Character Mapping: So obvious I almost missed it
Updated: Mar 15
Welcome to Character Mapping!
I developed this program to help you Build your Characters and Find Your Self. We’re going to take a deep dive into character study with a set of psychological tools you will master for your own personal and professional benefit.
I’m not sure what brought you here. Maybe it was a suggestion from a friend, or your manager, or maybe some other happy accident. I’m glad you’re here.
Since this work is about building backstory and healing, it seems only fair that I share some of my story of mapping characters and how this method was born.
For more than 25 years, I’ve been a psychotherapist working mostly in private practice, attending to all sorts of people with all sorts of issues and suffering. It’s been so gratifying and inspiring.
I’m often asked if I feel burdened hearing all those sad or anxious stories from clients. How do you do it? How do you manage not to carry their pain home with you? Do you get bored and numb? Is therapy like how it’s shown in TV? No. No. No. And no. I’m not burdened by this work because I’ve had some excellent training, and because this training leaves me feeling genuinely hopeful about people. And this work is definitely not boring. I’ve learned to listen really, really well and I’m here to tell you NO ONE is boring and no one needs to remain stuck, not if they get good help peeling back the layers. Sure, being a therapist can be challenging and stressful sometimes, but it’s nothing like my last job.
I worked in entertainment. In LA. And I had a good but challenging run.
As a kid I wanted to act, but I had no clue how to make that happen and instead I discovered I could sing. Before and after college I was in rock bands and had a great time. I had a powerful voice. But I also had a lot of insecurities about my artistry and no personal "voice." By the time I got to LA in the mid-80s to pursue a singing career, I completely chickened out and got an industry job instead.
Luckily, I landed in some great places - a top PR firm in Beverly Hills and a couple of record companies where I got to work with a lot of amazing artists, storytellers, and all the ancillary folks that make the work happen. I loved working with creatives, perhaps because I missed my own creativity, but eventually the rest of the industry ate at my soul. There seemed to be a perverse equation where the more I succeeded the more depraved I felt. I didn’t like who I was becoming, so much so that it drove me into my own therapy.
Basically, the industry drove me into therapy and the therapy got me out. I felt worn out and out of my integrity, especially as a woman, and the healthier I started to feel on the inside the more I looked for healthier external environments. I had been doing some volunteer work at a children’s hospital and I discovered that I really loved being in service to others. It was my therapist who suggested I consider joining her profession. It sounded preposterous but the idea also resonated with me deeply. It seemed my soul had mostly gone into exile up until then. I trusted my gut and left a much-coveted career and all its trappings and went to graduate school to find out what makes people tick and how to help them transform, beginning with myself.
I was still in LA, and while I may have left the biz, I did not leave the artists. In fact, I started sharing with storytellers some of my textbooks and other things I was learning, thinking they’d be useful for creating their characters.
The earliest seeds for Character Mapping came to me in graduate school in the 90s, after I left entertainment. I wanted to do research on creativity and pain and was curious about the concept of the tortured artist. Were suffering and "madness" the main drivers of creativity? Were there certain personality types drawn to the arts? Would they lose their creativity
if they were happier and healthier? If their craft were a therapeutic outlet, were they getting the most out of it or was it causing more suffering? I was also fascinated by personality tests and was curious if there were any kind of agreement or consistency among them?
I had a lot of questions, and I would share what I was learning with storytellers I knew. At the same time I began to appreciate how myths, legends, and stories in general were powerful vehicles for understanding humanity and psychology. The link between storytelling and psychology was so obvious to me that I assumed storytellers were already well-schooled about psychology and character, but found that the complete opposite was true. Most MFA programs and the like didn't go beyond Freud or Jung, if they dealt with psychology at all. And there definitely wasn’t anything that was put together as a complete system that included neuroscience and mindfulness, or that put much focus on the storyteller themselves.
As a fan who happens also to be a therapist, I feel disturbed whenever I hear a storyteller talk about a character that haunted them long after the project concluded. And it's upsetting to know that some acting teachers bring students in contact with deep personal wounds to fuel their performance, sometimes quite forcefully, but then essentially leave them in their pain without any reliable practices for bringing them out of it, let alone processes for healing those injuries or harvesting gifts from the characters. This is what has most inspired me to bring Character Mapping into form, as well as a personal belief that the arts in general are essential to the health of humankind. I simply couldn't stand by and do nothing. I'm too grateful for what storytellers have given to me and to our world.
It was my good fortune to discover Internal Family Systems therapy just as it was making its debut. I studied closely with its founder, Richard Schwartz, and became a trainer spreading the word about this transformative approach across the globe. IFS showed me how to support my clients in finding deep healing within themselves for every part of them.
Personally, I was so grateful to have the IFS model to untangle and liberate my inner world of parts and restore my sense of Self, especially after a long string of losses and dark night(s) of the soul.
It was through these years of healing that Character Mapping started to take root inside me again. I had almost forgotten about it. And with this came a clear mandate from... somewhere... that it was time to bring what I'd learned back to the arts.
After researching the need for Character Mapping, initial offerings included a Master Class at the illustrious Willamette Writers Conference and an 8-month workshop series on the campus of the American Film Institute, with the support of an IFS colleague and director, Jen Kleiner. Over eight weekends at AFI, a small but dedicated group of actors, writers and directors turned up to study my crash course in psychology and mindfulness. I got clear about which topics to offer in which order, while being able to customize each of them depending on the story and the teller.
Over the years I’ve heard countless clients tell the story of their lives, past and present, and what dreams they held for the future. The obstacles they wanted to overcome. When we peeled back the layers, their stories were always compelling. With IFS as my foundation, I learned how to decipher all the “voices” inside people’s heads - not hallucinations, but what they think and feel, and how they are comped to act. I learned to listen closely as I accompanied them on deep inner journeys to find out who they really are. And it was incredible how creative every single person really was. How creative they were at surviving. How interesting all their choices were, even if they backfired. I consider it an act of courage to look inward, and those who found answers for themselves, and compassion. Healing was possible. The work wasn’t heavy, it was liberating and inspiring.
Storytelling is the first form of psychology and philosophy. I like to imagine our forebears, long ago, sitting around a campfire with folklore and fables about where someone made a fortunate or unfortunate choice. Offering reflections about themselves and society. What’s meaningful, shared values, etc. Everyone has a story and most of us can relate to others more empathically when we learn about theirs. Stories have the potential to wake up dormant voices inside, to feel more connected to ourselves and each other. Stories have the power to transform us.
What took me so long to create Character Mapping was that I thought it must already be out there. Certainly somebody must be teaching all the cool new discoveries from psychology and neuroscience and mindfulness to storytellers to help them craft their characters.
Character Mapping supports what you're already doing and adds more to the imagination. Much of this is preparatory work you'll do in advance, and some pieces will support you along the way or after your project is done. There are worksheets, notes, and references corresponding to the modules and I encourage you to try them out. You’ll be able to apply some or all of this to any character. And if you choose, you can do the exercises I’ve created for yourself as well. Character Mapping may be therapeutic and yet it's not the same as therapy. You may find it "stirs the pot", leaving you wanting more. Please go at your own pace and check out the Resources page if you need more support.
Let’s get started building characters for you that are honest, authentic, relatable and deep. And let’s stay open to how you can avoid or give up being a tortured artist by using these tools to find yourself. This is deep work. This is fun work. This is our work.