That's right: Character Therapy!
Recently, as I worked on my NaNoWriMo story, I got a little stuck. So I did some googling about how to get un-stuck. And I came across an article that suggested some questions we might want to ask our characters.
I can't remember what those questions were, but I do remember that they were deeper than the usual, "What is your character's favorite food?"-type questions.
Anyway, I used them as a jumping-off point and essentially sat down with my characters and had a therapy session. I was especially concerned about the male lead in my story, because I was having a hard time writing his reactions and responses, which I realized was because I didn't actually know how he felt about the situation. So I put him on the virtual therapy couch and asked him some questions and wrote out his answers.
Me: Cole, how did you feel about Molly before the scene at the restaurant occurred?
Cole: Well, before that I was interested in her- the way she reacted to my comment in Sunday School showed me she has some spunk, and her willingness to lie showed me she's not all goody-goody, and while the situation she's put herself in is kind of a pain, that part of her personality did add another layer to her that kind of surprised me.
Me: And what about the piano lesson?
Cole: When I gave her the piano lesson I saw that she's determined and willing to work hard. But it is kind of irritating that she thinks she needs and wants a vanilla guy like Jacob. I guess part of my irritation is that I like her and I think she deserves better; the other part is that I hate that I get stereotyped so often because I don't look typical, so I want to challenge Molly to both be true to herself AND look beyond my appearance.
Me: Do you want to pursue Molly?
Cole: At times I wonder if there's even a point to pursuing her- is she determined to just be the person she thinks Jacob wants her to be? I'm mad at myself for even wanting to try when the odds seem to be stacked against me. Plus, I'm mad at her for settling and not being honest with herself. I hate that I want to help her, too, when what she's doing is so against what I think is right. But I can't help it. I want to rescue her.
Me: Thank you for your honesty, Cole.
[Cole leaves and I invite Molly in to take the hot seat.]
Me: Molly, how did you feel about Cole before the scene at the restaurant?
Molly: Before the restaurant he was like an annoying brother, but he was willing to help me, so I also thought of him as a friend. While we were at the restaurant he was definitely the annoying brother, but I also saw his nerve and his talent again, which I guess a lot of girls might find attractive, and it was...well, it was interesting.
Me: You say that other girls might find it attractive- why don't you find him attractive?
Molly: We practically grew up together. He's too much like a brother! And he has tattoos, which is obviously...well, it's not exactly my cup of tea. He's just completely wrong for me. Plus, he makes me nervous. He knows my secret and that makes him dangerous.
Me: So why do you continue to spend time with him?
Molly: Easy- he's the only one I've got on my side in this if I have any chance of ever being with Jacob.
Me: Thanks, Molly. Good to know.
Essentially, I used the opportunity to kind of sort through the characters' emotions so that I could better write their responses to the different situations. As you can see, what I uncovered was a little bit more complex than a simple "I like her" or "I hate him." The different things that have happened in the story have shaped these characters' perceptions of each other, causing their relationship to evolve. You might also have noticed that these characters aren't being completely honest with themselves, and that also complicates matters. I have to understand not only how they say they're feeling, but also how they're actually feeling.
So if there's ever a time when you feel like you just don't know how your characters should react, send them to therapy! Take a time-out from the story and interview them and find out what's going on their heads. Pay attention to the underlying emotions they might not even be aware of, and think about how you can use the plot and other characters to move them to a greater awareness of those subconscious feelings, and also perhaps change their ideas on things. You might also want to consider throwing them into situations that are the exact opposite of what they might want to happen, and allow them to grow and change through adversity.
Here are some sample questions to get you started:
How did you feel before [event] occurred?
How were you feeling during?
How did you feel afterward?
If you could change one thing about [character or situation], what would it be?
What is your greatest frustration right now?
What is your greatest fear right now?
Happy writing, friends!