I must admit, I've had an interesting career journey. For many years I was a Hollywood screenwriter, after which I became a licensed psychotherapist specializing in treating creative types in the entertainment community. Now, 24 years into a deeply fulfilling private practice, I've added a new item to my resume: I've begun a series of crime novels. The first, Mirror Image, featuring psychologist and trauma expert Daniel Rinaldi, appeared last year. The sequel, Fever Dream, is on sale now.
Which begs the question: what, if anything, does a Hollywood psychotherapist and a suspense novelist have in common? Actually, quite a bit.
For both a therapist and a crime novelist, it's the mystery of character itself that intrigues, puzzles, and continually surprises. As a therapist, I've borne witness to the awful suffering, painful revelations and admirable courage of my patients -- many of whom have survived unbelievable abuse, neglect and loss. Not to mention those whose lives have been marred by substance use, violence, and severe mental illness.
How people cope with these issues and events, how well or poorly they meet these challenges, goes directly to the heart of the therapeutic experience. My job as their therapist is to help identify self-destructive patterns of behavior, and to empower them by providing tools to address these patterns and, hopefully, alter them.
So much for my day job. Moonlighting as a suspense novelist, I find myself doing pretty much the same thing with my fictional characters. As a mystery writer, I believe that crime stems from strong emotions, and strong emotions stem from conflict. Kind of like life. Which means the secret to crafting satisfying thrillers lies in exploring who your characters are (as opposed to who they say they are), what it is they want (or think they need), and the lengths to which they'll go to get it.
Like the therapist, the crime novelist swims in an ocean of envy, greed, regret, and desire. As a therapist does, the crime novelist must truly relate to his or her characters. Must be able to understand and empathize with their wants and needs. Must, in fact, go inside their heads and think as they think, feel as they must feel.
Since most of my patients are in the entertainment industry -- writers, actors, directors, etc. -- they present a broad canvas of creative passions, lofty ambitions, wild yearnings and devastating defeats. They love and hate deeply, with an artist's fervor, and this extends beyond career considerations into the most intimate aspects of their personal lives.
So too the crime novelist must create and endow his or her characters with out-sized passions, hopes and dreams. How else can things go so awry in their lives? How else can things lead, as if inevitably, to treachery, blackmail, murder?
All the things, in other words, that make a crime novel so satisfying to read. And, truth be told, so equally satisfying to write...