Just in time for Halloween, a young man in the funeral industry named Declan came to see me and spend some time on my couch. Actually, his author, fabulous fellow GRW member Sally Kilpatrick sent me the following quandary:
Character name: Declan Anderson
Cultural or historical context :
Dec's family runs a funeral home. He's not overly enthused about the business, but he did make a promise to his now deceased father that he would keep it in the family. He lives in a small southern town where he's called "Cold Fingers" behind his back and definitely kept at a distance. His younger brother, who's more outgoing, doesn't seem to have the same trouble, but his brother is five years younger. The “Cold Fingers” stems from his first date on a winter's night and a really mean girl he should've never gone out with in the first place.
Brief description and relevant history:
He's over 6 foot tall, dark and handsome (of course!) but he's gone a little soft around the middle. His mother committed suicide when he was just 7. His father passed away when he was 14. He and his stepmother are just now becoming close--something new in her life is making her a little softer around the edges, but he doesn’t know what it is. He has vowed not to marry as long as he's a part of the funeral industry because he doesn't want his mother's particular brand of history repeating itself. Of course, that was before leggy actress Presley showed up. He's a bit taken with her.
His mother suffered from postpartum depression. That coupled with one traumatic event in particular caused her to go off the deep end. I know she was kept at a polite distance and had to deal with being snubbed by other ladies in town. Once the ladies from her church wouldn't let her bring a dish to the potluck because it would've come from that kitchen.
Oh, and he's almost 10 years older than my heroine.
Where you're stuck, or why your character needs a psychologist:
His conflict doesn't feel really actualized. Maybe there's something about his past that I'm missing, a different reason he thinks he's not cut out for long term relationships?
Sally, you've given me a lot to work with. Declan is a very interesting character, and the poor guy has had a lot to deal with.
Declan seems to have a huge responsible streak in his temperament, so it's likely he felt partially to blame for his mother's suicide – the ultimate female rejection at a tender age. Due to the nature of her death, it's possible that he wasn't given the kind of information he needed to make sense of it, so he made up his own explanation. Maybe he'd asked for a baby brother, and then he saw what happened. It's not surprising he has trouble with intimate relationships because he'll always feel like he's at a disadvantage, and he probably also felt like his lack of social support and nicknames were his fault. Kids who lose both parents need a lot of support from other adults, and he just didn't get it, probably because of the community alienating him due to the family business, and later because of the cold stepmother.
He's blaming his desire not to marry on the history with his mother, but it's also fear on his part to admit he wants something different. I would guess there's some resentment that he doesn't feel like he can admit to himself or anyone else over being emotionally blackmailed into taking over the family's funeral home business. Again, there's that responsible streak, but also the inability to separate himself, either physically or in his mind, from the family business and all the baggage that comes with it. He's probably never allowed himself to think about what he truly wants because he's afraid it will be taken away suddenly and tragically like his mother was, or it's going to conflict with living up to his promise to his father.
For example, with regard to Presley, perhaps he feels drawn to her because of her liveliness and her courage to pursue her dreams. She is a splash of color in his world of grays and blacks, a blast of rock music that captures attention rather than plays soothingly in the background so it won't disturb anyone. She might be the chance for the teenage rebellion he never got to have but desperately needed to come to a full sense of selfhood that will allow him to finally grow up. He might feel like he can't bring her into his world because he can't figure out how to keep it from poisoning her and killing her like it did his mother, and he's not going to be responsible for that again. But he can't leave that world because of what he promised his father. That second part may be what you feel like you're missing, and finding out that she has her own problems and insecurities will be huge for him because maybe he can then start admitting his own.
You've set up a huge and fascinating conflict for your hero, and I hope I get to read the finished product.
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3569022/ (study by the Royal Society of Medicine)
http://www.pcavt.org/assets/files/Articles/'s%20Development.pdf (effects on children at different ages)
http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/05/18/when-a-parent-commits-suicide-a-psychiatrist-s-advice.html (article on effects of parental suicide on kids)
Do you have a character you'd like some psychological help with? Please email me at:
I'll send you the questions to answer, and we can go from there!
Random discovery: There's a Museum of Funeral Customs in Springfield, Illinois. That's where the above picture was taken. I kind of want to go, but I bet my husband would be freaked out.
Photo credit: By Robert Lawton (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons
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