|This is a test of your creative imagination...|
There is a projective psychological test called the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT). It’s not the most empirical thing in the world, as the client essentially tells a subjective story about each of a series of (rather dated) black-and-white scenes. Therapist and client then look for recurring themes in the stories, sometimes providing surprising insight into client concerns.
When we write stories of our own, in many ways we are participating in a grand version of the TAT, exorcising relevant life themes onto the page, sometimes over and over. It’s not unusual for a particular writer’s stories to have common elements, characters, themes, and settings.
So how, someone once asked me, how do we avoid projecting our own concerns, our own personal narratives, into our stories?
Honestly, I’m not sure we should try to avoid doing so.
From a psychological standpoint, there is often something healing in writing, and if you are continually finding the same theme on your page, that repetition compulsion (i.e. a repetitive re-enactment of a particular set of circumstances) may indicate something you (and your characters) need to work through before you’re going to be able to move on to something new. One of the beautiful things about storytelling is that you can play out various outcomes. Don’t be afraid to push your characters into uncomfortable situations. Let them wrestle with the issue or issues in their own ways. See what happens.
Another argument for allowing the same theme to recur is that it’s clearly something that has a lot of energy in your psyche. If you let it, that energy will come through and engage your readers. Especially if you’re willing to push your characters—and yourself—into literary places that are not familiar, comfortable, or safe.
Your main character is afraid of failing in school and not measuring up? Take a deep breath and let him fail. Let all those awful things that he’s (you’re) afraid of happen. How will he overcome those problems? How will those struggles affect him as a person?
If the theme recurs later, push both your characters and yourself even harder, into even darker, scarier places. Archetypal psychology, often used in storytelling, suggests that each hero must eventually confront his greatest fears if he is to overcome them. Some of your characters may fail or even break under such pressure; they may even become villains as a result. Don’t be afraid to explore those possibilities; you may find some of your best villains down those dark passages. But also remember that the most exciting plots and the strongest heroes are also born of such trials. It may be a rocky road, but your hero will prevail and overcome…and so will you.
Carolyn Kaufman, PsyD's book, THE WRITER'S GUIDE TO PSYCHOLOGY: How to Write Accurately About Psychological Disorders, Clinical Treatment, and Human Behavior helps writers avoid common misconceptions and inaccuracies and "get the psych right" in their stories. You can learn more about The Writer's Guide to Psychology, check out Dr. K's blog on Psychology Today, or follow her on Facebook or Google+!