Positive Psychology: Building on Your Strengths

Have you ever heard of a thing called positive psychology? I just learned about it today. Positive psychology is, as I understand it, a great therapy based on building strengths and thinking positively. The people who came up with it thought that psychology should be more than just a focus on problems. They believe in a balance between troubleshooting our weaknesses and maximizing our strengths. I think it’s a wonderful concept. Why not continue working with what you’ve already got instead of desperately trying to conjure up a characteristic that’s just not in your nature?

So, I got to thinking about a writer’s skills and I wondered what were my skills? I came up with the following categories:

Theme: Is the theme fluid throughout the story? Is the theme universal?

Plot: Is the plot structured well? Is the reader clear on what’s happening? Is the story compelling? original? Is the story paced correctly for maximum effect?

Descriptions: Of characters? Of setting? Of action? Are they from the right perspectives? Are you showing not telling? Or are you telling in a compelling way? Are you flooding your writing with too many adjectives/adverbs? Is everything important/relevant to the story?

Language: Too many big, unnecessary words? Are you using the right words?

Voice: Is there one loud and present voice throughout the story?

Time and Place: Is the setting being used appropriately? Does it bring out plot, action, and character?

Conflict: Are the obstacles believable? Is there depth to antagonist? Are the stakes high enough for the reader to care about the character?

Character(s): How well have your characters been developed? Is there depth? How interested is the reader? Is their purpose/desire made clear? What about relationships with others? Is the dialogue intriguing and fluff-free? Are the conversations natural? Believable?

What are your strengths and how can you work on them further?

As of yet, I’m not really sure what my strengths are. When I write with confidence, I usually have a steady and strong voice. When I write with a foundation/outline, I usually structure my plot well. My strengths are dependent on a number of factors. I think I can say that I am generally an original writer. I’ve heard that from a bunch of my readers and I’m definitely okay with taking their word for it.

But then there are other things to consider: Do I write everyday? Do I read everyday? Do I finish stories? Hm… no. But! I’m going to force myself to not focus on that. Let’s see if this positive psychology thing works…


What are your strengths and how can you work on them further?

We Can Work It Out: Using Research in Your Fiction

Research is very often a necessary, or at the very least it’s an advisable, step in your writing process. The old adage still holds true that a writer should ‘write what he knows’. But sometimes writers want to explore unfamiliar worlds and so they turn to research.

Recently, I wrote about following your gut. But sometimes research must be done. I don’t mean research about craft (although that too is important). I’m talking about research relating to your plot.

My current WIP is about a girl who struggles with reconnecting with her neglectful father one last time before his death. Although I knew, before I began writing or researching, the basics of what my characters were going to experience, I felt a greater confidence once I had the support of some research behind my writing. There’s always something to be researched, to be double checked. In my case, I wanted to know about how a young girl might deal with grief.

I don’t know that many people who’ve died and I also don’t know that many people who have lost loved ones. So this isn’t really a subject I’m comfortable with (thank you, God). Whenever you feel uneasy about anything you’re writing — look it up. Go to your local library, use the internet, investigate a new setting personally, and/or talk to people who might know more about that subject than you.

For that audience you couldn’t have expected, now you can be sure that you have your facts straight. Sometimes your audience will know more about your character’s type than you and they’ll recognize when you’re depicting your character incorrectly. And if you’re thinking to yourself How could I depict my own creation incorrectly? It’s easier than you think.

Here’s a few tips and suggestions as to how to go about your research.

1. In terms of the internet, don’t be afraid to go beyond Google. Explore! Curiosity will be your greatest guide. Researching through other, specific search engines can be more beneficial to your needs. Here’s an expansive Directory of Open Access Journals. This way, you can feel confident that what you’re writing makes sense. No matter who reads your writing — nobody will find any factual flaws. Are you writing about an American criminal? Here’s a page on outlaws.

2. Research before you write. This way, you won’t feel bogged down by interruptions and your writing will probably come out more fluid.

3. Your research will take the shape of an hourglass. Start with broad questions, focus in on specifics, and then expand again. According to Research Methods Knowledge Base, it’s important to start with general questions and finish with general conclusions, but somewhere in the middle you are discussing and thinking about the mechanics of your topic. This method is geared more towards non-fiction writers, but it’s a technique that can be molded to the needs of fiction writers as well. In my story, for example, I start by asking: How would my MC grieve? Then, as I find out more and more about the subject, I can ask more specific questions like: What does angry grief look like? How are her friends and family affected? As I observe and take notes on everything, I’m able to compile a certain set of knowledge. In my story, I might not use everything, but I now I have a general perspective on the subject.

Do you have any research tips?

Character: Come to My Johari Window

Listening to: Come to My Window by Melissa Etheridge

BACKGROUND

I recently discovered a very interesting method for developing character. The Johari Window is a “cognitive psychological tool”, originally invented to improve understanding between self and self, and self and others. I got to researching and found out that the Johari Window is mostly used by businesses who want to encourage better communication between their employees. They set up these workshops where employees have the opportunity to finally build a rapport with long-time office strangers.

The Johari Window has four slots, the open self or arena, the blind self, the hidden or facade self, and the unknown self.

The arena is what is openly known about the person. Depending on the relationship, this area can include anything from hair color (the obvious basics) to feelings, emotions, desires, and fears (what you might share with a friend). If the relationship has just begun, or if the relationship has yet to exist, then this area will remain very small. Even something as artificial as small talk can expand this space.

The blind spot is what you know about me that I have yet to find out. This might be something you don’t tell me on purpose, because you’re trying to protect me or because you’re trying to hurt me; this might be something that I’m in denial about or maybe it’s a delusion that no one can talk me out of. Either way, the blind spot are is not an effective or productive space.

The hidden self, or Facade area, is the space where all my secrets stay. Particularly discreet people will have a larger hidden space than others, just as people who lack boundaries will have an especially small hidden area. The hidden area should not be too big or too small. Some secrets are healthy, while others, when kept hidden buried, can be damaging to the self or to the relationship.

The unknown self contains that which is completely hidden, from everyone. These can be both psychological and physical. Physically, it could be a skill, like fast running, or an illness, like cancer, which I am unaware of. However, more often than not, it is psychological. These can range from capabilities or talents I don’t know that I have, traumas I refuse to surface, fears I don’t want to face, subconscious feelings, or ingrained traits and attitudes from childhood.

IN TERMS OF WRITING

So! How does all this information connect back to fiction? The following is an analysis of a Fitzgerald short as it relates to the Johari Window.

Most, if not all, fiction is built around a main character or a group of main characters with an objective. Whether they are aware of their goals, whether they succeed or fail — these are choices that each writer will make for himself. Over the course of the story, the character will try, probably more than once, to get what he/she wants/needs. An author can use the Johari Window to develop the characters and their relationships to themselves and to each other. With time and through action, the Johari Window will change and each pane will increase or decrease in size.

As an example, let’s look at Bernice Bobs Her Hair by F. Scott Fitzgerald. The story begins with Bernice, the story’s protagonist, feeling awkward and forlorn while visiting her shallow cousin Marjorie. Fitzgerald begins with an opening where the characters are unfamiliar with each other. If we were to apply Johari’s Window to the first pages of this story, the “open area” would be minuscule because Marjorie knows little about Bernice, except that she is a scrupulous young girl, and Bernice knows little about Marjorie, except that she has a lot of friends.

Bernice’s objective is to feel like she’s part of the crowd, part of the “vast circle of youth“. At first she attempts to become one of the crew by being polite (in other words, by being herself). But this plan quickly falls apart. That night, she overhears Marjorie explaining to a family member how “a little cheap popularity” is of such paramount importance, especially to an eighteen year old girl. Bernice confronts her cousin later on about their opposing views. Fitzgerald pushes the two rival girls together, making for a collision which results in a furiously tense altercation. While  in the heat of the argument, Bernice and Marjorie both begin to take what belonged to their hidden areas and use it to fill their open areas. That is to say, they let guards down while amidst great emotion and expand their open areas by disclosing relevant hidden feelings.

After some fighting, Bernice begins to feel defeated and starts taking Marjorie’s advice. It is important to note that Bernice probably would not have changed her ways if it weren’t for this external force pushing her. I have read stories where the main character makes an internal shift suddenly and without any apparent cause. These stories feel awkward and forced and the reader, confused, is left to wonder why the character did what he/she did and felt the way he/she felt. Everything happens for a reason, particularly in fiction.

But back to Bernice. Slowly, the morals which Bernice’s mother imbued on her are swept away. Marjorie blows in with her tempting superficiality and re-creates Bernice. Marjorie teaches her naive cousin the ways of a shallow and effortless flirt. During these lessons, Bernice is becoming increasingly aware of that which was previously in her blind spot. To push the open area into the blind spot space, the character must actively listen to others and be open to feedback. Now, prepared with new and different weaponry, Bernice walks back into Marjorie’s social scene. An interesting twist: Bernice learns all too quickly how to hog attention and, soon becomes Marjorie’s replacement, Marjorie’s competition. By the end of the story, Bernice is the talk of the town. But in her greed to be the ultimate center of attention, she goes mad — ruining her own image and that of her cousin. The story’s conclusion reveals to the reader, Bernice, Marjorie, and possibly even to Fitzgerald how monstrous Bernice could be. Her potential is surfaced and her unknown area is made smaller.

Sometimes our stories grow automatically and our writer’s sixth sense guides us through its development. But sometimes we need directions which is why the Johari Window is so damn useful.

Character: Walk in Their Shoes

Atticus Finch knew that “you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them” (I forgot the actual quote, so I sprung this from Sparknotes). You can’t judge someone until you’re privy to all the aspects of their situation, of their life. It’s important to shift perspective in order to gain a better understanding.

I’m working on a character for a short story, who, as of yet, has no flaws, and I’m wondering in what ways can I get to know her? How do I reveal those flaws?

Before the readers, before the writing… how do you get to know your own creation? An important caveat: For those of you who have read Shelley’s Frankenstein, you might remember how Victor Frankenstein became obsessed with creating life. He devoted himself to one thing and poured his soul and all his energy into this. Naturally, he got physically sick, lost contact with his friends and family, and began to lose his mind. You don’t want to get so close to this character that it enraptures your life. An author should have a hold on various perspectives of his/her story and all of its many parts.  Thus, you should have the ability to see both the big picture and the smaller details, but if you’re too close, you might have trouble distancing yourself enough to see your character as your reader would.

So, while still keeping a safe distance, how do you go about fleshing out a character? Is it possible to simultaneously walk in their shoes and be objective? There are different exercises you can use to carefully give your character dimensions.

1. Questionnaires — You can find these easily — online, in books, in class — questionnaires are everywhere.

2. Criminal Interrogation — Charge your character with a crime (you choose whether or not your character is guilty). Play bad cop/good cop and try to prove that they’ve committed said crime by asking a bunch of pressing questions. Overwhelm the character. How does your character react under stress?

3. Fight with a Friend — Another stress exercise for your character. What would happen if your character got into an altercation with his/her closest friend?

4. Psychoanalysis of a Dream — Conjure up any random dream you’d like — the weirder the better. Take your character to see a professional psychoanalyst and let them pick apart your character’s freak dream. Let your creative juices flow freely; let your instincts guide you; work with whatever interpretation you produce (i.e. the disappearing food on the thanksgiving dinner table is your character’s inability to control his/her surroundings). Naturally, when you become privy to your character’s subconscious, you’ll also become privy to his/her true feelings, desires, and fears.

5. Tarot cards — This is a cool idea. I recently saw it on Write to Done, but it appears on other sites as well. This method is especially nifty when you don’t know much about character or when you want to know their future.

6. Compare and Contrast: Buddy for a Day — For one day, have your character follow you around. Whatever happens — compare/contrast it to what your character would do or feel in that situation. You’re creating a real life scenario to see how your character would behave and/or think in a less action filled, plot-driven circumstance.  Comparing/contrasting is a tool that might allow you to get a better understanding of the possible causes and effects of these behaviors and thoughts. You’re natural instinct isn’t to analyze your own actions, but when creating another life, it’s handy to know the ins and outs. Another method of ‘Buddy for a Day’ is for you to follow your character around. What does a day in the life of your character look like?