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A therapist's guide to mining character

If you’ve been following me for a while, you might already know that I am an identical twin. One question I sometimes get asked is whether we are similar (yes) and whether she went into the book industry too (nope). I’ve always told people that she is the more left-brain twin—science and math-minded—while I am the more right-brained—art and creativity-minded.


But I don’t actually think that’s quite true.


You see, our chosen professions have more similarities than one might think.


My sister is a therapist, which means that she is constantly digging deep to find out what makes a person tick, build connection with them, and help them out of their tough situations.


As a writer, I constantly dig deep into my characters to find out what makes them tick, build the connection between my characters and readers, and I’m helping them through their tough situations.


Hmm…sounds pretty familiar.


Given this overlap, I sat down with her over the weekend and asked her about her process for getting to know—and helping—her clients. And what she told me can (and should!) be used by writers to understand and deepen characters.


Here are the top questions and methods she uses to quickly get to the heart of the matter and understand who a new client is:


1.     What were you like as a kid? Who raised you?

It all comes down to a person’s history. Or, as we call it in fiction, “backstory.” People are a product of their upbringings. Were they raised by two parents? One parent? No parents? A caregiver or extended family member? A blended household? Siblings? And what was that environment like? Was it difficult or warm and supportive?


As I’ve discussed before, so much of a story stems from everything that made your character who they are before the events of the story begin. Because, as we’ve seen, story is all about transformation. So before the inciting incident, who is your character? What wounds do they have that inhibit their growth?


2.     Who are the people in your life?

In addition to a person’s history, my sister asks who are the key players in her clients’ lives. Why? Because our present relationships and environment dictate much of our emotional state, choices, and behavior.


Who are the people in your characters’ lives? How do they challenge or support them on a day-to-day basis? Are they antagonists? Is there tension? Or are they surrounded by loving, caring close friends, families, and acquaintances?


3.     Why now? What’s going on?

For my sister, this question relates to why a person reaches out in seek of help. They are aware that something needs to change, but they don’t know how or where to begin, only that their live has reached a threshold.


Though your story may not be about therapy, it’s a good question to ask your characters to—or a question to ask that will frame your story and where it truly begins. Why now? Why is this day different? Why does this mark the beginning of your character’s transformation, and how?


4.     What are your hobbies and interests?

This is a question she asks when she wants to understand her clients on a personality-related basis, and to help remind them of who they are and what they enjoy and want from life. Because people aren’t only their traumas, of course. They are people with hopes and dreams, joy and fun. Those pieces are an equally important part of a person’s makeup.


For your characters, this is going to help make them into more fleshed out, real people, and asking this question could also help you set up the plot that is going to propel them through their transformation. So many stories—characters’ journeys—begin from this place of hobbies, interests, and goals (the external) before morphing into something deeper.


5.     Value Stacking Activity

(I love this one. I find it super interesting.) She has a deck of cards with printed values on them. Things like: adventure, honesty, loyalty, commitment, fame, health, safety, etc. She has her clients go through this deck, placing the cards in three piles: very important to me, important to me, and not important to me. Then once they go through the whole deck, she has them go through the “very important to me” stack again and try to narrow it down to the top five.


The really interesting piece, as she explained, is when two top values can conflict with one another. The example she cited was this: If a person values adventure, but also values safety, those two things can clash. And when they do, decision-making becomes more difficult.


So, if you do this value stacking exercise for your main characters (I found a deck you can print/cut out here), look for conflicting pairs that might put them in a situation that is going to challenge them to grow. Because a person, or character, is going to grow most when they are forced to make challenging decisions that force them out of their comfort zone.


When these five questions and activities are completed, it gives a pretty thorough at-a-glance understanding of who her client is, so that she can help them find a way to move forward on their growth path. And I believe that by asking these same questions of your characters, you can have a clearer picture of who they are and how to help them grow as well.


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