Before I start, I want to draw your attention to a new box on the right, a link to the pottery website of my husband’s sister Betsy. A click will be rewarded by the sight of a profusion of beautiful pots, and, while you’re admiring, you might spare a compliment for the site itself, designed and executed by Betsy’s big brother, my husband, who also created my website and designed the look of this very blog.
On to the post. On March 6, 2012, Jenna Royal wrote, Well, I've been really interested in all the psychological parts of books lately, and how they affect the characters and the reader. I'm interested in how the characters' pasts would affect them, and how a series of events might cause them to behave or think in one way or another. From a reader’s standpoint, I'm interested in how you can use a book to convey a deeper message or idea - basically, how you can reach a reader on a deeper level. I love books that trigger a passionate reaction, either a question or a feeling or a resolution. Books that inspire, or heal, or encourage, or support. It's so interesting to me. I want to know if you have any thoughts on the subject, or any experience - it's something I want to know more about.
You’ve sent me back to memories of my adolescent reading. Two books about characters in mental institutions meant a lot to me then, David and Lisa by Theodore Isaac Rubin, and I Never Promised You a Rose Garden by Joanne Greenberg. I haven’t read either in decades. Both were redemptive. I suspect David and Lisa would feel dated today, and I Never Promised You a Rose Garden would probably stand up to the test of time. Both, by their subject matter, are psychological studies. I’m guessing they’re high school level and up, but they may be okay for middle school (check with a librarian).
I read Only Children by Rafael Yglesias as an adult, also decades ago. It’s a novel that follows two couples and the way each cares for their first child in its infancy and early childhood. The book is kind of a morality child-rearing tale, and by the end the message is clear, but it’s a great, interesting read, also high school and above.
More recently I read Miri, Who Charms by Joanne Greenberg again, which was published in 2009. High school and up again. This novel takes the reader through the childhood of two friends and into the raising of the daughter of one of them, a very troubling and compelling story. In terms of craft, it’s also a fascinating example of successful telling rather than showing. Of course there’s some showing, but on balance telling predominates, and the technique succeeds. (Take that, all you dogmatic writing instructors, who drum, drum, drum, Show! Show! Show! Don’t tell!)
My historical novel Dave at Night is loosely based on my father’s childhood. You may already know that my father was an orphan who grew up in the Hebrew Orphan Asylum from the time he was six to sixteen. He said very little about it, and I think the experience was sad and bad, but my father was the most joyous person I’ve ever known. I wrote Dave at Night after he died, in part at least to explain his happiness, so it is a psychological exploration book for me. The answer I came to in the course of the writing is that friendship got him through, but I suspect that he was also graced with natural resilience.
How to go about a psychological exploration in a story?
Naturally, if the setting is a mental institution, the task is easier. The characters see a therapist and the reader reads the proceedings, including the childhood traumas and the family dynamics. The difficulty in this kind of story, in my opinion, is different from what we usually encounter. Ordinarily, we wonder why. In a mental institution we may wonder how. It’s why is Gerald so mean to his best friend versus how does he act to his best friend? Or, possibly more likely, why does Gerald pull the wings off butterflies versus how is Gerald going to behave with them from now on, after facing the memory of being teased unmercifully when he wore his Halloween caterpillar costume at age seven? A mental institution is like a laboratory and we wonder how our character will be afterward in real life.
Other than a therapy situation, we can show and tell the events as they occur in our main character's life, leading up to the story crisis. I did this in Ella Enchanted. The reader meets Ella at her birth and then reads important childhood moments until the story advances to the time when most of the action takes place. This approach is linear and straightforward.
We can use flashbacks to provide the backstory. I like flashbacks, which give a layered feel to a story. The difficulty is that they interrupt the forward action. When we come out of them it’s sort of like emerging into daylight from a dark movie theater.
Character history doesn’t explain everything or even nearly everything. Not all the children who grew up in the Hebrew Orphan Asylum came out joyous. The sleeper in the bed next to my father’s may have become a sad adult or a nervous one. So another approach is to invent complicated characters without delving into their pasts. Gerald can be mean today, and the Halloween hazing may never have happened. I loved the books I mentioned above, the ones that did take a psychological approach, but that’s not the only possibility, and there are dangers in being too overtly psychological. We can descend into psychobabble and even stereotyping, as in, Gerald is cruel to butterflies because his father beat him or his parents divorced or they didn’t spend enough time with him, and our own prejudices about proper upbringing can roar into overdrive, which does not make for subtle writing or interesting reading.
I talked to my friend Joan about Jenna Royal’s question. Her mind flew to a writer’s understanding of what a character is likely to do and what he would never do. For example, Gerald finds a wallet on the sidewalk. What will he do? We may not know at the start of writing his story, but if the wallet shows up in the middle, we are likely to know at the very least what he absolutely would not do. That knowledge comes about because Gerald has some depth by now. We can guess what he’s likely to think. There’s psychology in that with or without his backstory.
I’d also like to distinguish between psychological factors and a character’s emotional life. The first is explanatory, and may be fascinating; the second is what he experiences and feels and what the reader experiences and feels through him. If there’s a range, if Gerald responds unexpectedly - maybe he weeps during funny movies and laughs during serious ones and tenderly presses flowers in the dictionary, a different flower for each letter, and doesn’t want the radio to be played when he’s in the car - then he begins to come to life.
Here are prompts:
∙ Write a therapy session between a psychiatrist and as many of these as you like: Moriarty, Sherlock Holmes, the evil queen in “Snow White,” Helen of Troy, Cupid, Napoleon, Typhoid Mary, anyone else you choose from literature or history.
∙ Write a childhood scene for one of the above.
∙ Write the scene in which Gerald finds a wallet on the street.
∙ Have one of the characters above find a wallet or something precious.
Have fun, and save what you write!