Fiction Writing, Psychotherapy & Patrick Rothfuss

This is a post on one of the most simple and complex facets of writing fiction, one that was brought to mind by my recent re-reading of The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss. What do therapy and a bearded world-saving supernerd have in common, you might ask? (I doubt Rothfuss would take offense to being called this, but just in case, the beard is well-documented, as is his amazing WorldBuilders charity, and we’ll just let his Neil Gaimon infatuation speak for itself, shall we?)

P Rothfuss

Back on track. We’re talking about good fiction here. So, once upon a time, before I was a tortoise chaser or a fanfic freak or a budding author, I was training to be a therapist. I was in the realm of bespectacled head-nodders and tissue-handers for years, and for all the talking they did, they only had a single real thing to teach about doing therapy. It was this: “You can’t tell a patient what’s wrong with them, you have to let them figure it out for themselves. It also really helps if you don’t greet their epiphany by shouting, purple-faced, ‘I FREAKING TOLD YOU SO!'”

It was a hard lesson for blunt-spoken, bulldozering Younger Me to learn. I would sit there with clients, nodding in my best sympathetic fashion, jaws clamped shut against the words, “JUST LEAVE HIM! HE’S A SNIVELING, ABUSIVE TOE-WART OF A MAN WITH NO REDEEMING QUALITIES!” as I tried to gently lead them toward this realization on their own.

It will come as perhaps no surprise to the readers of this blog that I ended up as a biologist and a novelist instead.

However annoying it was to learn, the lesson remained in my head. If you truly want someone to know something, you can’t tell it to them. To be a good author, or a good therapist, you have to nibble around the edges of truth. You have to add in a parable about a bird, a tinker, and a pair of magic boots. You have to talk about beards, and abusive husbands, and Kleenex.

Now, it’s taken me 345 words to explain it, but Rothfuss did it in only 26. Because he’s better than me. Allow me to share his 26, quoted from The Wise Man’s Fear:

“If you give a man an answer, all he gains is a little fact. But give him a question and he’ll look for his own answers.”

So I ask you, what do YOU need to learn? And what do you have to say?

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