By Virginia Parker Staat
“What kind of advice do you expect for only a nickel?”
~ Charles M. Schulz: Peanuts, Lucy van Pelt from her Psychiatry Booth
Lucy van Pelt didn’t have a lemonade stand in the Peanuts cartoon series. She had a psychiatry booth. From behind her rickety, wooden booth, Lucy offered her own brand of advice to whomever had a nickel. Surprisingly, Lucy can be a role model for us writers.
Using psychology in our writing can help trigger our readers’ emotions. It can help us add intrigue to our plot. It can add depth to our stories. Using psychology can change attitudes in our persuasive writing. In The Psychology Workbook for Writers, Darian Smith explains, “Writers—the good ones anyway—are keen observers of human nature and they capture it in their characters and storytelling. They show the behaviors, the thought processes, and the ways people make meaning out of their experiences and events and turn these into provoking entertainment.”
The good news is that we don’t need a degree in psychology to use it in our writing. Much of the time, we intuitively know the psychological reasoning behind why people or animals act as they do. The challenge is to relay this in our stories. If we need a brush-up course in psychology, we can simply become observers in a setting similar to the one we are writing.
As an example, when writing about people, we can visit a cafe or coffee house and observe body language in hand signals, head movement, and arm positions. When writing about a setting, we can immerse ourselves outdoors and observe how our five senses respond or how others respond to natural elements. We can add intrigue with inciting incidents, clues, and twists that capture interest and heighten reader emotions. We can watch television commercials to evaluate persuasive language techniques. Robert Wood from Standout Books explains, “For many authors, psychology is a godsend, lending them new insights into the workings of the human mind that take their work to the next level.”
Using psychology can also build trust and connection with our readers. Editor and writer Grace Rankin explains, “Finally, we can use psychology to understand our readers and how they relate to our characters. Who is our audience? Are we writing for kids, adults, both? We need to study the demographic we’re writing for. What do our readers need from us? We should know what moves them, how to evoke reactions, and how they relate to our content.”
A Psychology Today article by James C. Kaufman, Ph.D., proposed “The Charlie Brown Theory of Personality.” Kaufman explained, “This model reduces all of the different possible personality variables into five broad factors: neuroticism (now more politely called emotional stability), extraversion, openness to experience (sometimes just called openness), conscientiousness, and agreeableness.”
The article continues with Kaufman examining how Charles M. Schulz exemplified these five personalities in his comic strip characters. Charlie Brown was a model neurotic. Crabby Lucy revels in her disagreeableness. As an example, the very first time Schulz introduces Charlie Brown visiting Lucy’s psychiatry booth, Charlie Brown tells her that he is feeling depressed. Lucy replies, “Snap out of it! Five cents, please.”
In those seven words, Charles M. Schultz completely developed Lucy’s character. As comic strip readers, we learned about the psychological makeup of Lucy, her motivation, and her personality traits. By incorporating psychological techniques into our writing, we can add similar depth to our characters, our setting, our story, and better connect to our readers.
I close with the words of Lucy van Pelt: “Everyone is entitled to my opinion.”
Five cents, please.