Understanding Your Character with CBT

DSC_1450For my dayjob, I work in the mental health sector, and the main framework of the support my company provides is a strategy based on CBT, which stands for “Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.”

Put simply, this focuses on thoughts (cognitions) and behaviours, and how they impact our feelings. In order to help people, my colleagues and I help patients to think about how their thoughts, physical symptoms and behaviours impact their feelings.

Getting the Ball Rolling

In CBT therapy, patients share an experience and we, as therapists, help them to identify their thoughts, feelings and actions within the cycle of their mental health problem. The idea is that these areas can effect each other – we feel low so we don’t go out (behaviour). We don’t go out so we have negative, guilty thoughts. Those thoughts may make our body feel hot and panicky (physical symptoms). And all of those things reinforce feeling low in mood (emotions).

In The Context of Characters

But what does this have to do with writing? Many “how-to-write” books focus on knowing a ‘character motivation’, which has never really made sense to me. I may know a character’s goals, and their history. There may even be a link between something which affected them, and that goal now.

However, using the CBT framework to focus on an event, such as the inciting incident, it’s possible to gain a clear understanding of the character’s experiences and view of the world. I’ve found that thinking about the four areas when writing from their point-of-view can be useful.

Thoughts, Behaviours & the Body

When considering points-of-view, the character’s thoughts and feelings are going to impact their behaviours. If my character is going about his day, until he is ambushed at the top of a cliff, then what changes for him?

His thoughts may race from his dinner tonight to if his sister is safe or how he can get out of here safely.

His skin may crawl and his hands begin to tremble, or his fight and flight response may get his msucles ready to fight his way out of the situation.

And thus, his behaviours may change depending on these.

If he wants to focus on getting home to check on his sister, or if he knows the ambusher’s would have kidnapped her, based on prior information, he’ll act differently to if he just wanted to get to safety and go have his dinner.


This is particularly useful when coming up with ‘plot twist’ideas. The audience may assume he’s going to get away, but he fights. Or he leaves but then returns to stab the ambusher’s back. Later on, the dots from earlier are connected to his sister and his reasons make sense. That “oh it was obvious now it’s happened” moments can be sculpted easiest when we know our character’s and their mindset.

What tools do you use to craft twists and manage your character’s choices?


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