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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Character Therapy: The Basics


Character Therapist [kar-ik-ter ther-uh-pist] noun. A person trained in the use of psychological methods for diagnosing and evaluating fictional characters to help authors write more realistically.

This is what I do. So how can you—a published or aspiring writer—and your beloved characters benefit?

Rather than tell you, I’ll show you. Here are a few examples of the types of questions I field each week.

  • “I have the man so tied to his mother that he can't break away from her. Do I need a good reason behind this?”
  • “How would compartmentalizing parts of self damage a person? How would the buried parts 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?”
  • “My character suffers from a head injury and has amnesia. Her memory will return by the end of the novel, but from my understanding, it typically returns a little a time. What would that be like? How would the character feel/react?”
  • “Is it feasible for a teenager with Asperger’s Syndrome to take a driving test, fail, and then want to take the test again?”
  • “If someone has Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and they are triggered, would they have “panic attacks” or something that would send them to the hospital for a few days?”

This is just a sampling of content areas a character therapist could help you with. Internal motivations, effects of external conflicts, plot feasibility, character strengths and weaknesses, behavioral manifestations or limitations…a character therapist’s playground.


The prevalence of mental disorders is astounding. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, one in every four adults has a mental disorder. TWENTY-FIVE PERCENT. So chances are you or someone you know has struggled with depression (often called the common cold of mental health), anxiety, eating disorders, bipolar, substance abuse, or sleeping disorders.

And what do we most often write about? What we know. So these disorders creep into our manuscripts often as a way to give a hero/heroine a vice (“He’s an alcoholic.”) or to explain away some secondary character’s erratic behavior (“She’s bipolar.”).

Mental disorders often become cliché or stereotyped, because what does the average author know about these disorders? You can Google them, sure, and you’ll get a lot of stale facts and criteria for diagnosing, but very little real-life answers as to how to portray these disorders—breathe life into them—for your characters.

That’s where I come in.


In real life, when you see a counselor, you typically have an assessment session. The counselor asks questions about your background, reason for coming in, etc. Information exchange is the only way for the therapist to get a feel for the client.

It’s the same with fictional characters. All I need to work with is a character sketch. I’ve gotten sketches that were a short paragraph to some several pages long. Some of the more fun assessments I’ve posted on my blog were the result of email “sessions” between the author and myself as we delved deeper.

If you have specific questions, that can help narrow down my focus. Otherwise, I look at the overall psychological picture you present of your character. Quirks, pet peeves, family history, hobbies…all these things add up! I might not diagnose every one of the characters I do therapy on, but quite a few of them qualify.

On occasion, I see a glaring omission from a therapeutic perspective. For example, how can a young heroine who has not experienced any real unconditional love from her parents or anyone else, recognize true love from the hero—much less trust it—if she hasn’t had some sort of example? I pointed this out to one author and she admitted, “It was a missing piece that popped into the light when you mentioned it. I knew there was something missing somewhere and that's what it was!!”

Other times feasibility can be an issue. For example, children with Asperger’s Syndrome typically fear social encounters. So it’s pretty unlikely that one who was able to conquer that fear enough to take a driver’s test would want to get behind the wheel again after failing. Another example of unfeasibility would be portraying a disorder in a stereotypical manner, like a bipolar character switching from manic to depressed back to manic in the span of two pages.


Characters are paramount to any story. Books have to have characters and those characters have to have problems, or you don’t have a book.

In order to resonate with our readers, our books should be authentic to human nature. Could anything be more important? Authors can spend inordinate amounts of time researching legal procedures and geographical locations, but if a character doesn’t ring true amidst all that, you’ve lost your reader and your chance to connect.

Character therapy is just one more tool in your toolbox to take your writing to the next level. Pick my brain so you don’t have to pick yours.


Hopefully I’ve convinced you of the value of this service and you’ve decided your characters need therapy. Now what do you do?

You just email me at charactertherapist (at) hotmail (dot) com with the words "character therapy" in the subject line. In the body of the email (NOT in an attachment), include your first name, genre, time period, and your character sketch. Usually back story is taboo, but it’s preferred for therapists! I’ll send you a quick email to let you know I got the sketch and ask any additional questions if needed. Check back on my blog every Tuesday to see when your assessment is posted. I change all names to protect the fictional characters, but I identify each assessment by the author’s first name.

I look forward to therapizing…er…terrorizing…uh…analyzing your characters!

Jeannie Campbell is a California Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. She received her Masters of Divinity with Specialization in Psychology and Counseling at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and her BA in both psychology and journalism from the University of Mississippi. Her passion is helping those not afflicted with mental disorders to understand and have compassion on those who are. You can find her at The Character Therapist (where she posts Treatment Tuesdays and Thursday Therapeutic Thoughts) and her writing blog, Where Romance Meets Therapy.

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Roni Loren said...

What a cool idea for a blog. Tess recommended your blog to me after I posted yesterday about how my social worker background can influence my character development.
Consider yourself followed. :)

Ethel said...

i often think some of the best fiction writers could be therapists..and good ones, too! i'm following you , girl!

Jeannie Campbell, LMFT said...

thanks, MJ!

Marella said...

i have just read your comments for Maree Giles and found them inspiring. This is my first visit but i shall be sending you some characters for analysis very soon indeed. thank you so much, what a wonderful, helpful site, Marella

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