Today, I’m pleased to present you with something different for This & That Thursday. Author Jeannie Campbell, a.k.a.: The Character Therapist, shares her Fiction Therapy Session How-To, originally written for Christian Fiction Online Magazine. These tips are geared towards writing a therapy session in your fictional story, but can also be applied towards other fictional scenes.
Learn more about Jeannie at the end of this post, but for now, enjoy this therapy session (and to think it’s not costing you a thing!)
FICTIONAL THERAPY SESSION HOW-TO
by Jeannie Campbell
On occasion we have need to write a therapist or therapy session into our manuscripts. It stands to reason that fictional characters need therapy just as much as real people (and I have a blog that proves it). Whether the shrink is briefly mentioned or has a recurring role, it’s worth it to learn how to write a fictional therapy session.
If you’ve been to therapy, keep reading, because chances are you’ve not gotten a therapist’s perspective of a session. You should use your experience in therapy as a template for your character only after you’ve explored what else is involved. (And there’s a lot. I guarantee that nobody else had your exact same experience.) If you’ve never been to therapy, the following tips will help fill in some gaps.
1) Consider what role the therapist plays in the story. If the therapist has a minor role, or you only hint at some life-changing therapy session your character had, then it’s not important to go into credentials or how the therapist conducts therapy. If the therapist has a recurring role, then it’s a good idea to give him or her more of an introduction. Readers need to understand if this therapist is someone who knows what he or she is talking about or not. How do you do this? See #2.
2) Give the reader a glimpse into the therapist’s office. An easy way to paint the therapist as an ally or enemy, intellectual professional or quacky wacko is to show the reader the surroundings. In the point of view of the client, have him or her notice the degrees on the wall. Are they from an Ivy League school or some unheard of online program? Nice furnishings suggest successfulness; shabby second-hand pieces suggest the opposite. Picture frames on the desk, crayon masterpieces on the wall, books on shelves, papers piled high or not one in sight . . . each description reveals a little bit more about the therapist and gives you a chance to share the POV character’s internal thoughts about what he or she sees. Is she intimidated? Relaxed?
3) Consider how the therapist will approach clients in session. For younger children, I use the name Miss Jeannie instead of Mrs. Campbell. This lets them know I’m not like a teacher at school but more like a family friend or church member. For teens and adults, I usually go with just Jeannie, because I want to build rapport the fastest way possible. I’ve read several books where the therapist introduces herself as “Dr. So-and-So” never adding, “But you can call me Cindy.” How would you feel about a counselor who expects you to bare your soul to her yet won’t even bare her first name to you?
4) Don’t write too much of the actual therapy session unless it moves the plot forward. It’s easy to start the therapy scene with introductions and mindless chitchat, but while this time period—up to ten minutes or so—is crucial to make clients feel comfortable, it’s not going to hold the reader’s interest for long. You don’t need the client to “fill in” the therapist on why she is there. Skip it. Readers will get that the client probably filled out an intake form and the therapist knows exactly why the client is there. Get to the meat of the session quickly. Tears, anger, resistance, storming out . . . these are things therapists look forward to! It means the client is working.
5) Identify who the client(s) will be. A therapist can see an individual or a family or any combination of family members, but it’s important not to mix “clients” and therapists. Once you’ve started to see a person, he or she is the client, not the family. It would be too difficult and unethical to add their family as “the client” later, when your loyalties already lie with one member. When an entire family comes in for counseling, the counselor can see everyone together, a child individually, or just the parents; and that’s okay, as long as the idea of those sessions is to always bring things back to how it affects the family. This might seem a trivial distinction, but to anyone in the field, this is a really big deal. You want to look like you’ve done your homework.
6) Things to do while in session:
*Notice body language. Eye rolls, staring off into space, head down, arms crossed: These are great visuals that therapists definitely notice. Good therapists, that is.
*Use silence. Nowhere is it written that every second of every session has to be filled with talking. Silence is powerful; don’t be afraid to use it. You can have a great tension-filled moment with silence, describing the uncomfortable shuffling and hand fluttering that can happen.
*Think of family therapy as group therapy. It’s appropriate for the therapist to bounce from one to the other and ask, “What are your thoughts on what X just said?” A therapist will be interested in what the individuals in the family have to say and think about the other individuals in the family.
*Throw questions back at clients. Clients quite often ask therapists questions. They come seeking some sort of magic response to fix their problems, but instead of answering, therapists frequently say, “What do you think?”
*Never give advice. Therapists want clients to arrive at their own solutions. If a therapist gave advice that the client took and had negative side effects from, the client would blame the therapist and it could affect the rapport between them.
I hope this gives you a starting place to write authentic therapy sessions. A well-written therapy session can be the catharsis your characters need to complete their inner journeys or to free themselves from their pasts in order to embrace their futures.
Jeannie Campbell is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in California. She is Head of Clinical Services for a large non-profit and enjoys working mainly with children and couples. She has a Masters of Divinity in Psychology and Counseling and bachelors degrees in both psychology and journalism. Jeannie started doing character therapy in March of 2009. Her Treatment Tuesdays feature assessments of fictional characters and plot feasibility while her Thursday Therapeutic Thoughts take a psychological topic and make it relevant to writers. She can be found at her blog, The Character Therapist, at http://charactertherapist.blogspot.com.