the buried parts of one manifest themselves? How easy would it be to slip up? He's pretended to be someone else for so long...what if he's that new person now, and can't find himself anymore?

Susanne and I emailed a bit about Luke, and my first impressions were this: Luke’s probably a very angry guy. All that childhood trauma and heartache would be hard to get over. And then he wears a mask as a spy for six long years. I reworded Susanne’s question this way: What damage occurs inwardly when you wear a mask for so long you lose sight of what you look like underneath?

Ah, now that’s something every reader should be able to identify with…wearing masks. I gave Susanne permission to steal that metaphor, because it does speak to us today. Pretending to be something or someone we’re not is hard work, both physically (for Luke, since he’s like a 19th century version of a Navy SEAL), emotionally and mentally. I’d probably diagnose Luke with Dysthymia Disorder, which is like a low-grade depression present for over two years.

Luke is the opposite of integrated; he’s disintegrated. He’s not in touch with all the parts of himself. This happens in real life frequently, but oftentimes goes unnoticed. Luke, however, notices and doesn’t like it. The old adage of “If you don’t use it, you lose it,” could ring true for him. After six years, it’s likely that he doesn’t remember some social graces when he tries to reenter society. He’ll have a few gauche moments. He’ll have to retrain himself, which will be frustrating and angering. The buried parts of himself will reawaken, but this will be painful. To reintegrate—take off the mask—is uncomfortable. He might abhor his mask as a spy, but in truth, it’s like a comfy old shoe. (Think Man in the Iron Mask when Leonardo is freed of the mask, but still puts it on when he doesn’t think anyone would see him.) Luke might even resent the heroine for being so at ease in an environment he’s not. He’ll probably treat her gruffly, especially since she got in the way of his freedom from being a spy and sent him headfirst into a society he had forgotten. Standoffish would be realistic, angry even more so.

Dysthymic Disorder has some other symptoms that go hand-in-hand with it. Luke might also suffer from insomnia (too little sleep) or hypersomnia (too much). Some other symptoms and how they could play out in Luke’s life would be a poor appetite – he could only eat to stay strong, low self esteem – maybe he thinks he’s not cut out for polite society anymore, poor concentration – his thoughts could be jumbled…when working he wants to be free and when in society he just wants to be working, and feelings of hopelessness – he’ll never be free.

So hopefully you learned a little about Dysthymic Disorder as well as how wearing a mask could lead to a depressive disorder like I’ve diagnosed Luke with.

This service is for fictional characters only, so any resemblance to real life examples is entirely coincidental. Any other fictional character assessment questions can be directed to

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Thursday, April 16, 2009

Thursday Therapeutic Thought - Triangles

After Tuesday's assessment, I thought I'd share about the smallest stable unit of relationships, according to Murray Bowen, and that's the TRIANGLE. Virtually all significant relationships are shadowed by a third person. Mom/Dad/Child. Husband/Wife/Mother-in-Law. Hero/Heroine/Heroine's Other Potential Boyfriend. When this happens, the third person is said to be "triangulated" into the relationship. This happens all the time to therapists as couples in a dysfunctional relationship come in for counseling. Each one has their own agenda for winning over the therapist to his or her way of thinking. This is because when two people are unable to resolve their problems, humans have an inherent bent to draw in another person. (In the chick lit novels, it's usually the heroine's best friend or pack of friends - who still serve as a single unit for the purpose of the triangle.)

How true is this for almost all relationships we have? If we took a second to consider our favorite books/movies, I would bet they all center around some triangle. Gone with the Wind: Scarlett/Rhett/Ashley. Take the Twilight series: Bella/Edward/Jacob. Pride and Prejudice: Elizabeth/Darcy/Mr. Wickham. I tried to think of a movie that featured a solitary person, and the only one I came up with in time for this post was Tom Hanks playing in Cast Away. But there was STILL a triangle between Tom Hanks/Helen Hunt/Helen Hunt's new husband!!

So our novels should have some element of triangles in them. I'm sure if you think about yours, it probably already does. Something to remember, however, is that triangles might stabilize a relationship, but they also freeze conflict in place (Nichols & Schwartz, p. 141-42). So usually, a person has to work through the triangulation (their mother's well-meaning-but-awful advice, a friend's jealousy, etc) in order to come out on the other end in a mentally healthy place.

Q4U: How will thinking about the relationships in your novels - whether familial or romantic - in the context of triangles help your writing to reach a new level of authenticity?

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Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Treatment Tuesday - Family Dynamics

Quick thank you to my O-town friends who did a shoutout for me on their blog Plot This. You're awesome!

Today’s assessment focuses on family dynamics. This happens to be one of my favorite topics, seeing as how I’m a Marriage and Family Therapist. We’ll be looking into what is called an enmeshed family system, courtesy of Jean, who wrote in this week.

Jean has a love triangle in her historical novel (don’t we love those!) and didn’t want the reader to feel any conflict at the end of the book with who the heroine ultimately chooses. So her portrayal of the scorned man is key to helping the reader feel satisfaction with the chosen man. Here’s a brief character sketch of Larry, the scorned man.

*Larry* comes from a wealthy background with an overbearing mother and henpecked father. He is adopted, but only finds out at the end of the book that he has a sister. For all intents and purposes, he was raised as an only child. He has witnessed his mother lashing out at his father and vowed never to make her that upset with him. He develops feelings for *Betty* who is not of his class set.

Jean’s ultimate question was this: I have Larry so tied to his mother that he can't break away from her. Do I need a good reason behind this? I want the reader to agree that Betty should tell him to go back to his mother and choose *Ted* to marry.

*Names have been changed to protect the fictional.*

Ah! [rubs hands together] This is a great question, Jean! Thanks for submitting. What we’ve got here in classic enmeshment. This is when individuals/families are too closely intertwined – so much so you can’t see where one ends and the other begins (kind of like the wires in the picture). The therapeutic term for this is “undifferentiated,” coined by Family Systems guru Murray Bowen. “Differentiation” is how capable a person is of being autonomous and individualistic. Where we fall on this continuum is based almost solely on how we were raised.

Larry unfortunately witnessed his parents in arguments that were unhealthy, causing him to form a rigid rule internally that he wasn’t going to do anything to make his mother treat him that way. That rule followed him to adulthood, but in essence, he never grew into a more adult way of interacting with his mother. He’s “fused” with his mother, accepting her word as gospel, never going against her, etc.

Enter Betty. She disrupts the family system by expecting (or hoping, I should say) that Larry will stand up to his mother on her behalf. Larry never does. At this point, I don’t think the reader will think Larry worthy of Betty. It would anger them that he would choose his mother over her. When you introduce Ted – especially if it happens after Larry does the unforgivable deed – the reader will already be smelling romance in the air.

So now the question is how you portray his enmeshment. Enmeshment/fusion can be colorful and humorous or dark and sad. When Larry is asked what he thinks about something, he would likely start his answer with, “My mother always says…blah,blah,blah.” He would always have to consult his mother about any course of action (yes, even romantic ones). He might put up a paltry fight if his mother disagrees with him, but Larry will ultimately cower to her because her approval and blessing mean more to him than they should. This is the crux of the issue which will hinder his forming any strong connection with Betty. I mean, what girl likes to play second fiddle to her mother-in-law? (or anyone else, for that matter?)

So hopefully this helps you with your dilemma, Jean. We want our readers to be satisfied, and a little character therapy can help us give them what they want. You know, I enjoyed this assessment so much I think I’ll continue on the same vein for Thursday’s Therapeutic Thought. Thanks for reading!

This service is for fictional characters only, so any resemblance to real life examples is entirely coincidental. Any other fictional character assessment questions can be directed to

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Thursday, April 9, 2009

Thursday Therapeutic Thought - Grief

This week's Thought will piggyback off last week's when I discussed grief. Hopefully you've started thinking more about secondary losses and how these play into your character's reactions as they grieve on the page.

Today, we'll look at the traditional "stages" of grief. Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross was the one to coin these, so I can't take credit. :)

The first traditional stage is Denial. Once the initial shock wears off, the character (or real life person) would pretend they hadn't just been given horrible news. A lot of times, they will just go back to work like nothing happened. This is really just avoidance behavior, trying to put off the inevitable.

The second stage is Anger. Whoever gets in the way here will likely be to blame. This can be explosive like a active volcano or simmering like lava. People will often question, "Why me?" and what they aren't saying is "Why not you?" They will be angry at anyone not affected by their tragedy, angry at God for allowing it to happen, angry at the deceased loved one for dying. Sky's the limit on how this might be manifested.

Third stage is Bargaining. This is when the character might seek ways out of their predicament, often in vain. They might bargain with God, hoping that if they agree to some action, God will reverse what happened. It's important not to write in someone in your manuscript offering the grieving person something they can't fulfill when the character is in this stage. Offering a person false hope during this time would be terrible.

Fourth is the Depression stage, perhaps the stage we most often associate with grief. This is when the character realizes what has happened is irreversible and they turn in to themselves. Anger and Bargaining are fairly animated phases, but depression is despair and hopelessness, an inactive phase of grief. Everything will be globally looked at from this lens.

The fifth stage is Acceptance. This is when the character comes to a place of being able to move forward with their lives despite the loss. This is when terminally ill patients begin making plans for their estate and doing things they have always wanted to do (think about the movie Bucket List).


I like to think about these phases as on a continuum. People don't always move through them one to the next (as the hurdles in the picture might suggest). Many cross between them or skip one or take two steps forward and one step back ("We go together because opposites attract..." Oh, wait. Got off track here!). Grief is so individualized, making it hard to pinpoint an exact process, so remember that while you're writing.

Good luck to you as you make your character's emotions as real as possible by incorporating some of these grief phases into your manuscript!

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Monday, April 6, 2009

Treatment Tuesday - Amnesia

Today's assessment is for Ralene: "My character suffered from a head injury and has amnesia (not sure if they have names for the different types, but this one she's lost her memories, but retains knowledge of to eat, how to walk, etc). Her memory will return by the end of the novel, but from my understanding, it typically returns a little bit at a time. What would that be like? How would the character feel/react? Is it like a bunch of memories at once or one over and over for awhile until things just start clicking?"

First off, amnesia is actually diagnosed by a trained medical professional (unless it falls under dissociative amnesia, which your heroine's does not). I'm not a medical professional, but I do know a little bit about amnesia. There are various types, and the one you are describing is called post-traumatic (or just traumatic) amnesia, following a traumatic brain injury (TBI). Sounds like your character will suffer retrograde amnesia (inability to recall information prior to the injury - you will want to establish some sort of cut off here...typically traumatic retrograde amnesia is such that the person doesn't remember what happened shortly before the injury (hours or days).

As for the return of the memory, the sky is the limit, Ralene. Just about any scenario you cook up could be feasible. It could be a series of the same recurring memory, it could be little flashes of an event in the past that resembles something currently being experienced (deja vu), it could be dream sequences, it could be all at once, it could be chunks. So just let it rip.

What I wanted to talk the most about is the psychological impact of amnesia. It will be important for you to include in your manuscript the character's embarrassment or stress over not being able to remember her past. She could get angry at her predicament, overwhelmed by people trying to "reintroduce" themselves to her, put off/freaked out at how overly familiar some people are with her who she doesn't "know," or in effect meets for the "first time." She should grieve the loss of these memories her past is full of, yet she doesn't remember.

Thanks for emailing, Ralene. Hope this helps out some.

This service is for fictional characters only, so any resemblance to real life examples is entirely coincidental. Any other fictional character assessment questions can be directed to
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Thursday, April 2, 2009

Thursday Therapeutic Thought - Grief

"In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world."
Jesus (John 16:33b)

Grief is something everyone experiences, so therefore is a topic for writers to fully understand if we hope to convey our characters' grief in a realistic way readers can relate to. I'll be starting a two-part series on grief today, focusing on the multi-dimensional aspects of grief today and the stages of grief next Thursday.

I'd like to start with two main classifications of grief a person can experience. The first is physical. This means tangible loss, like losing a loved one, getting a car stolen or your house burning down. The second classification is symbolic. These are abstract losses like getting a divorce or being demoted at work.

To quote Therese Rando, "No matter what, loss always results in a deprivation of some kind." (p. 13, How To Go On Living When Someone You Love Dies).

Unpleasant losses are usually recognized as such, and therefore seem to be deserving of grief. These are the losses that are easy to write about. We've all been there, losing someone or something important to us. So we can pen these experiences into a novel without batting an eye. But what about losses resulting from what others would consider a positive event? Oftentimes these go either unrecognized or ungrieved or both. So lets camp out here for a bit.

When a couple has a child, they experience a relative loss of independence, increased responsibility, and decreased spontaneity. (Ask any couple with an infant if you don't believe me.) But having a child is positive, right? Still, these are symbolic losses the couple faces which might bring them to my office.

A child leaving home for college is positive, meaning the child has acheived a level of competency on his own. But this creates "empty nest" for the parent, a loss that needs to be grieved (in real life AND in our books!). When a person terminates therapy, this is considered positive because they have achieved their goals. But it's often sad, a loss of an hour a week with someone you've grown accustomed to, who knows you better than many others in your life. This is a loss...a deprivation.

Also important to keep in mind as we write about our characters' losses are "secondary losses." These are sneaky, often creeping up on us before we can identify them or be aware of their impact. Secondary losses can sometimes cause more impact in the long run than the initial loss. Consider a change in geography or alteration in family in-law relationships after a spouse's death. What about a loss of status in the community after a child's criminal conviction? Rando mentions a woman losing a breast to breast cancer and includes the following list of secondary losses, all of which need to be mourned on some level: loss of independence and control being in a patient role, loss of automony, loss of predictability, loss of boldily functions, body parts, productivity, pleasure, identify, intimacy, social contacts, self-esteem, mobility...the list could go on and on.

Question for You: Are there parts to your current manuscript you might should rework in light of secondary losses and losses that occur as a result of something most everyone would perceive as "positive"? How can considering grief as multi-dimensional improve the portrayal of your characters' grief?