QueryTracker Blog

Helping Authors Find Literary Agents

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Using Personal Issues to Enhance Fiction

This is a test of your creative imagination...
There is a projective psychological test called the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT). It’s not the most empirical thing in the world, as the client essentially tells a subjective story about each of a series of (rather dated) black-and-white scenes. Therapist and client then look for recurring themes in the stories, sometimes providing surprising insight into client concerns.

When we write stories of our own, in many ways we are participating in a grand version of the TAT, exorcising relevant life themes onto the page, sometimes over and over. It’s not unusual for a particular writer’s stories to have common elements, characters, themes, and settings.

So how, someone once asked me, how do we avoid projecting our own concerns, our own personal narratives, into our stories?

Honestly, I’m not sure we should try to avoid doing so.  

From a psychological standpoint, there is often something healing in writing, and if you are continually finding the same theme on your page, that repetition compulsion (i.e. a repetitive re-enactment of a particular set of circumstances) may indicate something you (and your characters) need to work through before you’re going to be able to move on to something new. One of the beautiful things about storytelling is that you can play out various outcomes. Don’t be afraid to push your characters into uncomfortable situations. Let them wrestle with the issue or issues in their own ways. See what happens.

Another argument for allowing the same theme to recur is that it’s clearly something that has a lot of energy in your psyche. If you let it, that energy will come through and engage your readers. Especially if you’re willing to push your characters—and yourself—into literary places that are not familiar, comfortable, or safe.
Your main character is afraid of failing in school and not measuring up? Take a deep breath and let him fail. Let all those awful things that he’s (you’re) afraid of happen. How will he overcome those problems? How will those struggles affect him as a person?  

If the theme recurs later, push both your characters and yourself even harder, into even darker, scarier places. Archetypal psychology, often used in storytelling, suggests that each hero must eventually confront his greatest fears if he is to overcome them. Some of your characters may fail or even break under such pressure; they may even become villains as a result. Don’t be afraid to explore those possibilities; you may find some of your best villains down those dark passages.  But also remember that the most exciting plots and the strongest heroes are also born of such trials. It may be a rocky road, but your hero will prevail and overcome…and so will you.

Carolyn Kaufman, PsyD's book, THE WRITER'S GUIDE TO PSYCHOLOGY: How to Write Accurately About Psychological Disorders, Clinical Treatment, and Human Behavior helps writers avoid common misconceptions and inaccuracies and "get the psych right" in their stories. You can learn more about The Writer's Guide to Psychology, check out Dr. K's blog on Psychology Today, or follow her on Facebook or Google+


Unknown said...

In grad school, I was the teaching assistant for the Rorschach (another well-known projective test), and have hundreds of TAT's and Rorschach's. I found them to be way more fascinating than the standardized tests (e.g. MMPI), because people couldn't "fake" it the way they could other tests. Their true issues always leaked out, and always reflected what was going on internally. My hubby and I even gave it to each other as part of an assessment class. It highlights that your perception of the world really does change based on your own processes. Great post!

Unknown said...

That should be "gave" hundreds of TAT's. The would be weird if I had hundreds of them-lol.

Claude Forthomme said...

Excellent post, Carolyn, thanks for sharing the information!

Psychological insights into the life of writers help and illuminate our (peculiar)writer problems. And this in particular encourages us not to be afraid of pursuing our fixed ideas (at least it's encouraging me...)

Just one point more related to the creative writing life: I find that writing short stories is the best way to exorcize ghosts and push them in a corner. Kill your characters, turn them into villains! Very therapeutic and a huge relief for the author! Also very useful: because if you do this sort of thing in a novel, it can be terribly time consuming before you reach that freedom from fixations! Whereas in a short story, it's done in a thousand words, maybe two thousand but certainly not 60 to 80,000! Time (and energy) saved!

Anonymous said...

I love love love this post! Everyone has a story to tell full of trials and tribulations, celebrations and victories. It's in the telling of our stories through whatever form of prose is our own that we connect with one another on a human, heart to heart level.

I think you are right that we shouldn't avoid wrapping our narrative into our characters. In fact, I truly believe the best writing comes from the rawest part of ourselves. Expressing that rawness through fictional characters and story lines is not just therapeutic for the writer, but also for the reader who connects with and relates to the emotions and life-themes threaded through out the prose.

It may be a rocky road... the hero and the author will overcome-and so will the reader who is traveling the same road.

Love it. Fantastic post!

LauraD said...

Such a great take on infusing your own personal drama into one's fiction writing. After having finished a memoir, I'm now embarking on a fictional story, mostly because it's "too close to home" to write as fiction, and I want to take some of my own psychological fears, project them onto the main character, exaggerate them and ... like you said ... see where it takes me. Does the heroine become a villianess, or does she triumph?