What Does Psychology Have to do With Fiction?

by Jacqueline Sheehan

An understanding of human psychology is perhaps the best preparation for writing fiction. What would motivate a character to dispose of her husband’s ashes in a bizarre manner, for instance? Why would your protagonist become diabolically obsessed with a dog? Why would an intelligent and athletic teenaged girl decide that food must be earned by acts of deprivation and sacrifice?

Having a background in psychology has definitely helped me decipher the answers to these kinds of questions. I have been a psychologist since 1989, and in my novels, I make full use of my clinical background to give depth and texture to my characters and to show the reader what motivates them to do the things they do.   

The characters in my novel, Lost and Found, presented me, over time, with their psychological struggles much as patients do when they first come to therapy. My main character in Lost & Found, for example, is a psychologist who is shattered to the core when her young husband dies suddenly, and is shocked that she can’t regain her footing. All her psychological knowledge seems to betray her when she applies timeworn approaches to dealing with grief… Another character in that book, an older woman with wild white hair, appeared in a bookstore on the island and I felt instinctively that she had synesthesia–a neurological condition I had just learned of where multiple senses fire at once, so that numbers have colors and sounds have smells. Immediately, I knew that this was perfect for Tess.  And, most surprisingly, a dog appeared in that novel who turned out to be a better therapist than anyone else!

But even if you’re not a psychologist, you can apply a basic understanding of human behavior to creating highly nuanced, believable, and complex fictional characters. The Psychology of Strong Characters is one of my favorite workshops to teach, because we get to spend time investigating what motivates our characters, peeling away layers of their personality to discover the hidden wounds or treasures that cause them to behave as they do.  This understanding of human trauma, resiliency, recovery and motivation has been essential to my writing career, and I’m excited to share it with you on March 26th. Hope to see you there!

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