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Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Treatment Tuesday - Meeting An Absent Father

This week’s assessment comes from Alexandra. I have to tell you…this is one great plot, with twists and turns that will be a page-turner! She's writing a contemporary women’s fiction with Ellie* as the 24-year-old heroine. Ellie grows up with her mom, living hand-to-mouth, with no knowledge about her father (who left her mother before Ellie was born because he thought he wasn’t good enough for her). Ellie becomes a single mom as well when her boyfriend turns abusive (causing her to miscarry twice) and she leaves him, taking her baby girl Kathryn* with her. Danny,* a really good guy at her church, loves her and wants to marry her, but Ellie’s not trusting men again. While her mother is dying of a terminal illness, she tells Ellie that her father is a best-selling crime thriller novelist. Ellie conceals her identity and goes to interview him so she can meet him. Her father offers her a job as his research assistant for his upcoming book, and Ellie takes it. She meets up with her abusive boyfriend later in the book because he’s the head of the publishing house that puts out her dad’s books.

* Names have been changed to protect the fictional.

Alexandra wants to know: What sort of emotions will Ellie go through as she interacts on a daily basis with her dad? What physiological problems would she be dealing with? How would she respond to Danny’s advances? What problems would need to be worked out in a relationship? How would Ellie respond to meeting her old boyfriend? When her identity comes to light, how would her father respond (who still loves her mother)?

Quite a long list to tackle! Let’s start with the biggest thing that happened to Ellie: an abusive boyfriend. Women often get sucked into relationships that are abusive, so it says a lot about Ellie’s strength to be able to walk away from this man (who is the father of her child…that’s even doubly courageous). Seeing him again definitely would bring up her memories of the abuse that led to the two miscarriages and probably countless other wounds. But since time has passed, she just might see parts of her daughter in him that have emerged during the time away from him. She’d probably hope for some evidence that he’s changed, that she might be able to safely include him in her daughter’s life (but maybe not…your call. This might depend on whether you intend for her to end up with Danny or Kathryn’s father.)

Her response to Danny’s advances could definitely be mistrustful. She hasn’t had any kind of good role model for how a relationship with a man should be. She likely wouldn’t be able to recognize or trust true love if she found it. So a key for Ellie’s relationship with Danny will be tried-and-true patience/endurance. He’ll come through for her where others have failed, stick with her when others would have bailed, stay with her when others would have tuck-tailed. (I’m such a poet…and didn’t know it!) Eventually there will have to be a scene where Danny throws down the gauntlet, though, giving Ellie a choice.

She’ll either have to come out of her scared shell to accept the love he is offering…and that’s a conscious choice...or she'll face living her life completely alone. (She might be more likely to make this decision after she realizes her dad really loves her mom…that would show her that true love does and can last forever.) Danny does NOT need to offer someone like Ellie any kind of choice where if she makes the “wrong” choice, he’ll give up on her and walk away. Ellie would perceive this as abandonment and it would only serve to reiterate her mantra that men can’t be trusted. Danny would probably get further with Ellie if he says he’ll be whatever she needs from him…if it’s a friend, than he’ll try to swallow his attraction, if it’s more than friends, he’ll be the happiest guy in the world…that sort of thing.

Next big thing to happen to her is the reemergence of a long-time absent father. This really is huge, even for a 24-year-old. Initially, she’d be shocked and outraged, probably, and I’m sure you have a great scene where her emotional reaction to this news is strong. But eventually her intellectual, secondary reaction will come to the fore. She’ll reason through her anger at how he treated her mom (considering she knows the particulars) and for leaving them to squeak out their existence while he shares none of his wealth.

Her anger might remain latent, though, and show up in passive-aggressive interactions with him while she’s his assistant. You know, a little witty remark here or there. I think you could have some tremendously tense scenes as they relate to one another with such similar “caustic, sarcastic personalities.” Great stuff.

Eventually, as she gets to actually know him as a person, she might be touched at how they share some mannerisms and quirks…and yes, “wowed” by her living, breathing, larger-than-life father. She’s a part of him….which will give her an additional sense of self….a more inclusive identity. (Not sure I’m getting my idea across…but I’m going with it. If you have questions…ask away in the comments.)

Last question was how her father would react when Ellie’s identity comes to light. That’s a harder one to nail, because all I know about her father is that he loves her mother still and is a successful novelist. If he had known about Ellie’s existence, he perhaps could have atoned for his “sins” and written a book that paralleled his own life a bit, complete with regrets and disappointments at how his life ended up. Maybe this book is so close to his heart he keeps it from his agent and editor…but agrees to publish it to win back Ellie’s love and trust (as well as her mother’s). This would be a poignant plot development for the reader.

But that still doesn’t answer the question. I think he’ll be thrilled. Deep down, men want to know their children just as much as women do. Fathers want to share themselves, pass part of themselves on. It’s natural. To finally meet her (or, if he had no idea of her existence, to finally know about her existence) would be surreal. A joyous occasion. He’d probably have some reservations about why Ellie’s mother didn’t tell him….and plenty of regrets at how different their lives could have been if he’d known…sadness over the years of her life he missed and the years of potential happiness he could have had with the love of his life, who’s now dying. But he'd probably grab at the chance to make amends, do right by them, pay her mother's medical bills (heck, marry her!), and use his sway to help Ellie in her career however he could.

So there are a few ideas to get your plot rolling smoothly along. Hopefully this helps 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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Jennifer Shirk said...

Oh, Jeannnie, that was sooooooooo good. I really enjoyed your assessment, and Alexandra's book sounds great!

Alexandra said...

Thanks so much!!!

One of the biggest issues I'm struggling with is why Ellie stayed so long with Kathryn's father if he was abusive long before she finally left him. He was paying for her to get a writing degree, which was what she always wanted to do. (She finally left a year before she finished). But is it too far-fetched to have her staying with this guy, even though she was going through the abuse? Why would she?

First question of a bunch today. :-) Again, thanks so much!

Jeannie Campbell, LMFT said...

Alexandra - women stay in abusive relationships so long sometimes they die. it's a dependent issue...where the abuser makes the woman totally dependent on them. takes away outside resources, prevents them from contacting others without permission. it's a combination of intimidation and manipulation. so if he's paying for her writing degree, she already is "beholden" to him...there is a discrepancy of power in the relationship (he holds more). so now, i don't think it's far-fetched at all...on the contrary. it's more realistic than it should be, unfortunately.

keep the questions coming if you got 'em. :) glad the assessment was helpful.

Alexandra said...

"She’ll either have to come out of her scared shell to accept the love he is offering…and that’s a conscious choice...or she'll face living her life completely alone."

So this isn't a matter of just "falling" for Danny...which isn't reality anyway. Ellie's going to have to just trust him, basically, make the choice that this is the right thing. In her case there wouldn't be a "wow, I guess I'm in love with him" thing. Isn't run by emotions, because her emotions are telling her that she can't trust any man. Am I right? What's the "choice" process she's going to be going through? (She does end up with Danny, BTW)

Hope these questions make sense. I've never tackled a character with these kinds of problems and I really just want to do her justice and make her believeable.

Jeannie Campbell, LMFT said...

when i wrote that, that's what i was getting at. a man isn't going to wait around forever (even a wonderful, long-suffering one as i imagine danny is). there will be a point for danny (and probably only you know what that would be) where he just can't keep his heart on the line. so he'd remove the "possibility" of something more with her from his mind (men CAN do's harder for women b/c we don't compartmentalize) even though danny could still try to be there as a friend in some capacity. what you could do is have her realize this choice she had to make isn't really to love him (b/c she DOES) but whether to give up her trust issues from the past and TRUST him (and let him know she does). that's her choice. good reading would be to have her realize this after the fact when danny is figuratively "walking away," and then she gives up her internal struggle to be with him. make sense? just a suggestion. :) we can volley ideas back and forth if you like.

Alexandra said...

This is so helpful. Thanks so much.

What about Kathryn? Would there be any problems she's going through? I mean, this is the only life she's known...her grandmother being sick, her mother working all the time, being carted from daycare to babysitters to etc.

Also at one point the boyfriend tries to gain custody of Kathryn. What behaviors would be normal for a four-year-old child in that situation?

Jeannie Campbell, LMFT said...

kathryn's adjustment difficulties would (in my opinion) be minimal. since this IS the only life she's known, you know? now with a custody battle, depending on how much she is told or knows about it, she could definitely have acting out behaviors as manifestations of her insecurity. depending on how she is, she might have a difficult grief reaction to the idea of losing her grandmother. something to consider.

fyi - this has been fun! i wish more authors did this with me. :)

Alexandra said...

Thanks so much for the absolutely awesome and totally helpful assessment! This has helped me soooo much, you have no idea.

I was scared stiff, to be honest, at writing characters with so many issues that I couldn't relate to at all, but this has totally helped me and now I'm excited to be applying this. ;-)

I've enjoyed the interaction so much! Thanks!!!

Jeannie Campbell, LMFT said...

you're welcome, alexandra. anytime.

now get to work. :)

Eileen Astels Watson said...

Oh my gosh, I want to read this book. Bestill my heart, a novelist character in it too. Oh, Alexandra, you must write this one. Craft it to perfection and let us all know when it comes out. Please! I'm thinking a bit Castle in book form here. Certainly lots of dramma in this story, like the show offers.

Eileen Astels Watson said...

Just scanned the comments. Wow, I love the brainstorming aspect here. So helpful to a writer to see this in action.

Jeannie Campbell, LMFT said...

eileen - i hope that other authors do what alexandra did with me in the's like little McSessions. :)

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