The Badass Character in Therapy
Badass Character + Effective Therapist = Higher Story Stakes
Posted Dec 13, 2010
One of the most fascinating clichés I see in fiction writers' work is the use of therapy (aka "the establishment") to prove how tough and cool a character is.
Here's the typical setup. Difficult Character is an abrasive, antagonistic, hard-as-nails badass who has to go see a therapist to make Someone in Authority happy. The therapist (e.g. "shrink," "white coat," or even "mindf***er"), utterly out of his league, is lucky to survive the session while Difficult Character manipulates, mocks, or otherwise humiliates him, putting him in his proper place.
An example from one writer's work:
They threw a psych at me.... This one was a medium grade white coat with just a little bit of the shiny patina still remaining in the corners of his eyes to tell me he wasn't that far away from the factory where they must churn them out in clean batches, stamped twelve to a box. He wouldn't have had a hope in hell with any of us, and he sure didn't stand a chance with me. [My commander] would have sat there and played questions back until the guy would have been the one to end up confessing his sins, asking for absolution.... Me, I have to go with what works for me. The mindf***er's office was even mostly intact when I stormed out...
On the one hand, I appreciate what the writer is trying to accomplish. Difficult Character is clever, cool, and harder to crack than Dirty Harry. Regardless of the method he uses, he can invariably outshrink the shrink. And so, by the way, can his brother in arms.
While I have no doubt that there are therapists out there who would be left quivering among their session notes following a visit from a true badass, the average badass doesn't just pick a therapist from his insurance roster and show up one day. No, badasses are usually sent to people who deal with badasses for a living. They know the games. They know the tricks. And they know what to do in response.
But that's still not what always gets me in these stories. What fascinates me about these badass characters is that they go to the therapist. Often more than once. Difficult Character in the writer's example above is an irreplaceably elite soldier, so (as he informs us in the story) it's not like something as simple as a shrink's disapproval is going to matter to him.
Yet he still goes.
And then we're supposed to believe that he busts up the therapist's office and there are no consequences. (And that his outrageous behavior might not reveal more fear about what he might expose in therapy than true devil-may-care attitude, as the writer intends.)
Problem: First, people who care that little about going to therapy don't go. Period. Ergo, Difficult Character must have some stake in going. That stake, of course, is that Someone in Authority demanded it. In these stories then, why does Someone in Authority never seem to punish Difficult Character for his actions? Answer: Writer Logic FAIL.
If Someone in Authority lets his elite human killing machine run around busting up therapists' offices, he's lost control of said elite soldier. And that's dangerous. No, Someone in Authority would come down on Difficult Character, and come down hard. Difficult character wouldn't be able to "[BS] my way through...the usual lecture about needing to keep the support staff untraumatized."
Writers who fail to portray those consequences are missing a great opportunity to show their characters in conflict.
Both sociologist Jack Katz and psychologist Roy Baumeister have looked at the psychology of the badass. As Baumeister puts it, "the badass...applies the myth of pure evil for his own benefit...the mere threat of violence is one of the main ways [this type of person] take[s interpersonal] power... As Katz emphasizes in his portrait of the badass, the irrationality is vital for conveying to everyone that the badass cannot be controlled or predicted, let alone understood."
But - Difficult Character is never really a true badass. He doesn't go around randomly "being mean and cruel for no apparent reason." Nope, other than his bad behavior in the poor shrink's office, Difficult Character is often deep and tortured, and we learn that after he supposedly convinces the shrink he's impervious to human emotions.
Esteemed Writer, if you must send your Difficult Character to therapy, think outside the cliché: how can you use Difficult Character's interaction with the therapist to let readers in on the secret that he actually cares so much that he's tortured? To ramp up the story stakes?
If Therapist is meant to assess Difficult Character's ability to function in society, what if she sees a crack in his façade? What if she reports back to Someone in Authority that he's pushing Difficult Character way too hard...and she's right? What if Difficult Character is removed from duty? How does that impact the identity of someone who's as badass as Difficult Character?
Or maybe your Difficult Character is more like the silver-tongued commander, turning every question back on the therapist. Hardly unique behavior. In fact, Therapist has a name for that: resistance. But what if she's able to penetrate that resistance, using tried-and-true therapy techniques?* What if Difficult Character confesses to resenting the ridiculous amount of responsibility placed on his young shoulders? What might he discover in subsequent sessions?
A true badass, argues fellow PT blogger Jim Taylor, isn't someone like Jersey Shore's The Situation, who knocks himself out trying to be cool. No, "a real badass is driven by values such as responsibility, justice, honor, courage, compassion, humility, integrity, and selflessness, which pretty much disqualifies most every self-proclaimed badass out there... A badass is someone who stands up for the weak and oppressed...who takes a ‘hit for the team,' meaning puts others' needs ahead of [his] own, whether a soldier in a platoon [or] a parent working two jobs to give her children a better life..." [italics mine] For example, "Batman is a badass...because he suffered in his life and devoted his life to justice."
Many Difficult Characters (including the ones I'm using in my examples above) are (anti)heroes; busting up a therapist's office is, in reality, against character. These are characters who help people, save people — not characters who would actually terrorize innocents who are just trying to help them. How much richer can your story be if your character is just a touch less impervious, just a touch more human?
Only you know, Esteemed Writer, and if we're lucky, maybe you'll tell us in a story!
* How can you help your therapist character break through your antihero's resistance? I address techniques in my new book, The Writer's Guide to Psychology: How to Write Accurately About Psychological Disorders, Clinical Treatment and Human Behavior.
Baumeister. R. F. (1997). Evil: Inside human violence and cruelty, 121-123. New York: Henry Holt. Katz is cited and quoted within Baumeister's book.
Copyright © Carolyn Kaufman, PsyD • http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/psychology-writers