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Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Treatment Tuesday - Death of a Fiancé

This week’s character assessment is for Liberty. She wrote in about her heroine, Mandy.*

6 weeks before her wedding, 24-year-old Mandy ended up going to her fiancé Jeff’s* funeral. Shortly after his hunting accident, her parents announce their impending divorce (she’s an only child). As a result, Mandy goes into a tailspin, withdrawing from her friends (including her best friend Rob*, who introduced her to Jeff), changing her job, and moving from her city. 17 months later, she’s still wearing her engagement ring. Rob, who has secretly been in love with Mandy for about 10 years, sees her move to within an hour’s distance from him as a second chance with her. So beginning about 10 months after Jeff’s death, Rob begins to spend time with Mandy. 7 months later, she takes off the engagement ring with the help of her girlfriend, which leads to Rob telling her he loves her. Mandy is amazingly accepting of the fact Rob loves her, although she’s shocked.

* Names have been changed to protect the fictional.

Liberty wants to know what I think about her plot and characters.

Well, kudos on the plot outline, Liberty. You’ve given Mandy a lot of internal angst and external conflict, which always makes for a good read. Let’s look at her mental condition and some other plot points to consider.

Her fiancé dies in an awful hunting accident. Jeff represents her future. Her parents indicate they’re getting a divorce. They represent her past. Likely, the grief would be very overwhelming. See my post here on the stages of grief, or, as I like to say, the phases of grief. Grief reactions are so varied that you can just about write anything and it be believable. So you write in Mandy’s reaction as withdrawal (which seems to focus in on the Depression phase) from her job and friends (and likely her parents, even, though you didn’t mention this). She’s isolating herself because surely no one else can possibly imagine what she’s going through.

Letting others in will not happen like turning on a light switch. But likely she’ll have one person that she can go to (probably the girlfriend?) to keep her sanity. Perhaps the girlfriend is insistent and persistent and won’t let up on Mandy to process what she’s feeling. I’d definitely give Many some sort of grief outlet, even though she’s withdrawing.

It’s interesting that you have her changing jobs. Why? Was there something about her journalism career that reminded her of Jeff? Even better, did she and Jeff share some sort of journalistic aspirations that maybe she felt she couldn’t achieve without him? Were they going to be a dynamic investigative duo? I’d really think about why you have Mandy change jobs, and connect this to Jeff in some way so that it suspends reader disbelief.

I read in your email that she’s now a real estate investor. I’d give a very solid motivation for her going into that field, too. Maybe Jeff was in real estate and had been asking her to join him as an investor. (Of course, realize that there is a lot of training and licensing involved in real estate, as well. Would she be up to taking the classes and tests after such enormous grief?) Or perhaps she was a financial journalist with an earlier background in real estate?

These are just some questions to get the ball rolling.

Now let’s focus on her lasting attachment to her deceased fiancé. 17 months is a long time to wear an engagement ring. Holding on to a loved one happens in many different ways, and to Mandy, the ring is a physical, tangible reminder of the love she shared with Jeff. To take it off would be to devalue her love for him in some way. Keeping it on shows her lasting love and loyalty to him. Her girlfriend would have to be way persuasive to combat this kind of cognitive reasoning, no matter how much of a fallacy it is. So how does she go about getting her to take it off? [Maybe she has her move it to the right hand first? Maybe to a different finger? These are some behavioral therapy suggestions that might work.] I assume you’ll make this a big part of her character arc…the letting go of the past, which includes Jeff. Is there another way Mandy feels she can remember Jeff without the ring? Perhaps her relationship with Rob will be just the thing she needs to keep Jeff’s memory alive between them in a healthy way, since Rob was Jeff’s best guy friend.

My suggestion is this: watch Catch & Release with Jennifer Garner. She loses her fiancé like days before the wedding in a fishing accident. The movie is a romance, though, so there is the aspect of her moving on…and the love interest is her fiancé’s best guy friend. Toward the end of the movie, there is a monologue of just Jennifer speaking that’s truly realistic and very well done. Also, read Karen Kingbury’s Lost Love series. The second book deals with the same issues as your WIP. Excellent, heart wrenching reads, both of the books, and they will give you some ideas how other authors have handled this.

As for dealing with the divorce—and her dad’s subsequent remarriage to someone almost as young as she is—you have to take into context Mandy’s age and life phase. She’s already out of the house, into a career and providing for herself. She’ll still feel the smart from the divorce, no doubt, but it probably won’t be as devastating to her as it would be to a 16-year-old. If you give her some sort of super duper connection to her dad, she could possibly construe it as abandonment. Jeff dies and her dad—the kind of guy she always looked up to and wanted to marry someone like—leaves her mom. This would be a double whammy for sure. Perhaps she picked Jeff for the sole reason that he was so much like her dad. This might make her doubt Jeff’s love for her. (Or an even deeper twist could be that Jeff wasn’t such a stand-up guy, and maybe Rob knew it all along! Maybe he was just like her dad in even a negative way. Perhaps he wasn’t faithful to her? Okay…seriously…go rent Catch & Release today.)

Looking at the time frame you’ve given Rob to work his magic, I’ll give you my two cents worth. Starting 10 months after Jeff’s death, Rob starts to spend time with Mandy. Then you said she takes off the ring, which was at least 7 months later. Jeff would have been dead for 17 months. A good rule of thumb when dealing with spouses of deceased husbands, fiancés and wives moving on is around two years. The reason for this is that usually, it takes about 2 years to psychologically work through the death of a loved one enough to move on (according to most grief research). Anything less than 2 years might cause others to be suspicious. (Let’s face it. We’ve all known someone who got remarried within a year of a spouse’s death…and we’ve all been scandalized. “She must not have loved him very much.” These are the type of thoughts you don’t want a reader having.)

The more time that passes, the better the chance is of the character and the reader being more responsive to a new romantic interest and actually cheer it on. So your 17 months is actually pretty good. It’s believable. If you want to be super safe, tweak the timing. But I wouldn’t have a problem reading it as is. Especially since Mandy and Rob were best friends before she ever met Rob’s friend Jeff. Which leads to a great reason to break the rule of thumb: previous history. She’s got personal history with Rob from long ago…makes it more believable when sparks fly later.

Briefly I’ll touch on Rob’s feelings. His best friend died, leaving the girl of Rob’s dreams suddenly “free,” in the technical sense of the word only, since Mandy’s still totally caught up in her relationship with Jeff. Rob will likely feel a lot of contention within himself about moving in on Jeff’s girl. Perhaps you can have Rob flashback to a conversation between him and Jeff before the hunting excursion where Jeff asks Rob to take care of Mandy while he’s gone. Maybe Rob feels some obligation to Jeff to make sure Mandy’s okay, but he’s hesitant to fulfill his obligation because he’s been in love with her for so long, he’s scared of losing control with her or saying something to make her uncomfortable….something like that. There would likely be some initial guilt when he discloses his love for her, but then I think part of Rob’s character arc could be to realize Jeff would have wanted his two most favorite people in the world to be happy, and if that included being happy with each other, then Jeff would have approved. (Karen Kingsbury’s book is SO good to deal with this. Her book would be a good comparable for yours to include in a proposal.)

Well, hopefully this assessment gets you thinking. I had a lot of fun with this one, actually. I’d be glad to field any questions you have in the comment section, or with another email.

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

Q4U: Anyone care to share what you went through at the loss of a loved one?

Wordle: signature


Unknown said...

Wow, thank you, Jeannie! It looks like I have a bit of tweaking to do, but I didn't get too far off course. :)

And the ring thing, you suggested she moves it to a different finger when her friend gets her to take it off. Well, I have Mandy putting it on a necklace chain and wearing it around her neck. Does that work??? And, Mandy's girlfriend is incredibly persistent, by the way. She's pretty much forced Mandy to go on several blind dates since moving, and her ultimatum to Mandy is to either take the ring off or face another barrage of blind date, which Mandy loathes. (Mandy's girlfriend in a tad pushy, you could say.)

One point you made about Jeff's memory... Mandy makes a comment to Rob about how she's afraid of forgetting him, and Rob's response is essentially that Jeff's memory will live on through the both of them, that together, they won't let him be forgotten. This is a few days after Rob's admitted to her how he feels about her.

Thanks again! I have a few other projects I may send you some sketches on, too, and may take you up on the private e-mailing thing. A thumbnail sketch barely does my draft justice. :)

Warren Baldwin said...

This is the second review of yours I've read.
I don't write fiction but I've enjoyed your reviews because I enjoy reading fiction (and I'm learning something from blogs I read about how to write it) and b/c you reflect on true-to-life situations. This is a great service you are are rendering to writers and a great educational tool for the rest of us. Good job.

Kristen Torres-Toro said...

I agree with the two year rule. Unless there's a significance to the number seventeen, I'd make it a bit longer.

Eileen Astels Watson said...

Jeannie, you amaze me with how thorough and thought provoking, and helpful you are with these. RIght down to suggested readings. So great, and I have to agree Kingsburies series is amazing, I cried and cried through both of them. DId you know that's her daughter on the cover?

Jeannie Campbell, LMFT said...

wow! i love to log on to such encouraging comments! thanks liberty, warren and eileen! jeannie = smiling. :)

liberty - wearing it around her neck is a great alternative. i love what you've got rob saying to mandy about how jeff will live on between them. that's perfect (at least to me). :) and with mandy's girlfriend's personality being a pushy one, you can get away with her forcing mandy on the dates. mandy might even wonder out loud why she's friends with such a "uncompassionate" girl (even though the friend isn't...she's just pushy!) great job....and yes, by all means...take me up on my offer. i'm glad to help.

Unknown said...

This is great! I love your blog!

PatriciaW said...

Jeannie, this is fabulous. Lots of story ideas percolating because of your analysis.

Andrew Rosenberg said...

Not to rain on anyone's parade, but according to this agent's blog
The "Dead Fiance" meme has been getting overdone.
I'm not an agent so I have no idea.
I've known a couple people IRL in this situation and it's not much fun. The in-laws aren't actually in-laws, there's no death benefits, etc, so in some ways it's worse than losing a spouse, because you have no safety net.

Danyelle L. said...

Wow. Great information. :) Dealing with death is a hard thing.

Jill Kemerer said...

Terrific post. I love how you connect things for us. Very illuminating!

Jessica Nelson said...

Very interesting. This makes me think of the girl who was just murdered at Yale. They found her body on the day she was supposed to get married. I don't know how her fiance could handle that. *shudder*

Good luck with the story, Liberty. :-)

Unknown said...

@ Iapetus, fortunately, this is a subplot in my book, and not the full thrust of the story. (And quite honestly, I haven't really read much that falls into this category of a dead fiancé, so I was surprised by that post at the Rejectionist. Good info to know, though!)

Jeannie Campbell, LMFT said...

definitely thanks for sharing the post, iapetus999. liberty, glad it's a subplot. :)

James Roberts said...


Kristie always told me I had to wait two years before I could start dating again... then she picked out the girls for me to date. How weird is she?


Katie Ganshert said...

Great psychological fodder. My widow in my WIP has been a widow for 4 years. She's still having a difficult time letting go of her husband's memory. Is this still realistic?

Anonymous said...

After my frist fiance died I waited a year and his sister introduced me two my second fiance and he just passed away two months ago so i am now face with dealing with both it is so hard and i miss them both

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