analyst's couch

Three Pitfalls of Pop Psychoanalysis

My mother’s nickname in our family was “the dog psychologist,” because whenever our dog behaved strangely she always had some complicated explanation for how it must be feeling based upon the traumas she imagined it had experienced before we got it from the pound. This sounds familiar, right? We love to put people, animals, friends, strangers, family members and ourselves on the analyst’s couch. There’s something comforting about imagining we know why people do the things they do, but we’re just guessing, which is why it’s called “pop psychoanalysis.”

Luckily, when we, as writers, create characters, we get to play God. So if we decide Joe Shmo likes to stand on his head because he was a breach baby, then that’s the reason. End of story. In memoir writing, though, we’re stuck between these two situations. Memoir is about real people living real lives, so writing these stories is more like playing Journalist than playing God, yet because the story is your interpretation, you can play God, if you want to, by explaining the deep psychological reasons the people in your life behave the way they do. But should you?

Readers Don’t Really Care about your Pop Psychoanalysis

Since I’ve been teaching memoir writing, I’ve noticed some students get hung up and almost paralyzed in their writing by the need to explain why certain real people in these stories behave the way they do. They feel readers won’t believe in the characters without an explanation. Stop right there! Let me assure you, you don’t need to explain it. Have more faith in your readers because your readers have faith in you.

3 Solid Reasons Not to Psychoanalyze Characters

First of all, you don’t know for sure why they behave the way they do. It’s kind of insulting to people to suppose that you, an amateur psychoanalyst, have figured out someone else’s deep inner drives and insecurities. If asked, the person might tell you your analysis is totally off-base. Second, it’s boring. To stay interesting and suspenseful, a story needs to focus on the dramatic action of the story and not break to delve into the traumas of the past. Third and most importantly: readers will believe you if you write with confidence.

A Confident Writer Needs no Pop Psychoanalysis

Everyone has met kooky people with quirky personalities. When we meet them, we don’t automatically need to know how they got that way. We just accept them as they are because there they are, right in front of us. Same with creating characters in writing. If you as the author are confident and consistent in the way you describe your characters, readers will simply go along for the ride.

Remember, your readers didn’t open your book to doubt you. They opened the book to be entertained. So, if you’re entertaining them with believable stories, they’ll go along with you. Know your characters. The weirder the better. They might hallucinate, scream inappropriate things, talk in strange ways, or behave irrationally, but as long as you, the writer, portray them consistently–and even their inconsistencies can be a type of constant–readers will believe you. They want to believe you. That’s the fun of reading.

Don’t be a Brain Robber

Also, when you skip the pop psychoanalysis, it enables readers to do their own psychoanalysis of the character, which is part of the fun of reading. Don’t take that fun away from readers! Reading is a very analytical process. It’s not passive, like watching a TV show. Writers need to give readers a few interesting, and not fully explained, things to chew on as they read.

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