A Psychologist in Fiction: How I Came to Create Diana Dodsworth, Narrator of Sugar and Snails

Can you create fictional psychological research for your story? Anne Goodwin shares how she created the psychologist Diana Dodsworth and her PhD research. Over to you, Anne.

When I began writing fiction seriously, I envisaged it as quite distinct from my “real” job as a clinical psychologist, maintaining a clear boundary between the two. So it was never my intention to write a novel with a psychologist as central character; even making Diana an academic rather than clinician seemed too close to home.

But, as my story evolved, it was clear that Diana had to work in a large organisation where she might encounter a wide range of people, and a university I knew fairly well seemed to serve my purpose. For Diana to be credible as a lecturer there, I’d need to be well-informed about her subject. In order not to add to the multiple challenges I was facing in writing this novel, I reluctantly made her a psychologist.

Yet the more I got to know my central character, the more appropriate her choice of career became. Someone who, as a child, was unable to fathom how to please her parents and teachers, might well be driven to study what makes people tick. Growing up before psychology was taught in schools, she was introduced to the subject through her own experience of child and adolescent mental health services. A course of aversion therapy (a now obsolete treatment in which unwanted cognitions are paired with noxious stimuli such as electric shocks), rather than putting her off psychology altogether, ignited a fascination with behaviour theory; intensified, perhaps, by the fact that her own treatment was abruptly curtailed.

With her own turbulent adolescence, culminating in a rushed life-changing decision at the age of fifteen, it’s understandable that she should be drawn to researching adolescent decision-making. Yet, with her lack of self-analysis, motivated by the need to safeguard the secret of her past, she’s unable to make the link. That’s left to the reader, nudged by the portrayal of Diana’s strained relationship with her fragile student who is toying with a difficult decision in her own life.

While I enjoyed creating my fictional psychologist, as publication approached, I became concerned about how she’d be received by my peers. Although no longer a practising psychologist by that stage, I still valued my membership of the British Psychological Society, as well as the good opinion of my former colleagues. I was particularly anxious about the credibility of the research I’d invented which earned Diana her PhD.

Through my clinical work with mentally disturbed adults, and from my own experience, I had a fair understanding of the precarious nature of adolescent development, but I’ve never specialised in that area myself. My reading around the topic favoured theory rather than research, with an emphasis on psychodynamic understandings. But Diana would have no patience for such airy fairy speculation. She’d be an advocate of the randomised controlled trial.

I borrowed Diana’s experimental paradigm from research into psychosis (with the paper referenced in my acknowledgements). In chapter 4, she explains the approach to her new manager:

Garth wiggled up his seat. “Fascinating area—what got you into it?”

I pictured my twenty-one-year-old self, in a scoop-necked peasant blouse and flowery cotton maxi-skirt, knocking on the door of an office one floor up. A third-year module in abnormal psychology had thrown up some fascinating questions about the psychotic mind. When I should’ve been cramming for my finals, I delved instead into obscure papers on loosening of associations, knights-move thinking and selective attention. I was excited by the prospect of bringing the irrational under experimental control.

I’d gone first to the clinicals, but they’d passed me on to the developmentals. “Colin—Dr Carmichael, my supervisor—thought there were parallels between the cognitive processes in schizophrenia and adolescence.”

Garth ran his hand across his buzz cut. “He thought adolescents were psychotic?”

“Not quite. But they made similar processing errors.”

His gaze darted to a photo amid the timetables and flyers for public lectures on the pin-board beside his desk … “No wonder they’re so chaotic. Pity they can’t take advice from those with more life experience.”

“It’s all down to information overload. They get overwhelmed. Should I? Shouldn’t I?” I moved my cupped hands up and down like a balance-scale. “It’s not that they’re not bright enough, not rational enough. They can’t bear the feelings that come with the uncertainty. Their own ambivalence terrifies them. They’ve got so many other changes going on they can’t tolerate not knowing their own minds.”

“So it’s one day they’re vegetarian, the next they’re on the Atkins diet?” Garth no longer judged me from on high, but as a fellow psychological enthusiast.

“Colin and I developed a laboratory task to test it out. We showed our subjects two opaque jars: each containing a hundred balls. One jar held ninety black balls and ten white. The second was the other way round. We took balls at random from one of the jars and presented them one at a time. Subjects had to guess whether the jar contained predominantly black balls or mostly white. There was no limit to how many balls they could ask to see before making their choice. You’d need to see a minimum of eleven balls before you could be sure, but some subjects would hazard a guess after only a couple.”

“Adolescents jumped in too early? Before they had a fair chance of getting it right?”

“We tested them at different ages. Fifteen-year-olds were the least patient. And guessed incorrectly more often than their ten-year-old siblings.”

Garth’s gaze flicked to the family photo on the pin-board. “Amazing!” He shook his head. “So why didn't you stick with it? Results that striking don’t come along every day.”

A few months on from publication, Sugar and Snails has received several positive reviews, some of which are from psychologists, although none—to my knowledge—from specialists in adolescence. While I now believe that the story as a whole is strong enough to carry its limitations, I’m still curious as to what readers think of my fictional research.