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Psych/Writing Q & A: Meet the Parents

Want to use psychology to give your story authenticity? I'm going to start answering reader psychology/writing questions on the blog. If you have a question, feel free to send it to me using the Q&A form on

Disclaimer: The information on this site is provided as general educational information to readers and should be not be understood as specific advice for any particular individual(s). People who are seeking help for "real-life" problems are advised to consult a local mental health professional.


How might my character react to the idea of meeting his partner's parents for the first time and how might his therapist and partner help him become more comfortable?

My character's mom died when he was young and his father was an alcoholic. Stress at work, stress with dealing with a new living situation, and poor communication skills have led to depression. He is now on anti-depressants and meeting with a counselor. He, his partner, and his counselor are working on improving his trust and communication in their relationship. He is going to meet his partner’s parents (who accept that he is gay and are looking forward to meeting my character) for the first time, and he’s worried about the impression he will make! He doesn't know how to act around a "normal" family.



My first thought is -- how is he around people in general? If he's generally pretty good with people, the goal is going to be to improve his confidence and feelings of self-efficacy (ability to handle the challenge) rather than to teach him how to communicate. But you mentioned poor communication skills, so the therapist might talk explicitly about things like eye contact, taking turns talking, that kind of thing. (If the communication skills issues aren't that extreme, then they might just talk about what your character is worried about and how someone might "normally" deal with those situations.)

One way to help someone improve their communication skills, and/or to deal with new situations where you're not sure what to do is to role-play in therapy. So the therapist and the client "try out" different responses to the situation. What to do if x happens, and so forth. It's a way to practice.

It might also be helpful to have the partner sit in on a session so the two of them can figure out (with the help of the therapist) ways to handle awkward moments, ways in which the partner might best support your character. For example, if the character were to get overwhelmed, maybe he and his partner can have a plan to go grab lunch or walk around the mall, just the two of them, to get a little break. The character, his partner, and the therapist can also talk about practical things that can be nerve wracking—for example, what should your character should call his partner's parents (Mom and Dad? John and Jane? Mr. and Mrs.?)

If your character were my client, I would also tell him that it's perfectly normal to be nervous about meeting your partner's parents for the first time. (That might seem obvious, but sometimes just being told that a reaction is normal can make a huge difference to someone.) I would also tell him that it's okay for him to say something like "I'm a little nervous about meeting you because I want to make a good impression." Rather than making you look foolish, that kind of thing just makes you more human, and the parents will probably be feeling some of the same feelings.

Likeable vs Intriguing Characters

On the blog chain this round, Michelle chose the topic, and Kate will follow me. Michelle asked

In your reading and writing, which do you prefer – a main character that is intriguing, or one that is likeable? Who are the characters that you love the most? And who are the ones that you love to hate?

This is easy.  Give me intriguing.

As a general rule, I adore villains, and I adore antiheroes.  The very same characters many people find unlikeable.

Unless they're one-dimensional and cliched, of course.  And one-dimensional and cliched are far too common.  You know these villains--they're brilliant but twisted and completely unsympathetic. And each one could stand in for the next. Dean Koontz kicks these guys out at an impressive rate; so do most other thriller writers.  (Dan Brown's albino monk, anyone?)  Don't get me wrong, they can carry the story forward, but they're just filler.  They're not intriguing.

No, I like multidimensional villains--the kind that make you squirm because you can totally see why they're doing what they're doing.  Berg Katse, the villain in an old anime called Gatchaman, is one of my all-time favorite villains.  Sometimes he's smooth, sometimes he's savage, and sometimes he's played for laughs, but he's always interesting.  And he just gets more interesting as you learn more about him, until the quest to understand him is actually pulling the entire show along.

I also like heroes who have a dark side. Who make awful mistakes, have ugly urges, and who might, under the right circumstances, be the villains themselves. 

I'm in love with Supernatural, which definitely fits that bill. The show is about a pair of brothers who hunt supernatural monsters.  They kill off ghouls, save people from vampires, lay uneasy spirits to rest, and all around kick ass.  Both of the brothers are heroic, but they also have dark sides. Serious dark sides.  From time to time one or the other comes dangerously close to being as wicked as the monsters they hunt.  That always leaves the brother still on the straight and narrow with an awful predicament.  What do you do when the person you love most is also your worst enemy?  (If it's Supernatural, you try to save him, even if that means killing him.  At least he'll die human...  I find that kind of dilemma fascinating.)

In an ideal story, for me, both the villains and the heroes are charismatic, intriguing, and compelling. They're like real people, with good and bad sides.  You don't have to love my characters, but if they keep you reading, I've done a good job. Me...I usually love them all -- even the ones my readers love to hate!

So dear would you answer the question?

Telling Fresh Stories: Lots of Advice!

Two weeks ago I threw myself on the mercy of both my readers and my blog chain buddies to tell how they keep from telling the same story over and over. I asked them what their tips and tricks were for finding fresh ideas and adding new twists to your work.

And here is a summary of what they told me! (And by all means, if YOU have more advice for me, please use the comments to share them with me!)

Eric suggested freewriting.

Windsong lets the characters write the story.

Scott suggested trying different perspectives. After all, Gregory Maguire completely retold classics like The Wizard of Oz and Cinderella just by choosing an uncommon point of view.

Kate reminded me that we have to stay openminded, and included this great quote by CS Lewis: "Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it."

Mary relies on life experiences and personal questions to guide her, and she isn't afraid to put old ideas together in new ways.

Kat likes to create unique characters with lots of quirks. Their perspectives give the story a fresh feel.

Michelle agreed, arguing that different character reactions can make a big difference in where the story goes. (Michelle also likes to write in different time periods -- zeitgeist can make all the difference!)

Christine emphasized the importance of character voice -- noting that characters should sound different from the author if they are to be authentic. Like Windsong, she believes the characters will write the story if they're just given the chance. Like Michelangelo, who believed the sculpture already lie within the stone, Christine argues that we must just let the story happen.

Elana listens to her characters, switches up her writing style, and writes with the intent to delete. The latter lets her try new things out without fear of a bad experiment ruining the story -- she can always delete it!

Annie shared this quote from Melanie Bishop: "Only you have access to the specific details of your life and memory, and the specifics about what you observe about others on any given day." In other words, Annie says, it's all about how your perspective influences your story and makes it fresh. She also reminded me that we need to practice fresh approaches, just like we practice with anything else!

Like Michelle, Sandra uses different settings -- after all, Victorian England is very different from an alternate universe! She also repeated the advice that seems to be the common thread throughout the chain -- look through the character's eyes and use their unique voices and perspectives!

Check Out This Month's The Writer Magazine!

In the mail today I got two copies of The Writer magazine -- because I wrote one of the articles in it!  The article is called Get Your Psych Right - A psychologist describes the six most common ways writers get it wrong about her field

The article is organized into 6 myths, and under each one is the origin of the myth, ways that myth appears in fiction, and tips to help you get it right in your stories!

You can find The Writer in any bookstore; the article is in the June 2009 issue.

I've written about half the book's chapters, and it's time for me to start editing them, since I have a number of Quality Assurance (QA) readers they need to go through (*wink*) after I think I have them polished.  Said QA readers will insure not only that what I've written is interesting, but that it makes sense, even if you don't have a degree in psychology!

The chapter I'm editing right now talks about the different approaches to doing therapy.  Therapists actually ask lots of different questions besides "And how do you feel about that?"  Which questions, exactly, depend on which approach the therapist is using.  Also, certain types of therapy are useful for certain types of problems.  So the chapter explains what your fictional therapist should do if you need the therapy session to do this vs. that for your story.  For example, if you need your character to make a connection between something that happened in his childhood and something that's going on now, you need a different kind of therapy than if your character needs to come to terms with his terminal illness.  And don't worry, the chapter explains which therapy for which situation, and why.  And it doesn't stop with telling you what kind of therapy -- it explains what that therapy really looks like and, of course, provides you with the types of questions the therapist would ask so you can make that therapy look authentic.


ToM has gone back to my faithful friends, who are even now wondering how in hell I could possibly add 5000 - 10000 words to the manuscript to make it long enough.  If only the techniques that worked during NaNoWriMo worked for almost-complete manuscripts!

I know how to make it long enough.  Rewrite the whole damn thing in third person, rather than first.  See, when I rewrote it in first, I removed two characters' viewpoints. 

Wait, you think.  If there were three viewpoints, how was it not third person before?

Um...have you ever read Faulker's As I Lay Dying?  It's this book, see, and each chapter is from a different person's viewpoint.  If I remember right, each chapter is in first person.  The problem when I did it, of course, is that I'm not Faulkner.

And it would be really, really a lot of work to switch it over to third person.  First, there's been so much editing since it switched over into first, I'd be semi-starting over if I switched into third person.  Because all of these polished and critted scenes that are in Audrey's POV (Character 1) would need to be handed back to Christian (Character 2) and Jamie (Character 3).  And I'm going to be frank with you.  I'm tired of rewriting this thing from scratch.  I might retire it before I could put myself (and my faithful readers) through another enormous overhaul.

So everybody...think good thoughts in Elana's direction.  She's trying real hard to come up with those extra words for me for the first-person POV version.

Since Shadowwalker is similarly impaired in its early stages, I'm working back over it and fleshing it out.  If the writing gods are good to me, this will require plenty of good words.

Want more information on Work In Progress Wednesdays?  Kate will tell you all about it.

Avoiding Ad Nauseum: Telling Fresh Stories

This time I am choosing the topic for the blog chain.  Be sure to check out Kate's answer after mine!
My question is:
How do you keep from telling the same story over and over? What are your tips and tricks for finding fresh ideas and adding new twists to your work?

I'm looking forward to the answers to this question, because I struggle a lot with not repeating myself.  And I do see themes that I repeat over and over, in spite of myself.  I'm fascinated by writers like Dean Koontz, who's written dozens of books and still (usually) manages to keep from rehashing the same old stuff.
At this point, if I catch myself doing something I did before, I erase, back up, and try to think of something entirely different.  That works best when I remind myself what makes the characters involved unique, and then try to find a reaction that is unique to those characters.  So maybe two characters face a similar conflict -- if they're truly unique characters, they're going to have different reactions, right?
I do have trouble not repeating larger themes and plot points.  For some bizarre reason, I really like apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic stuff, so The World As We Know It is always ending in my stories.  I also like magic tossed in on top of The World As We Know It.  Problem is, I get kind of attached to my vision of societal breakdown, or my rules about how magic works, and it can be hard to come up with new ideas about how to recreate those things in different stories.
Honestly, though, the thing I do most often to keep from rewriting the same story over and over is think "I already did that" and censor myself, which keeps me from writing new material.  And that is why I need some tips and tricks from the rest of the blog chain!

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