Character Development is Good Therapy by LeAnne Bristow

One of my favorite things about writing is creating characters that grab you. One of the things I hate about writing is creating characters that grab you. Every writing process is a little different. Some writers begin with a great idea for a conflict and they develop the perfect characters for it. Some writers start with a character and create the story around the character. 

I’ve done it both ways. I must admit, I spend a lot of time creating my characters. Over the years I’ve tried dozens of different ways to develop them. The enneagram? I have at least three books on my shelf to help me with it. The Myers-Briggs personality test? I take the free online test as my character at least five times to help me get a better idea of what they want.  My resource shelf is full of craft books to help me create the perfect hero and heroine, someone a reader will fall in love with, root for and cheer with. Which is why I hate creating characters that are too real to me, because I know I have to put them through the wringer and it breaks my heart.

A couple of years ago, I took a class by Heartwarming’s own Melinda Curtis. The class was about creating conflict for our characters and was based on schema’s…a psychological principal for understanding what drives a person’s behavior, attitudes and patterns. Once you know a person’s schema, you can identify what they need to grow and change. I liked the class so much that I recently took it again. 

Funny thing. Every time I take a class to help me get a better understanding of the characters I create, I also get a better understanding of myself. One of the things she asks the class to do is to pay attention to the next time you have an emotional response to a situation and think about why you reacted the way you did. The basic reaction for creatures when put in a situation where they are uncomfortable is fight, flight or freeze. This reaction is the same every time. It doesn't change unless something forces a change.

When faced with a conflict, I wish I could say that I’m a fighter. I want to be a fighter. But I take flight. I don’t just fly away. I get out as fast as I can. After taking Melinda’s class this last time, I took a hard look at things in my past and situations where I responded the way I did. I wasn’t one to stand up for myself. When my best friend and I got in an argument, I avoided her. When my family was disappointed in me, I hid in my room. When I’m confronted with a situation that makes me uncomfortable, I leave. I hate conflict. It physically makes me sick at my stomach. Being around confrontational people, even in situations that don’t involve me, makes me vomit. 

When my father died, I drove to Texas for the funeral, expecting to stay most of the summer and help take care of all the things that were left behind. As often happens when loved ones die, a great deal of conflict erupted between family members, particularly my aunts and myself. So instead of staying for the entire summer, I packed up and left the day after the funeral. A few years later, when my grandmother died, I was so scared of facing my aunts again, that I didn’t go to the funeral. That is something I will always regret. My grandmother helped raise me after my parents divorced. She saved me in more ways than I could possibly imagine. I told myself that funerals were to support the living. My grandmother knew how much I loved her and I didn’t want to disrespect her memory by showing up and causing more conflict with the aunts who haven’t spoken to me since my father died. But no matter what kind of excuses I come up with, the fact remains that I wasn’t there to see her laid to rest. What I did because I told myself I was doing out of respect, others saw as the highest form of disrespect. Needless to say, the conflict with my family has never been resolved. 

Why do I act like a scared rabbit every time conflict arises? Before I took Melinda’s class, it never crossed my mind to question. It was just the way I was and that was that. But sometimes taking a class to improve your writing turns out to be best kind of therapy for yourself. 

I realized that my response developed at a very early age. My parents divorced when I was six years old, but those were six extremely turbulent years. 

In addition to being an alcoholic, my mother also dappled in prescription drugs. My father was a truck driver who was only home on the weekends, so during the week, she spent most of her time passed out on the couch. One time in particular, I remember shaking her awake and asking her if my brother and I could walk to my grandmother’s house. Hours later, she showed up at my grandmother’s house with a belt and whipped us both for leaving the house without telling her. No amount of crying could convince her that we’d asked for permission. We were never sure what to expect from her. But weekends were worse. My father would come home and most of the time was spent arguing. He liked to drink, too. The more they drank, the more they fought. They didn’t hit each other but a lot of things were thrown and broken. My brothers and I would hide in our rooms, sometimes under the bed, until the yelling stopped.

Is it any wonder that I avoid conflict? That flight reaction was ingrained into me from a young age and I’ve never been able to get over it. At least now I'm aware of why I react the way I do.

Fortunately for my characters, I have a much better understanding of their schema’s and present them with challenges along the way to face their problems. It also helps that they are paired up with the exact person they need to facilitate change and grow into a better person. Shouldn’t we all be so lucky? 

If you would like to see what makes your characters tick (or yourself) I highly recommend the book “Creating Unforgettable Characters” by Melinda Curtis. But be prepared because you might learn something about yourself as well. 

If you are a writer, tell me some tips you use to create unforgettable characters. If you are a reader, tell me about a character that grabbed you.


  1. Great post, LeAnne! For different reasons, I too am averse to conflict--which can make it harder to write fictional characters, I suppose. I tend to withdraw from confrontation and just shut down. Melinda's book is so good! I need to re-read it and apply to myself. Hugs to you.

  2. I believe lots of writers deal with less than ideal circumstances growing up so we know what the world needs to be in our book. For my alcoholic mom, who'd still be in bed when we left for school, I would, as the oldest go ask her for permission about things and then leave her a note by the coffee so there wouldn't be any confusion...sometimes even then she didn't believe she's said it was okay. Congratulations on finding out what makes you tick so you can make your characters even more believable. I don't think your first response is always flight, this was a brave bold post of fighting to recover what was taken from the child in you. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Such a heartfelt and honest post, LeAnne, and I agree with you that developing our characters gives us some insight into our own at the same time. I think I need to,take that course. I feel that my characters tend to be the kind of,people I’d like to be myself. THere’s a lot of therapy in writing, isn’t there? And that’s a good thing, I believe. Thanks for this post today.

  4. A wonderful post, and I'm right there with you on conflict. Reading about you was like reading about myself, and it's painful but maybe freeing, too--thank you for sharing it.

  5. What a wonderful post. I can absolutely see why you avoid conflict, and I'm sorry about everything, including the your aunts acted the way they did. I'm an avoider, too. After a conflict, I often imagine all the things I should have said. One of my favorite things about writing is when my characters are in a situation where I'd be withdrawing and avoiding, I can make them gut up and confront the conflict, and say all those things I would have thought of later. I absolutely recommend Melinda's book, too.

  6. LeAnne, this is a great post. It has me thinking of my own response to situations. I've never heard of the schema before and now I have to read more about it. I love reading about the enneagrams so this topic is right up my alley. It seems like for both the schema and enneagram, the first and most important thing to do is to be aware of it and the control it subconsciously has over your life. If only that was an easy thing to do. Thanks so much for sharing your story today. Your words were appropriately timed for things going on in my own life and they give me a new direction for reflection. And thanks for suggesting good reading material in Melinda's book.

  7. Thanks for the post--we can sure surprise ourselves with the characters we come up with and what they do, but then we remember where it all came from, and it can be hard. Still, this mix of memory and experience and imagination can be so valuable to our work and the process itself.

  8. Awesome post! Lots to think about. And I love Melinda's craft book!

  9. Great post for sure. Seems from reading comments that a lot of our growing years were fraught with similar problems. My dad was alcoholic and my mom sent me to the bathroom a lot to stay as the door had a lock. He never hit us, but broke a lot of things including he threw our hot wood stove through a plate glass window in the dead of winter once. I also dislike conflict and have a hard time having characters' external conflicts. I love Mel's book, but learned a lot about my issues from reading a book called: "I'm Dancing As Fast As I Can" I don't remember who wrote it, but from it I learned to not let what my dad did affect me so much. I hope each day you get stronger.

  10. Thanks for the post. I think writers often create from their broken edges.

  11. I hate conflict too. I grew up as an only child, meaning I don't know how to fight. My parents always won. I need to look at Mel's book again.


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