A few years ago, I (Annette) toted a very specific book on a business trip. This novel had gotten a lot of buzz. People raved about how the story was so strong, so raw they couldn’t put it down. I have to admit, I was intrigued. Then, I picked it up, read just the first page, and I was hooked too. Check out this first sentence: I sneaked down to the boat that night to say this couldn’t happen anymore. See what I mean? Healing Stones is the title. The Sullivan Crisp novels are full of real-to-life characters whom Sully counsels. I was so impressed with Nancy Rue’s and Stephen Arterburn’s treatment of “characters in therapy,” I’ve asked Nancy to write a series for us this month on including that psychological thread in your fiction. She graciously agreed. No matter what you’re writing, I believe you’ll glean many nuggets from these posts. Read on.
The Psychological Thread, Part I
By Nancy Rue
I have to admit that when Steve Arterburn asked me to write a trilogy of books about a psychotherapist who works with women in dark places, I was intimidated. Not by Steve, and not by the issues of infidelity and betrayal and loss, but by the “psychological thing.” Getting inside the heads of both the hurting and the healer was enough of a challenge. Getting it “right” seemed comparable to scaling Half Dome. Not getting it right just wasn’t an option.
My first step was to enlist the aid (perhaps rescue is a better word) of a professional psychotherapist as my consultant. More on that in next week’s post. My second step was to realize that I have been delving into the psychology of my characters ever since my first teen novel in 1984. Every author who creates a work of fiction has to understand what makes the characters do what they do, or the story has no heart. Where we tend to choke is when we think we have to cover every aspect of every character’s personality—a thought that has landed many an unfinished manuscript in the recycle bin.
That doesn’t have to happen if we keep it simple. Here’s how I accomplish that. Let’s use Healing Stones, the first in the Sullivan Crisp trilogy, as an example.
I start with a word. Just one. It’s always a large word, an important word that’s been niggling at me for a while. For Healing Stones, that word was forgiveness.
Since volumes have been written about practically any word-concept we come up with, it has to be narrowed down, so I next ask a specific question about that word— the question I want to answer or at the very least deal with in the course of the story. In Healing Stones I asked:
“What do you do when you are repentant of grievous sin, but Christian forgiveness is not offered to you?” That not only focused Demitria’s story but allowed me to explore how she, with her distinct personality and history, would respond to being rejected by everyone whose forgiveness she asked for. There is freedom in limitation. It’s the difference between shopping for something to wear, and shopping for a great pair of gray pants.
The final step in this preparation is to discover the answer to that question. That involves spiritual research, which I’ll also delve into in next week’s post, and it’s worth doing because this answer determines your protagonist’s hidden need, the one that must be met in the end if yours is to be a satisfying story. Demitria needed to come to the place where she realized AND lived this answer: You have to accept God’s forgiveness and use it to redefine yourself. You may have to move on without the forgiveness of others; forgive them for that.
Those three steps create the psychological thread that establishes your protagonist’s story.
We could all write books based on the answer to the question I asked in Healing Stones and each of our characters would get there in a different way. How to know what that way is—I’ll talk about that next time. Meanwhile, relax. You don’t have to be Sullivan Crisp to figure this out!