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Thursday, September 30, 2010

T3 - Types of Grief, Part 3

This week, I'm looking at Distorted grief and Disenfranchised grief. (If you missed Part One on Uncomplicated, Anticipatory and Unanticipated grief, you can find it here. If you missed Part Two on Conflicted and Chronic grief, access it here.)

Distorted grief is unusual. It's associated with great anger or guilt, usually toward the deceased or themselves. A bereaved person can develop a symptom that the deceased had prior to death, perhaps as a way to process with the loss and identify with the person they lost. Or a person with distorted grief could have an odd change in behavior suddenly and act hostile toward one specific person or commit self-destructive actions.

Disenfranchised grief is where I want to camp out for a while. A person experiencing this type of grief is grieving a loss that society doesn't recognize or that isn't really talked about publicly. How often does this happen in one of your books, you ask? It's actually astounding how common it is.

Examples: miscarriage, abortion, suicide, death from drug overdose or AIDS, death of an ex-spouse, death of a pet.

Think about it. When someone you know goes through a miscarriage, people in general don't make "as big a deal" about it as they would if the baby had died hours after being born or even been born stillborn. Somehow the loss is "less." The stigma connected to these losses almost veils the loss in obscurity.

Same with a suicide or drug overdose or AIDS-related death. Parents and friends who experience these sorts of losses usually feel stifled in their grief--unable to find appropriate outlets--because somehow, the actions of the deceased and society's view of those actions give the grievers some warped sense that their loss is somehow "less," invisible.

A good way to help someone grieving through a suicide in your book would be to somehow provide the survivor information regarding the death. Even if you think it's a bit gnarly, Clark & Goldney (1995) found that an opportunity to view the body or photographs of the body are often therapeutic interventions that have proven helpful. As always, support groups are tremendous sources of, well, support.

Don't get me started on the death of a pet. If you haven't seen Marley & Me, I suggest you do so. Spoiler alert notwithstanding, the death of a pet should be grieved! They are part of the family! I always counsel parents to hold a funeral and allow the children time to say final words/goodbyes. That loss is critical, and most children experience it at some point in their childhood. If this happens in one of your books, recognize the need to grieve and express that grief appropriately! Or be mean and don't, but allow the character to work through it later some other way.

Next week we'll cover the last remaining types of grief, Absent, Delayed, and Inhibited. See you then!

Q4U: What other examples of disenfranchised grief can you think of to add to my list?

You still have time to enter the giveaway for Trish Perry's 
new release, The Perfect Blend. Click HERE!

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Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Treatment Tuesday - Comicbook Superhero

This week's assessment comes from Mike. He wrote in with my first comicbook superhero to assess! Wild Card* is an unorthodox superhero. She became a vigilante as a result of a series of acts of domestic and sexual abuse against her. Another superhero saved her on one occasion, and she aspired to be like him. Instead of living like a victim, she decided to use her sexuality as a weapon to punish men like her attackers. She works as a street magician, wearing a distracting outfit while she plies her craft of excellent slight-of-hand. Being a vigilante and doing some good gives her meaning and the freedom of navigating the city at night is liberating. She carries herself with a devil-may-care facade and craves independence, yet latches onto strong, seemingly dependable types. Her father left at an early age, and she has had numerous rocky relationships with no real solid ground.

* Name has already been changed to protect the fictional.

Mike wants to know: Would it be plausible that a victim of sexual abuse would ever choose to use her sexuality as a weapon (combative of otherwise)? Or would it be that she would completely shut herself off to any sort of sexuality?

I love your description of her, Mike. She's clearly seeking approval and affection from men, probably a result of her absent father and issues with abandonment, yet she wants to appear devil-may-care. The reality is that she is anything but, but her alter ego of Wild Care lets her meet this need.

Alter egos/identities throughout fiction and film usually are the polar opposites of the person's "real" persona. Superman = strong, strapping, sure of himself; Clark Kent = mousy, stuttering, lacks self-confidence. Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde. Interesting how the "real" persona's perceived "weakness" is found in perfection in the alter identity, doing/saying what the real person never could.

It makes sense that Wild Card would use the fact that her sexuality brought her unwanted attention and trauma in order to bring that very outcome to people like her attackers. It's the best form of poetic justice, right?

To officially answer your question, a woman who has been abused as Wild Card has would likely react one of the two extremes you mentioned. I've seen abused women who absolutely would choose a world with no men over a world with them. They could go their entire lives and never see one, talk to one, or have one touch them. Shunning men comes as easily as breathing to these women.

Then I've seen women who came from a history of sexual abuse who almost seem to seek it out in the next partner and the next. Don't get me wrong; I'm not saying that they want to be abused, but that the abuse finds them. Perhaps that's all they know, all they know what to expect. Maybe they don't have higher standards and so settle for what they have known. Maybe they have incredibly low self-esteem and believe that's all they are worth.

So yes, a victim of abuse could definitely use the very assets that put them or found them in negative situations as a weapon. I've heard of women infected with STDs go on a rampage to infect others, using their feminine and sexual wiles to do this. While this is terrible and unethical (depending on the circumstances, I'd have to report this type of reckless behavior if it came out in therapy), they are using their sexuality as a weapon.

I imagined someone like Angelina Jolie or a vampire off of True Blood in this role. (I know, random.) Someone with a horrid past who maybe didn't overcome it so much as chose to shackle it to her future. Someone who perhaps feeds off the pain and bitterness that put her in such a broken place and allows it to fuel her anger or rage toward other would-be attackers and clean up the streets as a result.

The interesting conundrum would be that if Wild Card's "real" persona ever were to truly heal from her past wounds (like with, say, therapy) she wouldn't be nearly as effective in her role as Wild Card. It's what she most dislikes about her that becomes her salvation. Talk about effective tension-grabbing dissonance within a character!

Best of luck with this unorthodox superhero, Mike! Thanks for writing in, and as always, additional questions are welcome in the comment section.

You still have all week to enter the giveaway for Trish Perry's 
new release, The Perfect Blend. Click HERE!

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Monday, September 27, 2010

Trish Perry's The Perfect Blend Review and Giveaway!

Trish Perry's new novel, The Perfect Blend, was just that...the perfect blend of romance and lessons learned. It was a charming book, one that had me smiling or laughing out loud many times.

Here's a blurb from Trish's website:

Steph Vandergrift left everything to elope with Middleburg attorney Rick Manfred, who then stood her up at the altar. Too embarrassed to return home, Steph hopes to earn enough to get by until she can decide what to do next. Tea Shop owner Milly Jewel hires her and appreciates the extra help at the tea shop.

Also appreciative of Steph is Kendall James, one of the kindest, most eligible bachelors in the area. But by the time Steph feels able to consider dating again, her run-away fiance returns and tries to win her back. Steph is wary, but she and Rick always blended so well.

Christie Burnham, the frank-talking equestrian from whom Steph rents a room, and her frillier sister Liz become fast friends and confidantes to Steph. Between the two sisters, there isn't much any man is going to pull over on Middleburg's newest bachelorette and tea shop employee.

Reading this book made me remember just how much God is in the little things as well as the big. When we trust him to use our circumstances--even when painful--toward a good end, amazing things can happen!

Probably my favorite part of Trish's writing is her ability to let the reader know what's going on in the hero's head even when we stay in the heroine's point of view the entire time. She's a master at including body language to give hints. It's like reading a chick lit book in 3rd person. No one will be disappointed in not officially getting inside Kendall's head...the romance reader is totally satisfied.

Donning my therapist cap. A love interest--even one as dreamy as Kendall--might seem too soon for someone on the heels of being left at the altar. Steph's situation is so dire. She's been dumped, she's uprooted her life and burned lots of bridges at home and finds herself in a new place with no job and little money. But Trish does a great job of getting the reader to understand why at attraction to someone else is not only a possibility, but a reality.  Steph wrestles with this question, and that appeased my therapist urge to say, "Slow down!" :)

My favorite part, hands down, is when Steph "goes off the deep end" just a tad and does something to her former fiance's mother she later comes to regret. Essentially, she mini-dissociates...kind of like an out-of-body experience, to do this malicious deed to who would have been her mother-in-law. No, she's not crazy! Many times, we find ourselves on the backside of an event wondering, "Did I just do that? How did that happen?" It'll make you gasp...and then wish you could have the guts to do it to one of your enemies!

Steph basically grows up in this book. It's a coming of age tale, even though she's in her mid-twenties. Many readers will identify with difficult parents and trying to strike out on your own. It was delightful for me to read, and it will be delightful for one lucky winner, as well!

Leave your name and email in the comment section below to be entered in the giveaway that will run until October 1st. If you're already a follower, you get +2 entries. If you're a new follower, let me know and you'll get +3!

Q4U: Have any of you done something where you basically saw yourself acting and were powerless to stop what was in motion?

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Friday, September 24, 2010

And the Winner Is....

And the winner of Julie Lessman's 
A Hope Undaunted is.....

Jackie Smith!!

Jackie - I'll be emailing you to get your snail mail address to send to Julie, who will ship the book to you directly.

Thanks for entering everyone!

Don't miss my review and giveaway of Trish Perry's new release, The Perfect Blend, on Monday!

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Friday Free Association Chain

The word is........


First commenter free associates with the above word. Second commenter takes the first commenter's word and free associates, and so on.

Remember -- FIRST thing that comes to mind. GO!!

And the giveaway of Julie Lessman's new release, A Hope Undaunted, ends TODAY at 6 p.m. PST.  Click HERE if you haven't already entered to win this fabulous book!

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Thursday, September 23, 2010

T3 - Types of Grief, Part 2

We've looked into normal bereavement, anticipatory grief, and unanticipated grief in my Part 1 post here. This week we'll cover Conflicted, Chronic, and Distorted grief.

Conflicted grief is what happens when the relationship with the deceased person was ambivalent, meaning the survivor felt both love and hate. The bereaved might not feel a lot of pain initially, but later can feel a great deal of guilt and sadness over the hate part of their connection. Since grief can happen when an object is lost or a building from our past gets bulldozed, it's important for writers to allow for that grief within the pages of your manuscripts.

Before I got married, I went home and cleaned out my childhood room. I had about 12 bags of trash to throw out...but this trash was stuff I had thought enough of at the time to keep. But as someone grows up, things that meant something in the past might not mean as much as present. Still, I was conflicted about throwing that stuff away.

Even more so was when my husband and I visited the next year and my pastel pink and white room had been painted a different color! I wasn't sure how to feel. It was like a part of me had been painted over without my approval, yet I cognitively knew that my parents had a right to paint that room however they wanted, as it wasn't "mine" anymore.

I'm not sure if this fits, but I can only imagine Frodo from The Lord of the Rings had some conflicted grief about throwing that ring into the fire. On the one hand, he was saving humanity. On the other, he could have dominated humanity with it.

Chronic grief is what happens when the bereaved was totally dependent on the deceased person. They basically can't self-soothe on their own without the person, so they hang on to their grief, as it's the closest they can get to hanging on to the deceased. The loss could be as fresh to them after several years as it was the day it happened. Clearly this is maladaptive, and a professional would have to take into consideration the type of loss. An unanticipated loss will always be more traumatic on the survivors, for example, than an anticipated loss.

Chronic grief could also occur when a parent finds out they are going to have a disabled or developmentally delayed child. Parents can grieve over their child for years, thinking they will never have a "full life" or know certain aspects of life that we think will be denied them due to their condition.

Join me next week as I look Distorted grief and Disenfranchised guilt.

Q4U: Can you think of any cinematic of fictional examples of conflicted or chronic grief?

***Julie Lessman's new release, A Hope Undaunted
is still up for grabs by clicking here!***

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Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Technique Toolbox - Listening Cycle Mat

Listening Cycle Mat Technique

Credited to: Sherod Miller, Couple Communication

For use with: Mainly couples, although applicable to any two people in need of learning better communication skills

What you will need:

A couple (duh!)
Listening Cycle Communication Mat, either cloth or traced on paper

What you do:

I don't follow the exact directions from Couple Communication I. You can check it out on the website. First, I explain the Listening Cycle as it is displayed on the mat. (I actually put the mat down on the floor in front of them.) I explain that the person talking really has the easy job. It's the person listening who has their work cut out for them.

I usually ask the couple to pick a minor spat they had during the past week, as it's always nice to start out light. (If the couple is nervous or uneasy, then I'll sometimes have them discuss a big decision that needs to be made or something with a more positive spin.) Using the substance of that spat, I take the couple through the cycle below. 

The first step is to Attend. This is tracking, nodding, and listening while the other speaks. This is not trying to think of a response or a comeback or of how to refute the person speaking, because once your brain goes to that place, you are no longer attending to what the person is saying. You want to be mentally present when the other is talking.

Afterward the person listening then has to Acknowledge the other's experience. This is an important step, as the person talking wants to know that the listener understands and validates their experiences and feelings, even if the person listening doesn't agree with the talker. Oftentimes I have to jump in and mediate this skill for the listener, because defenses spring up and absolutely shut down 2-way communication. They listener might say, "Well, even though I never intended for you to take what I said that way, it sounds like you had a hard time with it." See how people will slip in their defensive statements? Tricky!

If the talker feels that the listener understands where they are coming from, then the listener is to Invite More Information. This is important, because sometimes the talker's brain gets jumbled in the midst of trying to communicate. When the listener gives them feedback by way of acknowledging them, little sparks will often go off in the talker's brain, and they'll think, "Oh, I should have said this or that too!" Inviting more information gives them a chance to do that.

Then the listener has the important task of Summarizing. This can be difficult, especially if the talker really went over a lot of caveats or chased a few rabbits (but the therapist should have helped with that). But the listener should be able to clearly condense the gist of what was said in a way that makes the talker feel heard and understood.

Once this has happened, and the feelings are all laid bare on the mat and between the couple, then--AND ONLY THEN--is the listener allowed to Ask a Question. The question has to be open-ended, not a yes/no question. The listener will also try to insert defensive comments during this time, and the therapist should interject and help them find alternatives.

The cycle circles back on itself as many times as needed to work through the issue.


Couples have a hard time fighting. Because of the natural defenses we have to protect ourselves and our interests, listening to someone who disagrees with something we've said or done can be difficult. When couples don't have the necessary listening skills to work through an argument, things never get completely ironed out. One person will never feel heard and always stomped on and the other won't realize they've even done it.

I like to get the couple to do this cycle for me several times in session, where I can monitor how they handle themselves and whether they have the skills down before assigning them homework to try using the cycle at home.

This technique is a favorite of mine, and I'm forever grateful that I got to be on the receiving end when my husband and I went through premarital counseling. (Thanks, Kathy!)

***Julie Lessman's new release, A Hope Undaunted
is still up for grabs by clicking here!***

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Tuesday, September 21, 2010

A Hope Undaunted Giveaway Extension!!

Since many of you were in transit from the American Christian Fiction Writer's conference during yesterday's give away of Julie Lessman's A Hope Undaunted, I've extended the giveaway for today as well! Just visit the post below (would give you the link, but I'm typing this on my iPhone in the airport as my plane to L.A. was rerouted back to Cincinatti and don't know how to do hyperlinks!). I'll pick a winner when I'm back at home using and notify you by email, so be sure to leave you email addy!

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Monday, September 20, 2010

A Hope Undaunted Book Review/Rave and GIVEAWAY!

Julie Lessman has done it again. I fell in love with her characters from the Daughters of Boston series, and reading the first book in her Winds of Change series felt like sitting down with old friends and catching up.

Julie's first lines are like a window to her books...a little glimpse of what's in store. Her first line for A Hope Undaunted is, "Now this is how love should be - nice and neat." I nearly sighed with contentment, as I knew that Katie's world was going to be anything but nice and easy!

Here's a brief sketch of the plot from Julie's website:

The 1920s are drawing to a close, and feisty Katie O'Connor is the epitome of the new woman--smart and sassy with goals for her future that include the perfect husband and a challenging career in law. Her boyfriend Jack fits all of her criteria for a husband--good-looking, well-connected, wealthy, and eating out of her hand. But when she is forced to spend the summer of 1929 with Cluny McGee, the bane of her childhood existence, Katie comes face to face with a choice. Will she follow her well-laid plans to marry Jack? Or will she fall for the man she swore to despise forever?

Julie has to be the Queen of Metaphor. Almost on every page there was some great metaphor to describe how the character was feeling or thinking, and Julie would usually draw in a part of the setting to ground the reader further in the scene. I just felt like I was watching the scenes unfold while I was there, experiencing them. Since this was the first book of Julie's I'd read since learning she uses this gigantic thesaurus book (that I purchased), I read keeping her preference in mind for finding words that match the mood of the scene. BOY! Julie does this SO WELL that I had to read a couple sentences out loud just to appreciate her genius.

But that's just my opinions as a well-read reader. In addition, I love looking at Julie's flawed characters from my perspective of a therapist, because they are all SO ripe with need for intervention! (And I think Julie would admit this straightaway.) From the very first scene, the reader gets to see two sides to Katie O'Connor: the spoiled, rich girl who gets what she wants and the sensitive, compassionate agent of change whose only desire is to help those less fortunate than her. Such a great dichotomy in a character, rife with tension, and so well written.

Then there is Luke, who grew up discounted on the streets as a homeless orphan, and has made it his mission in life to make a difference in the lives of other homeless children. He remembers well being called "riffraff" and "street trash" and lets those memories shape him in the present because he is unable to break free of them. Katie personifies everything he wasn't and didn't have, which makes interactions between the two of them page-turningly intense!

Both Katie and Luke have deep wounds from childhood that they have carried with them for years. For that reason, I think anyone reading A Hope Undaunted would resonate with the pain they feel, respectively. Too often, a stray word or errant phrase spoken in anger is the seed planted that later blooms into full-blown resentment or timidity or low self-esteem. Katie and Luke both wrestle with their past demons in different ways, some of which are healthy and others which are not.

One aspect of Julie's 4th book that I really liked was that she wandered into the very biblical realm of the role of the man in a relationship. Since the book was written around the 1920s and the flapper era, thus the Winds of Change series title, women were coming into their own and pushing the proverbial envelope with what society considered acceptable behavior. Katie's headstrong willfulness is a part of who she is, yet it doesn't edify God when she wears the pants. There is an expectation for the man to be the leader of the home, and I love how Julie exemplifies this biblical truth by the end of the book. (You'll just have to read it to find out which guy ends up being better for her! Julie sure does keep you guessing until the very end. Seriously.)

I will wait with bated breath for the next installment in Julie's series. *sigh* Can't come soon enough. Thanks, Julie, for such a wonderful read that swept me away for all of 2 days. Can you make the next one longer? :-)

Julie has been kind enough to agree to a giveaway to one lucky commenter! So leave a comment and let me know if you've read any of Julie's books and which of them is your favorite so far. If you haven't read Julie's books, then leave a comment and let me know what's wrong with you. :) HA! Just kidding!

For the rest of my readers who simply can't win this fabulous book, you can buy it at Amazon or Christian Book Distributors. And be sure to go by Julie's website to read up on her other books, A Passion Most Pure, A Passion Redeemed, and A Passion Denied.

A Hope Undaunted is available NOW at your favorite bookseller from Revell, a division of Baker Publishing Group.


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Friday, September 17, 2010

Friday Free Association Chain

The word is........


First commenter free associates with the above word. Second commenter takes the first commenter's word and free associates, and so on.

Remember -- FIRST thing that comes to mind. GO!!

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Thursday, September 16, 2010

T3 - Types of Grief, Part 1

There are two terms psychologists throw around to help conceptualize grief. The first is cathexis. A cathexis is the focusing of emotional energy and connection toward a person, thing, or idea. When there is death, disappointment, hurt, or anger, a person must go through decathexis, which is a gradual ebbing and eventual severing of that emotional connection.  It's a painful process, of course, and we colloquially call it "grief."

I'm starting this series on grief because in so many ways, a vast majority of people (and fictional characters) suffer from some form of this ailment. There are two types of grief: uncomplicated grief, which is considered "normal bereavement," and complicated grief, which has many subtypes.

Uncomplicated grief is what we find in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual under Bereavement. It can manifest like Major Depression, including extreme sadness and crying, insomnia, poor appetite, and weight loss. Major Depression would not diagnosed, though, unless the symptoms are still present after 2 months following the loss. The reason for this is that the death of a loved one would result in a grief response that is considered "expected and culturally sanctioned response to a particular event," so therefore grief in and of itself is not a mental disorder.

There are a few symptoms that, if present, would alert a therapist that the person had slipped into a Major Depressive episode. Those symptoms would be:
  1. Guilt about things other than something the survivor did or did not do at the time of the loved one's death
  2. Thoughts of death other than the survivor wishing they could have died with the deceased person
  3. A morbid preoccupation with worthlessnes
  4. Marked physical slowness (psychomotor retardation)
  5. Impairment of functioning for longer than one would expect
  6. Hallucinations other than the survivor thinking that (s)he hears the voice of or sees the image of the deceased person.
While therapists really only differentiate between bereavement and major depression for diagnostic purposes, bereavement can be uncomplicated in the technical sense, or fall more into one of the subtypes of complicated grief.

One aspect of complicated grief that makes a big difference is time.

I've been asked a few times from writers how long is long enough for a character to wait after a spouse has died before diving back into a romantic relationship. The answer to that question depends largely on which type of grief the survivor has gone through below.

Anticipatory grief is what people go through when they know in advance their loved one is going to die. They start the grieving process as soon as they learn of the terminal diagnosis, and for many, the actual death of the person is at the end of their grieving cycle.

Once they learn about the impending death time line, they automatically begin to think about life without that person, how they will grieve the person's passing on, how they need to prepare for the death, etc. Spouses/girlfriends of men serving overseas can sometimes begin grieving the loss of the presence of their partner, begin to envision their life without them should something happen to their husband overseas, and as they move through the grief process, actually begin that decathexis and move on with their lives....thus so many "Dear John" letters.

A blessing of anticipatory grief is the possibility of resolution of unresolved feelings between the person dying and those that will be left behind. Saying "I love you" to an estranged father, accepting forgiveness, and time to pass on previously unspoken blessings all aid in the grieving process.

A widow experiencing this type of grief is more likely to move on sooner after the actual passing of her husband. If she's been taking care of her spouse for 6 months to a year or more, the passing might be a relief of sorts because she no longer has to see a person she loves suffering and no longer has to bear the brunt of the burden/weight to take care of them.

Unanticipated grief is what hits after a very sudden, unexpected death. Car accidents, natural disasters, and murder all precede a grief process that extremely difficult, as the human mind can't grasp what has happened immediately. This type of grief overwhelms coping strategies and defense mechanisms and often leaves the person unable to function with day-to-day activities.

The full impact of the death might not be felt for years to come. It's simply a product of time and slowly going through several "firsts" until eventually they run out. for example, the survivor will be have to pay bills during the first week without their loved one. They'll have to survive the first anniversary or child's birthday without them present.

A widow going through this type of grief will likely not be psychologically ready to move one for at least two years. 2 years is a good rule of thumb, as anything less could be considered "tacky."The only exception to this might be older men. They seem to be more needy later on in life and will often remarry quickly, as they can't sustain life by themselves as they had grown codependent on their spouse.

Next week, we'll look at two more types of complicated grief and how you might utilize this information in your writing.

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Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Character Stereotypes: The Victim

Main Entry: vic•tim
Pronunciation: \ˈvik-təm\
Function: noun

1 : one that is acted on and usually adversely affected by a force or agent: as a (1) : one that is injured, destroyed, or sacrificed under any of various conditions (2) : one that is subjected to oppression, hardship, or mistreatment b : one that is tricked or duped
Think about everything that commonly finds a way into our fiction that falls under that definition: rape, molestation, neglect, robbery, mugging, kidnapping, being taken hostage, terrorist attack, torture, military combat, incarceration as a prisoner of war or in a concentration camp, natural/manmade disasters, severe automobile accidents, carjacking, being diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, or seeing a dead body/body parts. All of these events can be learned about, directly experienced, or indirectly witnessed.

I lifted the above list right out of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual under the description for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Not all “victims” have PTSD, but it’s a good disorder to know about in order to inflict our victimized characters with realistic, varying emotional hurdles.

Based on the four most descriptive clinical symptoms for PTSD, I’ll offer a couple overdone and underused scenarios for you to consider for your protagonists.

1) The character has to go through something awful—see above—and respond with intense fear, helplessness, or horror.

Clichéd: Usually fictional victims directly experience a horrible past event; they react with screaming, panic attacks, or “freezing” in place.

Creative: A person can have PTSD simply by seeing something happen to someone else. They can also learn about something awful over the phone and still experience PTSD. Not everyone experiences fear or horror the same way. What if your character laughed nervously when afraid or vomited when horrified?

Click here to read the rest of my article.

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Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Treatment Tuesday - Postpartum Psychosis

This week's ultra awesome character assessment (meaning, the character was awesome, not necessarily the assessment) is courtesy of Steena. Her character works at a car dealership as a receptionish. She's a tad overweight, cheerful, friendly, always optimistic, and bubbly. She doesn't have close friends, but many acquaintances. Everyone believes she lives for her two children, a boy and a girl, age 4 and 3.

What they don't know is that her children are dead. Their bodies reside in a beautiful wood chest in a padlocked room in her house. But in her mind, her children, who died within days of being born at home, are the age they would be in the present day. She drives a minivan with 2 car seats. She's got toys all over her house and yard, 2 bedrooms, and kiddie clothes galore. Her neighbors often compliment her on how quiet her children are - they never see or hear them. She's got large shrubs that shield her backyard from people looking in.

Steena wants to know: Would it be right that she is dealing with postpartum psychosis? She carries pictures of 2 beautiful children on her, takes sick days for them, talks about them all the time...and at home she carries around 2 beautiful dolls. Can you help me with her?

[rubs palms in delight] Looking forward to this one, Steena!

What you've described sounds like the extremely rare Postpartum Psychosis...but according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (4th edition, text revision), the actual technical name for that is Psychotic Disorder Not Otherwise Specified. She doesn't meet the more usual criteria for Brief Psychotic Disorder, postpartum onset, because of the time line her symptoms for 4 years. Nor does she fit with the Major Depression, postpartum onset, because of her cheery disposition and demeanor.

This disorder is very rare, usually considered to occur in about 1 of 1,000 births. The general mode of treatment would be antipsychotic medication administered until the symptoms subside, and then regular counseling. usually psychosis is accompanied by severely disorganized behavior, thought, and speech. Your gal doesn't have this (I assume), so one more reason to put her in the Not Otherwise Specified category.

My first question is why have one child 4 and the other 3? I assume you have the same medical problem that caused their death for each? Did she pretend the boy was alive during that first year? Or did she all of a sudden believe they were both alive after she lost the 2nd one? For reasons I go into further detail below, I'd consider twins. 

I'd want to know if she actually sees the dolls as her children and talks to them at home as if they were alive. The skeletal remains were surely placed there and venerated by her, so my first question to you is whether she actually knows they are dead. If she actually sees the dolls as her real children, believes they are sitting in the empty seats in her minivan, and converses with them and hears their responses, then she's having full-on hallucinations. She wouldn't fit for Schizophrenia, though, because she would need other symptoms to go along with the hallucinations, and she doesn't have them. She is described as a high-functioning person.

You mentioned you were thinking of having her married or a single mother. I think it would make for a more interesting backstory if you had her married. When couples experience the death of a child, either through a stillborn or SIDS or some other health problem, it causes a tremendous strain on the marriage. The mother's body has all these hormones present to enable her to connect with a baby who is not present. The grief can be overwhelming.

It was be more than feasible that the husband could have left her due to her ongoing psychosis regarding the lost child....but that would only really work for the first child, I guess. This is why I would consider twins and her losing them both at the same time. But regardless of how you figure it out, adding that layer of a failed marriage would make her psychosis that much more believable. Her way of handling his deflection could be to hang on to these children with a fierceness.

One of the best Law & Order: Criminal Intent episodes I ever watched that you are definitely going to want to check out was from Season 4. "In the Dark" features a woman who believes her child is still alive, but the child actually is still inside her womb as a "stone baby," also called a lithopedion. Such an interesting phenomena, and of course very sad, but pretty much what you are describing as far as belief your character's belief that the child is alive and well. Check it out at this link.

This character sounds fascinating. If I had a blog award for one the coolest character I've done, you'd get it. Hmm...that sounds like a good idea! Maybe I'll work on that. 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 charactertherapist (at) hotmail (dot) com.

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Monday, September 13, 2010

Technique Toolbox - Magic Art

Since we looked at an adult technique last week, we'll alternate with a children's technique this week.

Magic Art Technique

Credited to: Ruby Walker, 101 Favorite Play Therapy Techniques

For use with: Children, toward the very beginning of play therapy, to establish a positive feeling toward therapy and work with the therapist. Can be used individually or in a group.

What you will need:

construction paper in a wide array of colors
liquid tempera paint in a wide array of colors, in bottles with very small opening
glitter (optional)

What you do:

Allow the child to select whatever color paper (s)he chooses. Tell the child that they need to use at least 3 different colored paints to make a magic picture, making dots or lines or any figure they choose. The therapist will praise and reinforce the child's selection and usage of the paper/paints.

After the child has used as much/as little paint as they want, then you have them fold the long ends of the paper together (like a book). Say, "Magic picture, what will [insert child's name] draw today?" The child is then instructed to unfold the paper, creating a Rorschach inkblot-like picture.

Ask the child to describe the picture as a whole or to tell what (s)he sees in the picture. Ask, "What makes it look like a _________ to you?"


There are many! The child is free to choose whatever paper/paints/glitter (s)he wants and apply them however they want. Children who have control issues love the freedom to choose and lack of control over what the magic picture will look like. This technique boosts self-esteem as the children create a successful picture to keep or give away as a token to mom/dad/friend.

The selection of color and intensity with which the child engages in the art tells the therapist the emotional reactivity of the child at the time of creation. The projective part of the technique focuses on what the child says/free associates about the picture and his/her feelings as maybe being indicative of their inner thoughts/feelings.

One great way to use this technique is to explain divorce to a young child, to try to instill a sense of hope that something positive can come out of the situation. What Ruby Walker does is have the child start to paint a caterpillar with the paints, and then as they fold the paper, the caterpillar is in the cocoon and "emerges" as a butterfly when the paper is opened again. This characterizes how things can be different, yet better.

Hope this technique finds a way into some of your novels!

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Friday, September 10, 2010

Friday Free Association Chain

The word is........


First commenter free associates with the above word. Second commenter takes the first commenter's word and free associates, and so on.

Remember -- FIRST thing that comes to mind. GO!!

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Thursday, September 9, 2010

T3 - Stages of Change: Maintenance/Relapse

This stage can also go by a few other names in stand-alone novels. In romance, it could be the happily ever after. In an action-packed thriller or speculative, this could be the new status quo after the asteroid has hit, the bomb has been disarmed, or the country has been overtaken with ice. This is the feeling of calm after the bad guys are either jailed or killed.

Maintenance would cover whatever happens after the Action stage. (Which is preceded by Precontemplation, Contemplation, and Preparation, just in case you want to get the whole series). It could include parts of the denouement, but it could also be an implied ending that happens off the page in the reader's imagination.

For those of you who write series, you'll love this next part. In my way of thinking, part of Maintenance is what some call the 6th stage, that of Relapse. A lot of drug treatment centers will say, "Relapse is part of recovery." In a way, authors could say, "Relapse is part of serial writing."

Characters don't always make the huge leap or life change they need to by the end of the first book. Or they make the leap and then fall back into old behaviors in subsequent books, like in the Shopaholic series by Sophie Kinsella. The heroine manages to get in financial trouble time and time again, despite many resolutions and motivations to stop overspending.

The main difference between the additional Shopaholic books and the first one is that Rebecca Bloomwood doesn't go through the Precontemplation or Contemplation stages. She starts at the Preparation stage because she already knows she's got a problem and just has to get ready for Round Two with her component, compulsive shopping.

Then you have other series where the heroine/hero don't necessarily relapse, but just struggle to maintain. The rest of the Twilight series could arguably be Edward attempting to Maintain his decision to to keep Bella a part of his life in a very real, romantic way as his girlfriend. In New Moon when Jackson nearly kills Bella for a tiny paper cut, Edward regrets his decision to bring Bella into his inner circle. In Eclipse, Victoria targets Bella to kill because Edward had killed Victoria's mate, so turnabout is fair play. Bella wouldn't have been in that position if Edward has just walked away. Each book has Edward maintaining his decision until we finally all just say hurry-up-and-make-her-a-vampire-already by Breaking Dawn.

I hope that the Stages of Change have given you a different way of looking into the character's journey across the pages!

Join me next week as I start an in-depth series on GRIEF. If you have burning questions that you might want answered, drop them in the comment section. For example, I'll be addressing, What's too long for a widow to wait before remarrying in Christian Fiction?

See you tomorrow for Friday Free Association Chain!

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Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Character Stereotypes: The Geek

In most cinema examples of geeks, the guy wears glasses and a pocket protector, dabbles in all things electronic, and repels women like water off the back of a duck. A girl geek likely has mousy hair, braces, and enough social awkwardness to make you squirm in your seat as you watch.

Thanks to psychology and personality testing, we’ll look at a few character trait generalities that you might want to include in your book.

1) Reason Trumps Emotion

Most geeks are systematic thinkers. They analyze all problems logically, looking for previous rules or guidelines. Usually, they are intellectually gifted but socially lacking. The social arena is emotional and nonrational, therefore uncomfortable and more likely to be avoided. Since that’s the case, their social skills won’t be honed for lack of use, making them awkward and stunted emotionally.

To read the rest of my article, click here.

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Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Treatment Tuesday - Good Kid Gone AWOL

This week's assessment comes courtesy of Vickie. She's writing about Brad*, a 15-year-old boy who is smart, but timid. His father recently died in Afghanistan, leaving his mother a widow and Brad a big brother to his sister still in grade school. He's been bullied for months at school, and the book opens with Brad stabbing the bully, as he feels that taking matters into his own hands would be the manly things to do. However, a teacher steps in to stop him and he reflexively slices her too. Turns out he cut his favorite teacher who has tried to help him the most. Crushed by guilt and fear, Brad runs.

With the bully in critical condition and the police out looking for him, Billy tries to communicate with his teacher through anonymous letters with no return address. The letters are quotes from passages he's read in novels...clues to what he's thinking and how he sees life. The teacher sees these letters as a cry for help and works with the police to try to find him and bring him back home.

Vickie wants to know: What's realistic for Billy's mindset through all this? What will he try to communicate through his letters? What kind of encouragement does he most need?  What would convince him to come back? How would the court system deal with him? What options would he have once he turned himself in? If and when she sees him again, what would be the best way for his teacher to react/respond to him?

Brad is a troubled teen, obviously, as the "normal" teenage brain doesn't conclude stabbing someone is the best defense against a bully. I mean, the first thing that came to mind when I read that was Dexter (the serial killer who works for the Miami Police Department as a blood spatter analyst -- love the show!). Dexter's dad prevented him from going after a high school bully with a knife during one of the many flashbacks during the first season.

At the very least, Brad has an Adjustment Disorder with Disturbance of Conduct. The onset (start) would have been whenever the bully started bullying, because that would be the identified stressor. Brad's response of stabbing the bully is in marked excess to what would be expected of enduring the stressor of being bullied. Conduct Disorder, which is much more serious, can actually be ruled out due to Brad only having 2 of 3 needed criteria. Intermittent Explosive Disorder can also be ruled out, because it seems that this is the first and only time Brad has shown aggression.

If I had Brad in my office, I'd want to question him on his feelings about dad's death. he could be experiencing Bereavement, a clinical condition that can be the focus of treatment. It could be that he is experiencing "complicated bereavement" in the form of a delayed grief reaction. Since grief affects people in different ways, I'd want to explore if he thought he could be closer to his dad somehow by showing himself to be tougher or acting out of character in a more aggressive, I-can-take-care-of-myself-and-my-mom-and-sister kind of way. Adolescents are more likely to respond to grief with behaviors rather than emotions, and that might fit Brad's overreaction to the bullying to a "t."

On to the questions. As for Brad's mindset during his time on the run, if he's as smart as you say he is, my guess is that he's worried about the repercussions from stabbing the bully. He'd probably want to stick fairly close just to see if the bully dies in surgery or whatnot. He'd also want to make sure that the teacher's wound is physically taken care of, since she means so much to him. Since I don't know how he's handling his father's death, this may or may not factor in.

What would he communicate through the letters? This stumps me! I have no idea. This would depend on how close he and the teacher were, how much he trusted her not to reveal certain things to the police, whether he had ready access to books to pilfer these quotes from, or if he has certain sections memorized? And why would he communicate this way? It's like a code. (Just asking here, because I love the idea....but you'd need a solid reason. Would the teacher know the code? Like, would she recognize the book he's quoting from and realize that, say, it's location in the library would say something about where Brad is? Theorizing, here. And if that's the case, wouldn't she need to be his librarian or something?) There are just a lot of ways to go here!

As for encouragement, I'd think he'd want to know that no matter what happens to him legally and academically, he'd not be thought of less by this teacher who has been the only one to help him through his struggles. I imagine the guilt is overwhelming that he hurt her and betrayed her by not discussing things about this bully in more depth, as she probably had no idea he was about to go all Dexter on her. He's want to know that she forgave him, and only wants him to be safe...not running.

As to what would convince him to come back...perhaps if he felt he was needed, somehow? To play on the fact that his mother and sister really need him to come home, as they are having a terrible reaction to him being gone so soon after learning about his father's death? That would really lay it on thick in the guilt department, though, and he's already feeling a lot of that. It would depend on how much he felt like his presence at home was some sort of balm to his mother and sister in helping them get through the pain of his father's loss. You'd know if this was a big enough motivator for him to return, not me.

I have no idea how the courts would handle'd have to ask a lawyer like Cara Putnam or Rick Aker. I've personally emailed them both various questions and gotten great feedback. I already mentioned above what would happen to him as far as school goes. My dad was an administrator at a high school, and I'm very confident that Brad would get expelled. I can't imagine that he'd only be suspended. My guess is that juvenile hall might come in there somewhere. You'll have ot research this further, as I can't be of much help.

And finally, how could the teacher respond to him if and when she sees him upon his return? She doesn't need to respond to him timidly, as if scared he might break out a knife and slice her again. Any trepidation on her part would set poor Brad back months. Open arms, Vickie. She'd need open arms. I tell this to parents whose children behave in awful ways: Your children might be disturbed, or might have made a terrible life decision that they will feel repercussions from for the rest of their life, but they are still your children. I guess the same could apply with a teacher/student relationship.

That's all I've got, Vickie.  I hope it helps out with your characterization. Thanks for writing in. Any additional questions for this character are welcomed below.

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 charactertherapist (at) hotmail (dot) com.

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Friday, September 3, 2010

Friday Free Association Chain

The word is........


First commenter free associates with the above word. Second commenter takes the first commenter's word and free associates, and so on.

Remember -- FIRST thing that comes to mind. GO!!

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