Jeannie Campbell

Jeannie Campbell is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in California. She is Head of Clinical Services for a large non-profit and enjoys working mainly with children and couples. She has a Masters of Divinity in Psychology and Counseling and bachelors degrees in both psychology and journalism. Jeannie started doing character therapy in March of 2009. Her Treatment Tuesdays feature assessments of fictional characters and plot feasibility while her Thursday Therapeutic Thoughts take a psychological topic and make it relevant to writers. She can be found at her blog, The Character Therapist, at, and website at, The Character Therapist, at

Six Traits of Self-Destructing Characters

I have a client who is the epitome of self-destructing. By self-destructing, I mean bent on a path that will lead to death eventually, not just self-destructing in an emotional or psychological sense.

As a result of my interactions and observations while in session with this client, I’m bringing you—straight from the trenches—a glimpse into the mind-set of a self-destructing person. I’ve noticed some general characteristics that will definitely help make your self-destructing characters more realistic.

1) They will have an obsession, and it will be their Achilles’ heel.

The characters live and breathe for a particular person, achievement, desire. It usually consumes them, and reality fades as a testament to how unbalanced they are becoming in their quest for this obsession. More than likely, this obsession will stem from an unmet need in childhood or young adulthood.

2) They will put their welfare below their desire for the obsession, even if it means their deaths.

Whether they are addicted to drugs or a person (think Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction), the means to the end are always justified. They can’t see beyond the trees to the forest, so consequences are minimized or they are completely blind to them. This is perhaps the most infuriating trait, because rational people can’t understand this mind-set.

3) They likely will have a personality disorder or serious mental disorder.

This one is on my list by default. Anyone who exhibits the first two will probably qualify for something like borderline personality disorder, bipolar, schizophrenia . . . something major.

4) Their families and close friends (if they have any) are worn out and unable to cope with them.

These people take and take and take, completely overwhelming and exhausting everyone around them, emotionally and physically. (Yes, this includes therapists, which is why we stress self-care in our training so much.) In general, though, family members can’t or won’t deal with the “craziness” that comes with the obsession and recklessness.

5) Attempts to reason with a self-destructing person fall on deaf ears.

As mentioned before, reality takes a backseat to the self-destructing person. As a therapist, I am obligated to do what I can to help my client see a different, better way. A more healthy way. I usually receive a blank stare or feel like I’m talking to a wall. But writers should give one or two scenes over to someone trying to talk sense to this character.

6) Their demise probably will not be satisfactory to any involved, because it’s more tragic.

Don’t get me wrong. Sometimes the bad guy has to die, and I know this. But if you’ve done your homework and included the above, the end to a self-destructive character will resonate with the reader in more of a reflective way, not necessarily an “awesome, he/she is dead!” way.

I recommend Stephen James (author of The Pawn, The Queen), who has some of the best examples of self-destructing characters I’ve read. I usually end up feeling sympathy for the villain, no matter how awful he or she is, given his masterful way of writing.


The Character Thrapist