The Physical and Psychological Story Journey

by Rachel Hauck, @RachelHauck 

One of the ways you an improve the appeal and power of your characters for the reader is to create a realistic psychological journey that is mirrored some how in the physical journey of the protagonist.

Is your heroine learning to trust? Then show how her external world challenges her trust issues. Maybe she has a job where her colleagues constantly let her down. Perhaps her family says one thing but does another.

Every reader will be able to identify with not being able to trust someone.

What if your hero is dealing with identity issues. He’s a failure. He believes he can’t succeed at anything. Develop a world around him that proves, at least for a little while, what he believes is right.

In the movie Die Hard, John McCain is a tough NY cop who wants to do what’s right. He’ll fight for justice. When he decides to fight for his marriage – a bit of justice going on there – he finds himself defending a hostage company against terrorists.

John McCain’s psychological journey is mirrored in his physical journey. At first, it’s easy for him to play the hero, fight for his wife, until the battle intensifies and ultimately he has to make a decision to save himself or save his wife.

We see and feel his psychological, or inner journey, come to life when he’s willing to give everything for love. The external journey pushed him to make that choice. And we cheered him for it.

In The Proposal, Margret Tate’s psychological journey to love and trust is mirrored in the physical, external journey, when she convinces her assistant editor to marry her in order to keep her in the country.

She doesn’t realize it but she’s leaping before she thinks. Her heart is leading her mind and body in to a place she’s not quite prepared to endure.

But as she physically acts out the plan, she psychologically – emotionally – changes. She cannot lie to the people she loves. She cannot trap a good man like Andrew Paxton in to marrying her for her own gain.

We love her for this. She’s chosen the right thing to do.

In my book The Wedding Dress, the 1912 heroine, Emily, is marrying the man she thinks she’s supposed to marry. This external journey reflects her internal belief that she must marry well, take her place in society and honor her family.

But, she knows deep down her fiance is not the right man for her. This psychological element is reflected in the physical element as Emily fights to get the wedding dress of her choice. In doing so, she crosses the very social and cultural boundaries she claims to be abiding by in her marriage choice.

We cheer her for this. We love that she wants to make her own choices no matter what society says.

Take a look at your characters. Are you mirroring their physical and psychological journey? This is one of the major issues I see when working with new writers.

Many times my main input from a therapy session is to work on the “story spine.” In other words, line up the physical and psychological journeys.

How do you do this?

  1. Spend some time thinking about your character. What do you want him or her to accomplish in this story? How is it best reflected externally?
  2. How is your story goal best reflected internally? What internal conflicts will the protagonist bear?
  3. Sit down with your favorite books and movies and write down how the psychological journey was reflected in the physical. Start looking for these things as your read and watch.
  4. If your protagonist is bad at love, create a world that reflects her weakness. Look at Bridgett Jones in Bridgett Jones Diary. She was bad at love, bad at her weight and eating goals, bad at her job, but she stayed with it.
  5. Create a “story spine” where you create a high level outline of what you want to happen in this story. This is the physical journey. Then create a corresponding psychological journey and attach it to your story spine.
  6. Keep it simple. Write a log line. Write the positive and negative virtues of your character. “Leslie was bad at love but she never turned her back on a friend.”
  7. Take your time to develop this. Improve it as you work on other parts of your story. These interlocking elements will make your story shine.


Tenley Roth’s first book was a runaway bestseller. Now that her second book is due, she’s locked in fear. Can she repeat her earlier success or is she a fraud who has run out of inspiration?With pressure mounting from her publisher, Tenley is weighted with writer’s block. But when her estranged mother calls asking Tenley to help her through chemotherapy, she packs up for Florida where she meets handsome furniture designer Jonas Sullivan and discovers the story her heart’s been missing.

A century earlier, another woman wrote at the same desk with hopes and fears of her own. Born during the Gilded Age, Birdie Shehorn is the daughter of the old money Knickerbockers. Under the strict control of her mother, her every move is decided ahead of time, even whom she’ll marry. But Birdie has dreams she doesn’t know how to realize. She wants to tell stories, write novels, make an impact on the world. When she discovers her mother has taken extreme measures to manipulate her future, she must choose between submission and security or forging a brand new way all on her own.Tenley and Birdie are from two very different worlds, but fate has bound them together in a way time cannot erase.

New York Times, USA Today and Wall Street Journal best-selling, award-winning author Rachel Hauck loves a great story. She serves on the Executive Board for American Christian Fiction Writers. She is a past ACFW mentor of the year. A worship leader and Buckeye football fan, Rachel lives in Florida with her husband and ornery cat, Hepzibah. Read more about Rachel at