by Jeannie Campbell, LMFT
I like to think that any professional, not just therapists, would laugh at their fictional counterparts. I assure you that Drs. Frasier Crane and Hannibal Lecter are hardly representative of the majority of us.
No, authors most likely convey therapists as empathetic, conservatively dressed, with degrees artfully hung on the wall in a tasteful but somewhat intimidating manner. They come across the page as a wise sage archetype, doling out nuggets that change or alter the hero’s life or perspective.
And yes, I do laugh at this depiction, because therapists don’t come in a one-shrink-fits-all size.
Below are a couple of tips on how to spice up therapists who grace the pages of your fiction.
1) Give thought to the therapist’s office.
Their office is a glimpse into their personality. Do they have crayon masterpieces on the wall, or original prints? Rows and rows of books and binders? Is there one place to sit, but only after stacks of paper are moved? Is the trash completely empty? Overflowing?
• What creature comforts are present? Heaters, fans, mini-fridges, candles, coffee makers…all a glimpse into the person.
• What’s on their desk? Cluttered with folders? Free and clear, minus state-of-the-art computer? Old typewriter? Do they have picture frames of family members? Scenery?
• Where can the client sit? Not all therapists want their clients to lie down on a couch, though this is one of the most recognizable depictions of therapists (thanks, Freud), so it’s the image I use most often on my Character Therapist site. Some therapists have multiple spots for a client to choose what’s most comfy. Others barely have eked out enough room in their tiny closet-sized office to have one folding chair.
2) Consider what the therapist wants to be called.
I guess this is a pet peeve of mine, but not all therapists want to be called Dr. So-and-So, or Mrs. Campbell. How would you feel about a counselor who expects you to bare your soul to her, but who won’t even bare her first name to you? Most therapists want to be called by their first name, in order to build rapport.
3) What is the therapist wearing? If it’s a button-down with a jacket, is there a tie? Is it askew? Is the jacket slung over the desk? Sleeves rolled up casually? Is she wearing paint-splattered jeans and tie-dye? High heels or flip-flops? Is her hair pulled back or hanging in her eyes?
4) Does the therapist utilize silence? Good therapists know when to shut up and just listen. It’s in the silence that clients are able to do their most profound work. Silence is very powerful; don’t be afraid of using it. You can have a great tension-filled moment with silence, describing the uncomfortable shuffling and hand fluttering that can happen.
5) Does the therapist’s body language match their words? Entire books have been written about the art of body language. Therapists are trained to be able to “read” clients, but clients should notice the therapist’s body language too. Do they start restlessly shaking a leg when the client does? Do they slump over? Glance at the clock? Use their desk as a barrier to intimacy within the session?
These are just a few ideas to spark more creative juices to flow while characterizing my therapist brothers and sisters into black and white.
Join me tomorrow as I clarify what authors should know before using the term psychopath in fiction.
JEANNIE CAMPBELL is a Contributing Writer for the ACFW Journal and Christian Fiction Online Magazine, a licensed marriage and family therapist in California, and owner/operator of The Character Therapist website, where she diagnoses make-believe people. She is also a freelance writer, author, editor, and book reviewer and has been featured in several e-zines, newspapers, and blogs. Two of her manuscripts have finaled in the ACFW Genesis contest.