by: Staci Stallings
So, my blog this month stems from a couple of questions I got from my Facebook group, Staci’s FAN-tastic Readers,
The first comes from Christina Jay:
“Maybe not much of a question, and it’s something you’ve talked about a bit here but you have really dug deep into psychology with the Imagination Series and made some difficult concepts easier to understand. Have you studied psychology?”
The second comes from Kathy Gilbride:
“How do your characters tell you their story? Do you just know their personality and they take you where they want to go? Or do you already know what their story is before you start writing? I’d love to hear your process for writing a book!”
I thought I’d try to tackle both questions at the same time because there are a lot of overlaps in the answers to them.
Psychology was one of my first loves when I got old enough to start trying to figure people out. In fact, when I was a junior in high school, my plan was to study psychology in college. Then I got talked out of that and into teaching because others were afraid I wouldn’t be able to separate my heart from my work.
So, my love of psychology went temporarily into hibernation although I honestly think it never really went away. It actually just shifted for a time. I took psychology in college and loved it. Then I watched others who were in psychology as a field, and I realized there are many parts to the field of psychology that don’t mesh with who I am. For example, I don’t like the emphasis on diagnosing everything as a disorder. Are there genuine disorders? Sure. But by and large, I think that we all have issues and things we need to work on and through. Putting a label on everything is not my idea of productive.
However, the thing I never lost was my love of delving into who people are and what makes them tick. I love the ideas of backstory and process and learning and growth. I love to see how people tackle life (or not), how they choose what they choose and why. I love working through the process with them as they confront the consequences of their choices and learn lessons on a deep, deep level.
I think for me, one of the things that happened was that, along the way, I started looking at psychology through a spiritual lens. I read tons of books—some secular psychology, some spiritual. I saw the similarities and the gaps. I saw the inherent complements, so that questions that appear psychological are best answered in the spiritual. As I read and wrote, I began to see patterns in my characters, and I began to truly understand them not as characters but as people with real problems.
This morphed into longer books with more in-depth story and character arcs. I had to up my game both in the learning realm and in the how to get to really know someone realm. So, to Kathy’s question, I think the answer is that I genuinely love to get to know people, characters included. Very rarely do I know “everything” about them when we start, and when I think I do, I’m often wrong. My characters often surprise me in the course of writing their stories.
In fact, I often get to know my characters just as you do—through spending time with them. I see them when they are with friends, with parents, and alone. I start to form understandings based on the time I spend with them in different environments and situations. I see the inherent inconsistencies of who they are alone vs. when they are with different people, and I start asking the questions I always ask, “Why are they doing this? What does this mean? How does this fit? What doesn’t fit, and why doesn’t it fit? What are they not telling me? What else could this mean?”
Basically, I get to know them as I write their story.
This is not a straightforward or clean process. Just like in real life, there are roadblocks and things that just don’t make sense… until they do.
When I start to write a book (a first book in a series or standalone), very often I don’t know much of anything. I might know a name or a very basic plot of the story. Many of my stories have come out of dreams I’ve actually had and latched onto because the basics were fascinating to me. Then, I start somewhere, write and try to figure out what I don’t know.
Doing this has resulted in some very interesting twists and turns—like Jake in More Than This who turned out to be dyslexic 50 pages in, or Kalin in Lucky who refused to tell me what had happened in his backstory until page 350, or Taylor in the last of The Imagination Series, who eight books in STILL hasn’t revealed what’s driving her.
I think that is one thing I’ve learned is how closed some people really are. It’s like they have been hurt so badly that they’ve just closed down what is most them. A lot of times, they aren’t even being real with themselves much less anyone else.
What I’ve found is that the place people like this can find hope and healing is in the midst of God’s unconditional love. The point of psychology was supposed to give people a safe place to sort things out, and I hope and pray for many that actually happens. But, in my experience, all the talking around and around a problem will do nothing until you can trust enough to get to-the-bone honest about what’s really going on—maybe even about things you’ve never admitted to yourself. Most of the time, that takes the safety of God’s love to really get there.
So I guess that’s my answer to both questions. I’m called to psychology, but God saw fit to take me around another way. His way.
And I’m so glad He did because of the amount of healing I’ve seen Him accomplish through me and my writing.
Okay, InspyRomance readers, now it’s your turn. Do you have any burning questions you’d like to have answered? Ask away!
Mary Felkins says
Staci, this was both exceptionally helpful and, most important…TIMELY. Today I begin actually writing the third in a series featuring characters that are kind of locked up. They’ve “told” me some things, let me peek into backstory a bit but, as with all other projects, they speak louder and louder as we spend time together. With that, it’s off to write! Thanks so much for sharing your insight.
Staci Stallings says
Absolutely, Mary! Although the “locked up” characters are harder to write, in the end, I always learn the most from them. I hope you have a similar experience!
Kimberly Rose Johnson says
As someone who has a degree in behavioral science and loves observing people, I really enjoyed this post. It’s interesting to see how similar we are in our approach to story and characters.
Staci Stallings says
That’s so cool, Kimberly. I think that authors who study psych or behavioral sciences naturally write from a different angle. I think that readers who have studied psych also read from a different angle. The thing that drives me nuts as a reader is when characters do things randomly and it’s never really explained as to why they did it, or why they did it doesn’t ring true.
I have a niece who studied psychology in college, and actually has her BS and Master’s in it. She didn’t do her two years required to be on her own, though she started that. She went to NZ instead, to travel, and ended up meeting a Kiwi and marrying. She now has two little Kiwi’s. She works, but not as a counselor. When her Kiwi’s get older, she’ll need to use that psychology degree on them!
Staci Stallings says
Oh, believe me, that is SO true! I find the older my kiddos get, the more I need all I’ve learned along the way. Even if you don’t counsel, psychology is always a useful tool to have!
This was so interesting, I love how you are using your love of psychology in a way that points people to God. Do you ever tackle a particular issue that you feel God is leading you to write about, or does it just kind of organically end up that way as you write?
Staci Stallings says
Yes and no. Yes, in that I have learned to just let God go where He wants the books to go. When I tried to fight that, it didn’t work. (Also doesn’t work to fight the characters!) Usually the “issue” shows up as I write. For example, the underlying issue in this series seems to be the role of fathers in a family and how their life experiences and traumas create issues for their kids. Very little of it seems direct, but if you trace through the characters, they all have various issues surrounding how their fathers grew up.
In other series, I’ve “tackled” PTSD, grief, poverty, dangerous weight loss, workaholism, abortion, dyslexia, out-of-wedlock children, suicide, and on and on….
What a wonderful post! I can connect with the idea that we build our understanding of others over time through observation and interaction with that person. What is your understanding of how that works for you as an author where you are both the discoverer and and the one behind the curtain?
Staci Stallings says
It involves a LOT of trust in God. I think especially the longer a series goes on, and especially when I’m crazy enough to publish the early ones before the later ones are finished (or even written). But what I’ve also found is like life, unless it’s a timing issue–so for example, how a real-life job would be and the hours they would work–usually, I go forward rather than try to re-engineer what’s already happened. So, for example, I won’t go back and have something not happen, rather I go forward as if it happened and write through the ramifications of that. It is weird though, a lot of times, not knowing WHERE this is going or HOW we’re getting where I vaguely know we are going.
Like with this series, I do know several things that are coming, but I don’t know when, how, and where those things are going to happen. I can “see” them in my mind, and in fact, I thought they would happen faster than they have. But I also see now that what has happened was what needed to happen.
It was funny because when I started writing my new one (Book #9), I told a friend of mine how different the heroine is now. My friend asked what I meant by that, and all I could say was she has grown up a LOT over the last two books because she’s so in a different position now than she was 3 books ago. So it’s super interesting to me how the characters change and grow and “become” in a natural way so that she really makes sense now whereas if I had just jumped her to this point, she totally wouldn’t have.
Lelia (Lucy) Reynolds says
Thank you for sharing. Merry Christmas 🎄🎁
Staci Stallings says
Thanks for stopping by, Lelia!