I was a psychologist for 25 years, and I hope these ideas will be helpful to other writers. I have writer friends and other industry professionals ask me how I know all this stuff about my characters. Simple—I ask them. Yup—sit them down or follow them around and ask them all kinds of stuff. I promise you that, if you understand and know what has happened to your character in the past, it will make your story more believable and bring your characters to life both on the pages and to you.
- Keep asking “why?” Why did you do that?
- Where are you from, where did you grow up, do you have brothers and sisters? Don’t think of your story as a “need to know” thing if you want to go deeper. And don’t be afraid to ask the hard questions—What was the worst thing that ever happened to you? As you gather information about your characters, don’t forget to record it—either in a program such as Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake Method or in a Word document for character’s background.
- Ask your heroine who the hero reminds her of? For the hero—Who does the heroine remind him of?
- Who in the H/H’s love map is like each other? What is a love map? It is the people from your earliest years who loved you and whom you loved. In some psychology circles, it’s considered that these people in your love circles form the basic characteristics you will seek out, either consciously or subconsciously, in a future spouse. And these are not always good traits. This can be used with an antagonist as well. For instance, if there’s a push-pull towards the antagonist, part of this attraction and repulsion could stem from a strong similarity to a loved one from early on in the H/H’s life.
Many times novelists think that everything written down has to matter and go toward the word count. It doesn’t. If you choose to take notes during your interview, you can write it up as free-flowing dialogue with the character and save it, much like therapy notes.
Did your critique partners tell you something is backstory and you must cut it from the body of the manuscript? Don’t moan and groan—take that document a step further back in time. Interview the character about what else happened in that backstory, which led up to this current event. Why did they want to tell you that information in the first place? Your characters may surprise you when they explain why!
Many interview formats are used by psychologists and therapists. Go beyond the usual interview done by a newspaper journalist—probe deeper and ask the difficult questions of your characters. And if their parents are there—ask them too. They’ll tell you those generational secrets that will add another layer of complexity to your plot.
Carrie Fancett Pagels, Ph.D., worked for 25 years as a psychologist. Represented by Joyce Hart, Carrie writes historical romance set pre-early19thcentury.