During my M.A. in Community Counseling program, I learned about counseling theories for the first time and immediately gravitated towards Adlerian theory. His background and perspective interested me: Adler was a sickly child who overcame great odds and would go on to work with Sigmund Freud, although he would eventually be ostracized by him and organizations connected with him over disagreements regarding theory and approach. Adler would found the school of individual psychology and was a man who argued for more equality for women and those on the outskirts of society. His focus on social justice struck a chord with me so that I eventually funneled down how I would work with clients to Adlerian theory, mixed with feminist theory.

You can infuse Adlerian elements into your writing, and in some ways, I imagine that you already are because his influence reaches beyond the mental health realm.  Since it would be an extensive undertaking and outside of the scope of this blog to detail everything about this theory, I’ve included some links below to help you research more of these concepts.

The first concept to consider is that people, meaning your characters, don’t live in a vacuum. Each of them is placed within a community somewhere that influences them and that they influence. Consider how political, societal, cultural, and institutional elements alter your character’s trajectory, perhaps by keeping them from obtaining a goal or by motivating them to embark on some quest for change.

In addition to the broader community, characters are also placed within what Adler termed as the family constellation. If you’ve ever heard of birth order, then you’ve been exposed to an Adlerian concept. Briefly, his theory of birth order states that, depending on your placement in the family, you could be predisposed to certain characteristics (e.g., the only child may be more comfortable among other adults than other children, the youngest and last-expected child may be doted upon by the parents longer than the others). Consider how this could help you flesh out a character, all the while keeping in mind that this theory is not something that defines each person. Characters can certainly take on opposite characteristics than expected.

A third idea to keep in mind is that Adler’s approach was a phenomenological one, which basically suggests that we have our own unique approach to how we interpret things, a subjective frame of reference, and that this interpretation of events and relationships influences how we process and respond to them. How would your characters, in their own personal way, interpret an event or a conversation? How might their personality or their background shape their perspective, and what would this cause them to do? Try to imagine phenomenology as your character’s cognitive voice.

Adler also believed that all behavior was purposeful and goal-directed. In other words, we move towards something that we want and there are no wasted steps. Ideally, we should know what we are moving toward and why but the truth may be rooted in our subconscious. As the creator of your characters, you should know all of their layers so that you can help them move closer to a goal, change their goal, thwart them in obtaining it, etc. Even if your character isn’t self-aware, the writer should house the character’s awareness, and once you know them that well, you can make some very fun choices (and create large obstacles to get in the way).

Finally, I wanted to discuss logical consequences, which is a great technique to use with clients who need to change a behavior. When you’re counseling someone you help them to explore potential outcomes of their actions, so that they can imagine the varying paths a choice may create. For instance, if I was working with a client overcoming an addiction, we might explore all of the logical consequences from taking a drink, like a full relapse or failing to meet the requirements of their probation. We could also talk about what would happen if they didn’t take a drink. This helps the client to make a more fully-informed choice. In much the same way you can apply this to your characters and to your plot, and that way you could take into consideration some of the logical outcomes to a situation. That being said, I’d also like to caution that this is a great tool to use in planning, but we don’t want to make our writing predictable, so keep that in mind.

Hopefully you’ve found something useful in this post, and below are some links to help you learn more about Alfred Adler, including superiority/inferiority, living “as if” and fictive ideas.


Julia Blake