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Mental Mistakes by Kat Duncan

Many characters have external goals such as saving a life, obtaining wealth, crossing the desert, etc. Along with the external goals they have internal goals: assuage guilt, get revenge, find love or acceptance. We usually look at goals in positive ways, as something the character wants. But psychology offers us a different way to look at them, as mistakes.

An error in thinking is something the character believes about themselves or the world that is wrong in some way and keeps them from achieving their goals (both internal and external). Beneath that is perhaps a lesson the character must learn in order to be able to move onto the next level and achieve happiness. For example your character might have to learn to let go and not always be in charge or to allow himself to shirk some responsibility and have some fun. Or, your character might need to learn some discipline to keep himself out of trouble. There are some common mental mistakes that have been identified by psychologists.

The list comes from the study of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, a technique that uses awareness of faulty thinking patterns to get a handle on negative emotional patterns. Here are some of the mental mistakes that I remember, probably because they are the most common ones I often refer to.

All-or-Nothing Thinking: Your mother is angry with you because you didn’t clean up the kitchen after you cooked something for yourself. Therefore you conclude your mother hates you.

Mental Filter: A few people at the office greet you with smiles and how are you’s, but one lady grunts a hello and turns away. You wonder why everyone has to be so rude.

Jumping to Conclusions: Your husband is 30 minutes late coming home from work on a night when you’ve planned to go out for dinner. When he arrives you scold him for making you worry and spoil your evening out by running through a litany of times when he’s been late before. You never ask him what delayed him.

Overgeneralization: Your friend has been out of work for a few months. At first he applied for jobs on a regular basis, but after many interviews that came to nothing, he sends out fewer and fewer resumes. He says nobody’s hiring, so why should he bother to apply. There are no more good jobs anymore.

Discounting the Positive: Your mother did a beautiful job redecorating the family room. She chose the colors herself, selected the artwork and carefully arranged the furniture. When she is complemented on it at the family reunion, she says she copied the idea from a magazine and doesn’t think it looks as good as she’d hoped.

Mislabeling: Your sister fails to keep to her limit of one glass of wine at dinner. She labels herself an alcoholic even though she only had one more glass of wine.

Personalizing: You are behind on your college coursework because your kids have been sick. Your husband thinks it’s his fault because the kids didn’t want him to stay home with them while they were ill.

Should Statements: Your cousin complains about your aunt’s way of handling the family finances. He tells you she should invest in bonds and she should have the advice of an accountant. He claims she should be making much more money on her investments.

Look over these mental mistakes and see if any of these apply to your characters. If so, exploit those mistakes and weave the consequences into your story line. With thanks to Savvy member Corey Popp, here is another link to pursue the same idea with some useful variations and examples:

For more info on how to exploit psychology strategies in your novels join me for the Psyched In workshop coming upon the 13th of October!!

Kat Duncan smallKat Duncan is a creation extremist who is doing her best to identify human creativity and free it from captivity, one student at a time. As a young child, Kat once tried to confess the telling of her stories to her parish priest because she thought they fit the definition the nuns gave for telling a lie. With her lies fully sanctioned and blessed by church authorities, Kat writes stories to entertain and enlighten. She is a Fulbright Scholar who spent a year in West Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Kat has a master’s degree in education and over a dozen years of experience teaching students from elementary through college and beyond. Her stories span a range from realistic historicals to quirky suspense. Visit her at:


HandleConflict1 200 x 300Many authors have a troubling writing condition I call Tension Deficit Disorder or TDD. This condition frequently occurs with new writers, writers who are struggling to move beyond the basic levels of writership, or those who write for own enjoyment. Tension brings out the best and the worst in all of us, and if that is true of real human beings, it should also be true of characters. If you have developed TDD you may experience such symptoms as difficulty plotting novel-length stories, struggles to write scenes where anything of actual story-worthiness happens, worries about the pacing of your drafts and a general reticence to put your characters into hot water. You created your characters, your darlings, your babies, and of course you want them to be happy, fulfilled, loved and successful in their story world lives. That is what all parents want for their children. All well and good, but that recipe makes for rather dull reading. If you truly love your characters you will want them to suffer. But this suffering is not without its merits, because through their suffering they will become better people and when they succeed in their post-suffering world (also known as the end of the story) readers will be delighted. There’s hope for TDD! You don’t have to suffer any longer. Your job is to make your characters suffer, not you! Don’t fall into the lull of low tension scenes where all goes well. Put your suffering into your novel and save the joy and happiness for your own life.