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Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Treatment Tuesday - Death of a Parent

Today’s assessment is from Robyn. She’s writing about Miller,* a high school senior.

Eight months before Miller is scheduled to graduate as valedictorian from high school with plans to become a physician, Michael's pregnant mother dies of a drug overdose—only she has never used drugs. It becomes established that she was murdered, and very soon afterward, Miller becomes unsettled and starts doing things that are out of character for him. He doesn't study, skips school, and has some anger issues. He wants to help in the search for the killer, which is a big reason why he skips school. His stepfather and aunt (mom’s identical twin sister) try to help him.

* Names have been changed to protect the fictional.

Robyn wants to know: Does this sound like something a person in his shoes would do? Is it part of grieving? And would he want to stay away from the mother's twin since they look identical?

Wow, Robyn. Sounds like such an interesting premise for a book. Let’s see if I can help.

Miller is obviously a very smart guy. And he’s got aspirations of being a doctor, so he has medical inclinations. Both of these would contribute to his more-than-average interest in his mother’s unusual death. So I think you’ve set him up well to really give him a motivation for his behaviors.

As for the specific behaviors you mentioned, these are very typical reactions for a high school teenager to have when faced with grief or trauma. Even extremely put-together teens have reactions out of character for them. What I think really has potential in your book is the angst Miller will have to go through, as he eventually has to make a decision: find the killer or make the grade.

If you have written him as a very driven, goal-oriented person (which it sounds like he is) and medical school is the end goal, then the stakes are so much higher for him to make that decision. Even more so if his motivation for being a physician is tied to his mother…or possibly father, but since you didn’t mention the father, I’d stick with the mother.

So when her death brings all sorts of questions that Miller wants to help answer, then his goal of becoming a physician for his mother is divided by his desire to find the mother’s killer. Both goals involve his mother and doing something for her, but he can only choose one. These are the type books that keep readers turning. What will he decide? Make sure to include plenty of pressure from the school system administrators and teachers, threatening to take away his valedictorian status, which will in turn prevent him from getting into a good college, which won’t help him get into a good med school….see the angst?

Now about the twin sister. That could swing either way. He might be comforted by her appearance, knowing that twins share a special bond and that his aunt has so much in common with his deceased mother. On the other hand, just looking at her might be too much to bear for such a teen with volatile emotions. He might do a push-pull with her, wanting and needing to be loved and hugged and possibly imagining her as his mother while she performs these nurturing actions….but then angry at himself for his weakness or angry at her for trying to step in and take his mom’s place…it’s really your call.

What would fit best for your story? If this aunt's going to be around a lot…tension could really be amped up in your book if you have Miller despise her. But you don’t want Miller dangling around in a spiral of negativism with no positive influence for him. His aunt might just be the channel he’ll need to process through.

So the short answer to your questions are yes, these actions sound feasible for a grieving teen. I’d just consider ways to ramp up tension and conflict for him internally, and I’ve given a few suggestions. Hopefully this was helpful! Thanks for writing in.

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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Angie Ledbetter said...

Fascinating. Makes me wish I'd have gotten a degree in psychology instead of journalism. :)

Katie Ganshert said...

You are one smart lady! Truly a character therapist!

Eileen Astels Watson said...

Great post. I love the part where he might get angry at himself for allowing his aunt to somewhat replace his mother. I could so see that struggle!

Tana said...

Jeannie, you rock. And Robyn hurry up and get published so I can read the resolution. ;)

Jill Kemerer said...

Cool premise for a book--and I love your assessment of Miller. Thanks!

Tara McClendon said...

The human mind can be so complex!!! Thanks for breaking it down for us.

Jessica Nelson said...

Dang, that does sound interesting!

Robyn Campbell said...

Jeannie, thank you so very much for doing this. I now know to continue down the road I'm traveling with this story. Only give it the JUICE! :) I so appreciate the time you spent. Thanks again!

T.Anne, I WILL, I WILL! :)

Jennifer Shirk said...

SO interesting!

PS. I have a gift for you on my blog...

Natalie said...

Fascinating as always Jeanne!

Stephanie Faris said...

I think there could be maybe some added motivation for him to act out after her death...maybe the thought that he was always a good person and did what was best and he lost his mom anyway?

Terri Tiffany said...

Good post! I love the conflict that is set up.

Jeannie Campbell, LMFT said...

good thoughts, steph. could definitely add to his motivation...and anger.

thanks everyone. :)

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Both comments and questions are welcome. I hope you enjoyed your time on the couch today.