Mental Health Monday–“U” is for Understanding

Part of my role as a psychiatrist is to convey a sense of understanding to my patients. A lot of times, people experience frustration, rejection, loneliness, despair when they don’t feel “heard.”

I’m sure we’ve all been through this.

Turning to writing, I think it’s safe to say that our characters want to be understood too. As writers, we have the power to make conversations go smoothly, to have our characters say the right thing all the time, every time, and to create a world that runs perfectly. Easy peasy, right? Everybody’s happy, right?


The challenge, then, is to captialize on conflict. Create tension by purposefully torquing misunderstandings.

Shannon Whitney Messenger offered a tip she learned at a conference:

From an editor: Remember that characters don’t speak to reveal. They speak to conceal. Real people rarely say exactly what they’re thinking. Characters shouldn’t either.

There you have it. People (and characters) want to be understood, but they often aren’t clear about what they’re thinking. They’ll often not say anything or say the OPPOSITE of what they feel.

I think the characters in Maggie Stiefvater’s LINGER exemplify this perfectly.

What about you? Do you create misunderstandings between characters in your writing? How do you do it?

Check out Lydia and Sarah’s posts on medical and mental health related topics. Remember, these posts are for writing tips only and are NOT to be construed as medical advice.


16 comments on “Mental Health Monday–“U” is for Understanding

  1. kendallgrey says:

    Oh, I love that idea – speaking to conceal. That’s brilliant. I’ll definitely take that one and run with it when I get back to writing and revisions.

    I haven’t had to deal with too many misunderstandings between characters. I think when I do, they’re more based on silence between them than anything one or the other says. Maybe silence is a form of concealment?

    Thanks for giving me something to think about today!

  2. vixter2010 says:

    Good idea and it does make sense – speak to conceal, not to reveal. Of course in some books a big reveal is needed e.g. murder confession but the closer we can get to how people really act the more realisitic our characters will be and the better our books!

  3. Vicki Tremper says:

    That’s a great tip from Shannon. Dialogue is so much more complicated than just people talking. Concealing motives while revealing character. Thanks!

  4. ketmakkura says:

    That definitely is a great tip. People don’t just spew out every thought in their mind. If they did, we would never stop punching each other. I need to remember that.

  5. Sarah says:

    I saw that post and I love the quote. I also loved LINGER, and you’re certainly right about characters speaking not to reveal but to conceal. It’s clearer there because that book is written from four different POVs! Great post, Laura!

  6. Carol Riggs says:

    VERY interesting! Great point, and this helps us make our characters more realistic. I’ve done it a little–the character hiding something, an emotion or bit of info–and the reader knows it’s totally opposite of what’s really going on. Definitely adds layers of interest to a novel!

  7. Not creating the perfect world peopled with perfect characters is very difficult. I wonder if it’s easier for people who like to debate issues?

  8. People speak to conceal. I’ve never heard that, but I suppose there is truth to this. Certainly, it would apply more to some than others. Perhaps to all at some time or other in life. Yes, in thinking about it, I see that we all have reason to conceal some of our thoughts.

    Our characters must be real. I think that the words we write for them should naturally flow from our knowledge of them, our characters, I mean. Blessings to you, Laura…

  9. Linda Gray says:

    What a great catchphrase to keep in mind (“speak to conceal, not to reveal”), especially when our characters really want something from the person they’re speaking to. Great for revealing coded internal conflict, too! Thanks.

  10. Lydia K says:

    What a great quote! I must remember this when I review my dialogue. Thanks Laura!

  11. Donna Hole says:

    I love misunderstandings between my characters. Especially betw lovers and best friends. I use dialogue and body language to mininterpret cues, and narrative description to show what the character is seeing out of context. Its fun.

    Later, you get to have all the making up scenes and gratify that author god complex by resolving everything.

    Drama makes for good conflict.


  12. Beautiful quote. What a great way to create tension/conflict. Much like Donna, I use nonverbal cues to help characters misinterpret each other.

  13. roguemutt says:

    You mean I can’t get medical advice from writing blogs? Guess I won’t ask you to look at this rash then.

  14. Nisa says:

    Ooh! Love this post! Great way to turn it around.

  15. Catherine Johnson says:

    I remember that advice from Shannon, must post that on the wall or something, fabulous titbit!

  16. Great post and I love the quote. If you think about it, it is really necessary to conceal more than we reveal in fiction in order to build tension. Likewise in real life, seldom do we ever communicate 100% of our thoughts. We are taught to be polite and only say something to others if we have something nice to say. How boring for fiction. We are motivated in real life by a variety of factors both positive and negative, to share only a minuscule amount of our true, complete and accurate thoughts, opinions and feelings. We self censor our actions and reactions to conform with each unique setting , the expectation of others and the expectations of ourself.

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