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Fiction-Therapy-WU-header.jpg?resize=525Apologies in advance for the unpleasant imagery that follows.

Some years ago, I was traveling through Malaysia, and part of that meant a long bus journey. At one point, I really had to use the bathroom on the bus, but I’d been avoiding it the whole trip because I could smell that bathroom all the way to my seat near the front. But, as my old dad used to say, you cannot hold what is not in your hand. So, eventually, I had to go.

I tried to make the visit as short as I could – no longer than I could hold my breath. But that wasn’t short enough. In the moments I was in there, the bus took a sudden sharp corner. Physics took over and shifted the momentum to the back of the bus, concentrating its focus on me. I flew backwards through the bathroom door, breaking the thoroughly inadequate lock. I made enough noise as I went that it attracted the attention of everyone on the bus. Everyone. And I was in no state for an audience. But I had one anyway.

Although I can laugh about that story now, it remains a very embarrassing moment from my life. As I think back on it, picture myself there again, I can easily relive the sequence of emotions I went through. The shock, the surprise, the realization, the mortification, the contrition for what I’d put my fellow passengers (and now you) through, and my anger at the driver, the bus company, the tight corner and Newton’s laws of motion.


Most people recognize this idea of recalling an event that arouses the same feelings as in that past moment, even though you might be far removed from it now. This can be especially true of strong emotions. Remembering an argument, for example, can bring all that anger and frustration back again.

This can, of course, work for things you might not have a specific memory of. Imagine cutting open a lemon and biting right into it. Even if you’ve never done this, you can imagine the sensations you’d have in your mouth.

Psychotherapists use this technique with people who have gone through a trauma. The process works by asking patients to imagine certain scenarios – ones they may or may not have already experienced – and to describe the feelings they might have in such a situation.

Imagining your most embarrassing moment could be on of those, and patients are asked to write about the feelings, thoughts and bodily sensations they might have in that moment. Or they could be asked to imagine winning the lottery, losing a job or how they would feel if their health was very different.

The exercise can help trauma patients become aware of what happens in their minds and bodies in certain situations and, by writing about real and imagined experiences, they can eventually write about their trauma, including their deep feelings and the thoughts they’d never previously openly expressed.

Method Writing

The clear parallel to writing here is to apply this technique to your characters. Even if the characters encounter a situation you’ve never been in yourself, try to put yourself in their positions and try to feel – on some level – what they’re thinking and feeling.

Imagine some set pieces where you can see your characters getting into difficulty  and how they might overcome those situations. Or not. How would the character feel? What emotions would this situation arouse? Where would the character experience that in the body? Would they feel it in the gut? Have tingling sensations in their fingers? The point is to be as specific as possible, right down to the thoughts this character would have in the moment.

It’s a little like Stanislavski’s method of acting. He believed that actors – and their audience – could never wholly believe that a theatre piece was real life. But if actors could work out what they would do if they were in the same position as their characters, then these staged moments would be more convincing.

The same is true in novels where a part of the author and readers will always be aware that they are writing/reading a book. If the author can somehow summon the thoughts and feelings of the character however, the fiction has a better chance of being more believable.

This technique can help with writer’s block too. You might have some idea of the scene you want to write but you don’t yet know how to write it, what you want to say about it. Rather than wait for inspiration, try imagining how the character would feel throughout the scene and jot down any thoughts and emotions that come to mind.

You can start by thinking of a similar experience you might have gone through, or by examining your own thoughts and feelings from other situations to practice the technique. What would it really be like to chew on a raw, juicy lemon? What would it be like to suddenly have a million dollars? What would it be like to lose a million dollars?

You could even think about your most embarrassing moment and, if you’re feeling brave, share it with us in the comments.

How to do you channel your characters’ thoughts and emotions? How do you try to make your characters more realistic?


About Jim Dempsey

Jim Dempsey (he/him) is a book editor who specializes in detailed analysis and editing of novel manuscripts through his company, Novel Gazing. He has worked as an editor for more than 20 years. He has a master’s degree in creative writing and is a professional member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading and is a trustee of the Arkbound Foundation. Jim is fascinated by the similarities between fiction and psychotherapy, since both investigate the human condition, the things that make us uniquely human. He explores this at The Fiction Therapist website. If you have a specific concern with your novel, send an email to jim [at] thefictiontherapist.com, or visit the website to ask for a free sample edit. You can follow Jim on Instagram @the_fiction_therapist.


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