Today we are going to return the favor to the creative nonfiction folks. They have learned that using our techniques for fiction writing makes their stories more interesting. Today we are going to “borrow” from nonfiction to look for ways to make our characters deeper and more interesting to readers. We’ll use the book, Boundaries, written by two psychologists, Drs. Henry Cloud and John Townsend. Published in 1992, revised in 2017, it has sold over 10 million copies, and has led to additional books, Boundaries in Marriage, Boundaries with Kids, Boundaries with Teens, Boundaries for Leaders, and Boundaries in Dating.
The goals of the authors:
- Help develop healthy relationships
- Learn when to say yes and how to say no
- Learn to set limits in life and relationships
- Understand legitimate boundaries
- Learn to manage our digital life so it doesn’t control us
- Learn how to deal with those who are hurt by our boundaries
- Learn how to deal with someone who wants our time, energy, love, and money
- Understand why we feel guilty when we consider setting boundaries
- Know how to answer the idea that boundaries are selfish
Full disclosure: The book is written from a Biblical perspective, but the principles and advice apply to the psychology of all people, regardless of faith, religion, or culture.
So, why are we discussing this topic? Our goal is to reverse engineer the relationship-problem advice (i.e., make trouble), to create conflict, scars, and motivation for the goal/motivation/conflict of our characters.
And, why is conflict so important? Inner conflict is one of the great glues to bond the reader to our characters and keep the reader turning pages. Here are quotes from two top writing coaches and authors:
“Remember, conflict and suspense do not grip a reader unless and until she bonds with a character. Inner conflict is one of the great bonding agents. Explore deeply the inside of your Lead and give us glimpses of the psychological struggle. If you do, we will turn your pages.” p.143, end of chapter 9, “Inner Conflict,” CONFLICT AND SUSPENCE, James Scott Bell
“Inner conflict is an interior war. Like an invasion unfolding live on television, it’s a gripping contest that keeps readers glued. While conflicting feelings are a momentary effect, inner conflict can echo in readers’ minds years after they finish a novel.” p.23, chapter 3, “The Inner Journey,” WRITING 21st CENTURY FICTION, Donald Maass
First, what are boundaries? Boundaries are “invisible property lines” that “define what is me and what is not me…where I end and someone else begins, leading me to a sense of ownership.” (p. 31, Boundaries, 1992 ed.)
Next, let’s look at the four basic personality types in terms of relationships, particularly unhealthy relationships:
- The Compliant – those who can’t set boundaries and can’t say no to others who seek to invade their boundaries, even when they want to say no
- The Avoidant – those who set boundaries, even against those who would help them or care for them, and even when they need care or love
- The Controller – those who aggressively or manipulatively violate others’ boundaries for their own benefit, even when they realize what they are doing
- The Nonresponder – those who set boundaries against their own responsibility to love, even when it is clearly their responsibility
There are others, and combinations, but these are the four basic types. And by now you are seeing how one, or especially two, of these types in a relationship (marital, friendship, business, family, criminal, anything) could lead to some interesting problems. Boundary problems from a character’s early years or their past can leave scars and set up inner conflict. And that is what we are looking for.
Boundaries, by definition, involve relationships. Unhealthy relationships are usually the result of boundary problems and cause conflict, inner and external. The inner conflict causes, at the minimum, personality issues, and at the worst, motivation for external conflict and criminal acts.
Therefore, looking for (or creating) boundary problems between characters or from their past, can be fertile ground for inner conflict (motivation), which results in external plans (goals), that helps establish a character arc. The motivation, goals, and character arc can then guide the creation of an appropriate plot in which to tell our story.
One additional point with boundary problems, the conflict often ramps up when one person decides to change their boundaries. Here’s a personal example:
I grew up as a first-born, and was nurtured to become a Compliant (turn the other cheek; if they take away your shirt, give them your coat as well). I had no idea there were other options. When I finished my education and returned to my home community, my mother continued to exercise her skill at controlling me. She could talk me into doing almost anything she wanted done. Isn’t that what the eldest is supposed to do? I ended up in a service occupation. People quickly learn if you’re a push-over. I was burning out when I discovered Boundaries. It was life-changing. I foolishly took a copy of the book to my mother for her to read. When I returned the following week, she practically threw it at me. “Who ever gave you this trash?!”
So, Dear Writer, it’s time to plow our past to see what scars we can turn up:
- What scars do you carry that have resulted from boundary problems in your past?
- Or, if that is too personal or painful, what boundary problems have you observed in acquaintances (no names, please) that have left them with scars and relationship problems?
- How might those scars and boundary problems provide material for inner conflict with characters in your stories?
- Or, describe for us some of the most creative relationship problems you have developed for characters in your books, especially those that led to inner conflict for a character, and applied glue to the readers’ fingers to keep them turning pages.