One of the most common problems I see when I’m editing manuscripts is this: characters who are way too self-aware.
Often this comes in the form of an awkward diagnosis that relies on pop psychology or therapy-speak to explain a character’s actions.
(Note: these examples are made up but not far off from what I often see)
- George’s fear of intimacy left him unable to date confidently so he turned to the bottle instead.
- Barbara’s anxiety was such that she could barely leave the house.
- Kwame’s mother was terribly overbearing, resulting in a series of unhealthy relationships with women.
- Chris never learned how to be a good communicator.
Don’t do this!
The problem with authors diagnosing characters
I get it. You want to weave together someone’s present with their past to make them feel like a more well-rounded character.
But here’s a list of the issues that arise when authors play psychologist with their characters and give them an overly straightforward diagnosis:
- Almost no one is entirely self-aware in real life. We all have blind spots and they’re ridiculously difficult to see. And once we become aware of them it’s almost impossible to do anything about it. It’s part of what makes us human. So when a character knows exactly why they’re doing what they’re doing: it doesn’t seem real.
- The diagnoses are reductive. Trust me: I’m a huge believer in therapy, I’m currently in therapy, I am not trying to stigmatize mental health issues, which are very real. It’s very important to understand the things that plague us and a diagnosis can help put us on the path to a cure. But a diagnosis on the page is just not the same thing. As helpful as a diagnosis may be, it can’t possibly encompass the whole of someone’s actions in real life and it rare feels believable on the page (unless the diagnosis itself becomes a plot point within the novel).
- The diagnoses are usually too general. Just about everyone feels anxiety from time to time. So chalking someone’s actions up to anxiety is a variation of the show don’t tell problem. We don’t learn much about someone when we’re told they’re anxious. How does that anxiety manifest itself for that unique character?
- If the character already knows what their problem is, what’s left for the reader to learn about them? If the reader feels like the main character already knows exactly why he/she is the way he/she is and that is the same at the beginning as it is in the end…. why are we reading to find out more? What else is there left to discover?
What to do instead
If you find yourself generalizing or chalking all of a character’s problems up to a pat diagnosis, here’s what to do:
- Show the character’s symptoms but let the reader draw their own conclusions about the root cause.
Essentially, let the reader be your character’s psychologist. Let them assemble the evidence, see the biography and history, gauge the symptoms, and draw their own conclusions about what ails your characters.
Now, don’t get me wrong. It’s totally fine to show a character learning a key insight about themselves, and in fact characters should learn things over the course of the novel. But whatever they learn should be imprecise, hard won, and difficult to act upon.
In other words: it should be messy, not tied up in a nice neat diagnosis. That’s your reader’s job.
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Art: Home visit by Peter Alfred Schou