My past work as a counselor has given me unique tools to approach character development. I hope to share how you can put your characters on the couch and examine their motivations in order to make their future actions more believable for your readers. Plus- didn’t everyone want to be Freud at some point?

Many books on writing encourage writers to list all kinds of details about their characters: family history, friends, hobbies, work history, favorite color, food and pets. The idea is that knowing these details help you flesh out your character and make them more believable. What I would suggest is that you take this exercise a step further and do a clinical interview of your character, to not only collect the information, but to begin to understand how these details shape the decisions your character makes through out your book.

When a counselor starts working with a new client they collect a range of information. Below is a list of the types of questions a counselor might ask and what it might tell you about your client/character.

Question

What you might be able to tell from this information

Health and Medical Background

  • Is this person in good health? If not- how do they cope with pain, limitations etc?
  • Are they taking any medications that might have side effects or impact their behavior?
  • If they have an injury/disability how does it impact them- are there things they can’t do? Do differently?

Family History

  • Who is their current family?
  • Who is in their family of origin?
  • How would they describe their family?
  • Any family trauma?
  • What is their relationship with their family?
  • How does their family communicate? Honestly? Through passive aggressive comments?
  • What is their support structure like?
  • Did they grow up with religion? Do they still practice?

Emotional Functioning

  • How would they describe their mood?
  • How would others around them describe their mood?
  • What things stress them out?
  • How do they deal with stress? Anger?
  • What coping strategies do they use when they feel overwhelmed?
  • What is their past emotional history? Any past depression? Suicide attempts?

Educational/Work History

  • How much schooling do they have?
  • How did they do in school?
  • What subjects did they like/dislike?
  • What is their work history (consider making a resume)
  • Have they ever been fired? Quit? Promoted?
  • Why did they choose certain jobs?
  • What parts of their job did they enjoy? Dislike? Why?
  • How much did they earn?

Current Living Situation

  • Where do they live?
  • How long have they lived there- how stable is their housing? Rental? Own?
  • What hobbies do they enjoy? How did they get interested in them?
  • How do they describe their living environment? Imagine you do a home visit- does their living situation match what you expected?
  • Do they have any habits? Are they willing to live with them? If they say they want to change them (ie quit smoking) what is keeping them from doing it?

As your character’s counsellor, once you have this background information you can explore how their past will affect their future. Don’t allow your character to give you a flip response. A professor once told me: “Ask every question several times in different ways - someone’s first answer may not be the most “honest” answer.” As their therapist you might ask yourself some of the following as you work on your manuscript:

  • What does the character see as the main problem? It may not be what you as the author think of as the main problem.
  • What do they see as the cause of the problem? Potential solutions?
  • What does the character say they want? Do their actions match with what they say they want? If not- why not?
  • What coping strategies have they learned in the past from family and past experiences? Most people repeat the strategies they’ve used in the past- even if these haven’t worked before.
  • What people do they have in their lives? How do these people influence your character’s decisions and choices?
  • If you want your character to behave differently as they move through their arc- what motivates that change? What is the tipping point that makes them see the world in a new way?

Taking time to do a clinical interview and acting as their counsellor might just give you the insight you need to take your character development to the next level.