Thursday, February 26, 2009

Carolyn Kaufman on Psychology in Fiction

Today JRW welcomes Dr. Carolyn Kaufman. Carolyn has a Doctorate of Psychology (PsyD) in clinical psychology, and teaches full time at the college level. She also works with journalists who are writing nonfiction articles and books, so gets quoted in magazines, newspapers, and books fairly often — that's fun! She's been writing since the age of 11. She's had some short fiction published in magazines, and is currently seeking representation for a contemporary fantasy novel, and working hard on a nonfiction project for Quill Driver Books. The working title is Nervous Breakdowns and Psychotic Killers: The Writer's Guide to Psychology.
ROBERTA: Welcome Carolyn! Love the title! That's quite a list of projects--where do we start?? You're a psychologist who writes and teaches about creating characters in fiction. We'd love to hear your tips about creating characters that come alive on the page.
CAROLYN: I think villains are too often neglected when we talk about characters, partly because some people find them uncomfortable to write. I believe the best villains are the ones we can relate to a little bit. So rather than describing your villain's actions with one of the old standbys — he was abused as a child, she was just born evil, he's a madman — try to figure out what it would take to drive someone to act the way your villain does. Your goal is not necessarily to make the character sympathetic; your goal is more to get the reader thinking "Would I really be any different in the same circumstances?"
ROBERTA: Tell us about the new book project from Quill Driver Books. In a nutshell, you'll be teaching fiction writers how to use psychology accurately in their books. Can you give us some tips in advance?
CAROLYN: One of the most important tips I can give is this — don't trust what you think you know about psychology. I've found that some of the most persistent myths are passed from storyteller to storyteller, because each new writer believes that the last one did her research!
Fortunately, some of the old misconceptions are starting to get cleared up; unfortunately, writers don't have easy access to information that will help them fill in the gaps. For example, more writers are realizing that schizophrenia is not the same thing as multiple personalities. The problem is, they still don't know exactly how they're different, and they let assumptions creep in to fill the gaps.
ROBERTA: And as if that wasn't enough, you blog regularly for Tell us how that came about and what it offers aspiring writers.
CAROLYN: is a website that a guy named Pat McDonald created a couple of years ago. Pat decided that writers needed a database where they could 1) keep track of information about agents they were interested in approaching and 2) keep track of their submissions to those agents. The site also gathers statistics so that users can see just how long, on average, it takes Agent X to respond. Or how often Agent Y requests partials and fulls.
I discovered the site about a year ago and was just head over heels with everything it could do. I became a regular contributor to the forum, and together with a small group of other contributors, decided to take over responsibility for the blog. The blog had languished while Pat was busy developing a new social networking site, RallyStorm. Our mission has been to help and educate serious writers who hope to find an agent and get published themselves; we also keep people abreast of what's going on in the publishing industry from week to week. We've had an incredible response from readers so far!
ROBERTA: And just for fun (because this is one of my pet peeves too), who is the worst fictional shrink you've come across so far?
CAROLYN: I've seen a lot of useless and elitist therapists in written fiction, but the ones who bother me the most are the ones who could care less about helping their clients — they're just there to get rich. (I have no idea which Alternate Universe these therapists live in, but it's sure not one I want to visit.)
If we expand into television and movie shrinks, there are some real doozies out there, but my current favorite is Dr. Vance from the horror/action movie Blade Trinity. Not only does he ooze self-importance and openly mock the main character (not very therapist-like behaviors), he makes a series of disjointed, completely useless interpretations. Then he asks about Blade's mother out of nowhere, to the point that the line is a non sequitur. He's an ugly hodgepodge of clich├ęs. I can never decide whether to laugh or cry about that character.
My fantasy is that writers — and that includes screenwriters! — will be able to use the information in my book to create therapists that look and act more like real therapists.
ROBERTA: Okay gang, pile on with questions and comments! And you can read more about Carolyn at And by the way, my nominee for dreadful fictional shrink is Dr. Molly Griswold in TIN CUP:
“Meet Dr. Griswold,” golfer Roy McAvoy says to his friends in the movie, Tin Cup. “This is Molly. She’s my shrink.”
“Ex-shrink,” Dr. Molly Griswold corrects him. “We’re sleeping together now so I can’t be his therapist.”
'Nuff said Carolyn??


  1. I'm wondering: in the "real" world, are villains (serial killers or pedophiles, for example) aware that what they are doing is wrong, at least intermittently? Or have they managed to justify their own behavior to themselves, so they can continue?

  2. Hey Carolyn! Welcome..

    Question about motive. I'm constantly wondering how deeply an emotion would have to be felt to kill someone.
    What motives are "reasonable" to ascribe to a murderer?

    I've been thinking money/greed, fear, twisted "love" and power. Which actually, bottom line, are all about power. Control.

    (Besides self-defense, of course, but that's not realy "of course" because self-defense is so situational.)

    Okay, you can tell I haven't had my coffee yet. But can you talk a bit about motive? And making the stakes high enough that murder is a believable outcome?

  3. Gee, I'm gone for a couple of days and come back to find an awesome topic! Thanks!

    I obviously need to get your book when it comes out, Carolyn. In the meantime, two questions. One, is there a simple (or complex, lol) set of rules to avoid the cliched villain, and two, is there really such a thing as a "true" sociopath--a human with absolutely no feelings of compassion or emotions of any sort?

    Oh...and one more. Would it be realistic to create an assassin with a strong moral compass?

  4. Great interview, Roberta! Carolyn, I'm really interested in reading your answers to the questions here in the comment section. Thanks so much for your time and expertise.

  5. Hi everybody! I'm so happy to be here today.

    I overloaded the comments, so I'm going to try again, in a couple of pieces, and see if that works better.

    Sheila -- Yes, "real life" villains are typically aware that what they are doing is wrong, at least by society's standards. They just may not care if they're sociopathic (more on sociopaths in a sec). The only people, in general, who don't know what they're doing is wrong is people who are having a serious psychotic episode (which means they've lost touch with reality and are hallucinating and/or delusional).

    Some people believe they are justified in their behavior *in spite of* the fact that there is, for example, a law against it due to the circumstances; for example, in the case of revenge.

    Hank -- Violence against others is often if not usually about power and control, so you're definitely on the right track. I think nearly any emotion, if it's felt deeply enough, can be an impetus to murder. There's a cognitive element to motive, though, especially when it comes to premeditated acts. Assuming the person isn't sociopathic, he must convince himself that what he's doing is justified. Or he must be so incredibly threatened by the other person that eliminating them is the only way he can come up with to relieve the tension he's feeling.

    To make the stakes high enough, it can be helpful to deny the character what he wants by resonable means...again and again, in different ways, until he's tried everything and now finds himself backed up against the wall. In situations like that the fight or flight instinct can take over, and if he has nowhere to run, his only remaining option (in his head) is going to be to attack. And that doesn't mean there aren't other options available, only that he can't see them. I probably sound like I'm talking about heroes here, but doing the same thing to a villain can make for a villain desperate to regain his power and any cost.

  6. Silver -- There is absolutely such a thing as a true sociopath who has no *conscience*; however, the idea that such people have *no* emotions is a myth. They may not be capable of warmth and love in the same way the average person is, but they are capable of enjoying themselves, experiencing anger, feeling depressed, etc. Rather than being without emotions, it's like emotions are a second language to them.

    Psychopaths (people who are born this way) have differences in their brains than "normal" people; for example, the medial orbitfrontal cortex (OFC), which is involved in learning from experience, is impaired. Sociopaths (people who become like this as children) may have damage to the OFC due to abuse (ie head injuries) -- this may have been the case with serial killers like Gacy, Ridgeway, and Gein. People may also become sociopathic because they had unstable childhoods and little if any love.

    Yes, I think it would be realistic to create an assassin with a strong moral compass. You just have to figure out how (and perhaps why) the assassin justifies his work. For example, does he believe the people he's killing are Really Bad People? Is he doing it for his country?

    As for a set of rules to avoid the cliched villan -- Here are the some of the most common cliches about villainy:

    Evil is different from us (hence all the foreign accents in Bond movies)
    Evil is unchanging (good people don't become evil and vice versa)
    Evil represents the antithesis of order, peace, and stability
    Evil characters are marked by egotism and pride
    Evil figures have trouble controlling rage and anger
    Evil primarily happens because the evil person wants to inflict harm for fun
    All the victims are innocent and good

    I think doing the things we're talking about here will go a long way toward avoiding these cliches. I get frustrated with the smooth, flawless, charming, egotistical sociopath who doesn't have enough motive for what he's doing. (Often he's just doing it for fun. But what *makes* it fun for him, you know?) I also get frustrated when writers slap the label "crazy" on someone and let that be justification for their actions. In either case, really digging into motive can help you avoid these problems.

  7. Welcome Carolyn,

    Your work sounds fascinating. Being a journalist, writing non-fiction at the moment, I'm really curious to learn more about your work with them.

  8. I think that some writers are afraid to really explore the motivations and emotions of their villains. If we truly understand them, aren't we like them on some level? Or by writing about them will some of their "craziness" rub off on us or influence us? In my opinion, this may be a contributing factor to why villains are often written in such a two-dimensional manner.

    My question is this: Is it possible to become more like the villains we write about? By exploring their darkness, are we uncovering our own?

  9. Jan -- I do a lot of work with journalists writing nonfiction, and I really love that work, so definitely keep me in mind if you ever need to talk psychology for a project. (You can reach me through or obviously Roberta has my address.)

    In particular, I've done a lot with newspapers (eg The Boston Globe, The Sacramento Bee), online news sources (eg FOX News, Wired News), magazines (eg Marie Claire, Shape). I've also had the privilege to work with writers on a few books, most recently Andrea Kay's Work's a Bitch and Then You Make It Work: 6 Steps to Go from Pissed Off to Powerful.

    Suzette -- Psychologist Carl Jung believed that we all have a dark side, and that getting in touch with it helps us on our journeys of individuation -- that is, figuring out who we are. Like Freud, he believed that we have a tendency to stuff the things we're uncomfortable with into our unconscious; the problem with that is the urges and so forth aren't gone. Instead, they come out in ways we have trouble controlling. So by getting to know what's there in our dark side, we can make choices about how and when to express those urges. Writing great villains certainly seems like a productive way to do that to me!

    I don't see our villains' "craziness" rubbing off on us -- instead, I think we're using our own to create them. So yes, I do think we're like them on some level. But having a thought or urge and acting on it are two totally different things. And yes, I think we are uncovering our own darkness by exploring our villains', but as I said above, that's not necessarily a bad thing. There are actually books out there to help people with "shadow work." Some "shadow work" advocates believe that the dark side of the personality harbors a great deal of creative energy. (In particular, Connie Zweig comes to mind. You can find lots of books on shadow work by typing "shadow work" into

    I think a lot of people write flat villains because they're uncomfortable getting in there and recognizing and owning their own dark sides. I've heard a lot of writers, especially new writers, say that it's hard to write villains because it's uncomfortable. I believe that some of the greatest writers are the ones who are able to plumb their dark sides for material.

  10. Thank you for a wonderful post and answers, Carolyn. I'm going right now to deepen the dark side of my current killer (who before now was a "regular" person). LOTS of food for thought.


  11. Carolyn, thank you so much! I'm printing this out for future reference. I should have been more specific about assassins. Military sharpshooters (and vicariously, police SWAT) absolutely believe they are killing for the greater good. (I know several of both varieties). I want to get into the head of a paid assassin - a freelancer who works for the highest bidder.

    I have a villain in a book that I've been writing for over ten years now. One of the reasons it's taken so long is because every time I get into his head, there is so much evil there I want to scrub my brain with bleach when I'm done. That book will likely never make it off my computer but when I'm feeling dark and angry, I work on it. It's a whole lot cheaper than therapy.

    Thanks for the terrific answers, Carolyn, and Roberta, you've got some interviewing chops there, gal!

  12. Hey Silver -- if you need to talk more about your assassin, now or later, feel free to contact me through :-)

  13. Thanks for being here with us today Carolyn--and for those very thorough answers! I can hear the tap tap tapping of many keyboards at work...

  14. Thanks again for having me, Jungle Red! And as for Tin Cup...yep, 'nuff said!

  15. Thanks, Carolyn! I have you bookmarked and I will. Right now, he's just sort of rolling around in my head gelling as I get his place ready. I'm a ways from that particular plot and story, but my Muse tends to work in advance of things.

  16. I just checked out QueryTracker...can't believe I didn't know about that site. What a great resource!

    And thanks, Carolyn, for a fascinating blog.