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Archives for April, 2010

This is your reptilian brain on depression

Deep within every one of us is a brain structure called the Reptilian Complex. It is an ancient and powerful piece of biological machinery, having been part of every vertebrate creature ever to walk the earth or swim the seas. It’s in us, too, and handles the jobs we can’t be bothered to think about all the time, like keeping our hearts beating and breathing.

But for writers, the Reptilian Complex has a much more important job. It is also responsible for the Fight-or-Flight response, the basic survival instinct of all animals—people included—when threatened or cornered: fight, or run away.

Fight-or-Flight and Depression

Readers of this blog will well remember that depression is one of the five stages of grief that give such a useful roadmap for how characters respond when confronted with misfortunes. Had I been cleverer when writing that article on depression, I would have realized the connection between depression and the fight-or-flight response. Alas, I wasn’t, but better late than never.

What keeps people stuck in the depression stage, you’ll recall, is that anxious feeling of not seeing a way out of a bad situation. “Doomxiety,” I called it. In hindsight, this now seems obvious to me, but I didn’t see it at the time. Feeling trapped triggers the Reptilian Complex to initiate that fight-or-flight response.

I want to talk about flight first, because there’s a stronger connection to that sense of feeling trapped. The core of five-stage depression is not seeing any way out of a bad situation, so flight makes sense: running away, in one form or another, is a means to create a way out.

When do characters flee?

But notice, people don’t just immediately run away from bad situations all the time. In fact, flight is usually a last resort, and that’s because flight always involves sacrifice. The choice to run away always means leaving behind something that is of value to the character; if this weren’t so, the character wouldn’t have felt trapped in the first place, because the flight option—which was always there—would have had no down side.

The only thing keeping the character from always fleeing is an unwillingness to leave behind the parts of that bad situation that matter to them. Take bad marriages, for example. People stay in bad marriages all the time, because even if they’re totally unhappy with their spouse, there’s still something about the situation that the person values. Something that makes the flight option unacceptable. Maybe they can’t stand to leave the children, maybe the person came from a poor background but married into money and can’t stand the thought of being poor again, whatever. Something’s keeping them there.

Only when the situation becomes so bad that it outweighs the good parts will a person—or a character—finally choose to run away.

How do characters flee?

When a character finally opts to leave the bad situation behind, no matter the cost, he or she has some options. These fall into three broad buckets:

  • Panicked flight. This is literal fleeing, a rushed, haphazard, often terrified physical exit from a situation. Lots of yelling and screaming, flailing of arms, you get the picture. This kind of flight is perfect for situations where the character is threatened, but doesn’t have any strong emotional investments in the situation itself. Let’s say your character is walking down the street on his way to a cafe for lunch, when a mugger jumps out of an alley brandishing a knife. Sure, losing out on lunch is, technically, a sacrifice but it’s not a big one. Why wouldn’t he run? Especially if the mugger looks a bit on the fat-and-slow side, why wouldn’t the character run? What earth would make him stay and fight? I mean, is he so committed to getting a ham-on-rye that he’s willing to risk getting knifed? Of course not. In situations like this, a sudden threat that is not coupled to a significant sacrifice, flight makes perfect sense.

  • Methodical flight. This is a planned escape from a bad situation. Maybe it’s a jailbreak, but this fits any situation where the situation has become so bad that uprooting one’s whole life (or some significant chunk of it) isn’t too much of a sacrifice. These are the dads who go out for cigarettes and just never come back, the employees who just walk out even with no new job to go to. The amount of planning may vary; your typical jailbreak novel will involve an enormous amount of planning, while the deadbeat dad may simply have left with nothing but a wallet and a gym bag hastily stuffed with clothes and a razor. The difference is a lack of panic. This kind of flight is appropriate when the sacrifice is great, but there is no particular rush to escape. Use this when the character has plenty of time to consider the situation before deciding to flee.

  • Existential flight. This, in a word, is suicide. Suicide, when the result of five-stage depression, is a form of flight. People and characters do this when they’re so convinced there’s no way out of their bad situation except to stop living. This is when a character believes that even picking up stakes and starting over somewhere else won’t actually get them out of the bad situation. Obviously, this is the ultimate last resort, and you should think very, very carefully before putting a character on that path. For one thing, we shouldn’t make light in our novels of what in real life is one of the worst kinds of personal tragedies. For another thing, suicide isn’t going to work in your novel unless you’ve created a situation where the sacrifice—literally everything in the character’s life including all possible future experiences—isn’t enough to outweigh the pain of the bad situation the character is in. To make that believable in a novel is a pretty tall order. There’s no question suicide has its place in literature, but—and I apologize for the wording here—it’s not easy to do it right.

When do characters fight?

The fight half of Fight-or-Flight also relates to the depression stage, but in a different way. Fighting can be the key to reaching acceptance. You can create some powerful moments when the trapped feelings behind depression trigger a fight response. These are moments when the character says “there must be some way out of this, and I’m going to find it!” Tons of great drama there. If you’re looking for a way to get your character into the acceptance stage, this can be a wonderful option because—assuming your readers are actually rooting for your character—they want to see the character reach acceptance. They want to see him push through, survive, win.

You can bring on moments like this in a million different ways. You could have a character fall back on pride or stubbornness as a reason not to flee. You could have the choice to fight come from the culmination of an inner character arc: “Daddy always said I was a no-good loser, but I’m not, damn him, I’m not! And I won’t be now!”

However you bring it on, the common theme behind all of these fight responses is the character realizing that the sacrifice attached to fleeing is just too great. The stubborn, prideful character isn’t willing to sacrifice self-image. The child of the abusive father isn’t willing to sacrifice the personal growth he has already made. Whatever it is, fighting is what characters do when you’ve coupled their bad situation to something of extreme personal value to them.

When our characters realize that nothing is so bad as to be worth that level of sacrifice, that’s when they fight back.

April 30, 2010 18:54 UTC

Tags: character, depression, fight-or-flight, doomxiety, acceptance

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The controlled multiple personalities of writers

[Update: due to some well-reasoned commentary on this article, I’ve changed the title from its original to what you see now, and have adjusted other text in this article to match. If you care what that means, you can read all about it in the comments.]

Recently I wrote that writers need to develop a kind of multiple personality syndrome. I won’t say “disorder” because as it applies to writers, it’s actually a good thing. Then last week someone made a comment on my article about boring characters which touched on the notion that boring characters don’t have a well-developed sense of theory of mind.

That got me thinking. Dangerous, I know, because realizing how these two things are related leads to heresies like this one: You know that old rule about how you can break any of the rules of writing, as long as it works? Here’s one you can’t break. Here’s a new rule that, I claim, is not a rule but instead a fundamental law of fiction.

Writers must have a strongly developed theory of mind.

That is to say, your books are doomed to suck until you really understand theory of mind. This, although I didn’t quite realize it when I wrote it, is what I meant in that earlier article when I was talking about multiple personalities.

What is “theory of mind?”

Click the above link and Wikipedia will tell you it is “the ability to attribute mental states—beliefs, intents, desires, pretending, knowledge, etc.—to oneself and others and to understand that others have beliefs, desires and intentions that are different from one’s own.” That’s actually a pretty good definition, and I’m not going to mess with it.

Why you must understand it

Theory of mind has everything to do with writing, because it has everything to do with creating believable characters. Unless you’re writing an autobiography (in which case, you’re not writing fiction and you’re reading the wrong blog right now), you can’t create even one believable character without being able to model the mind of someone other than yourself.

You create a believable character by imagining a set of beliefs, desires, knowledge, and so forth that are different from your own. This is a model from which you can then determine how a character will act, react, and speak in a given situation. Using your model—your theory of the character’s mind—is how you keep your writing true to how the character would really be.

Now do this for every character in your book, and develop the ability to keep all of these different theories of mind straight within your own head while you write your scenes. This is nothing if not controlled multiple personality syndrome.

Understanding the theory of mind on this level is necessary to create believable characters. I would argue that most successful writers do this in “gut feel” terms, rather than in analytic terms. But however you get there, you simply must have a strong sense for how the minds of other people work if you are to write believable characters.

That’s table-stakes, the minimum requirement for creating believable characters. But what happens when you understand theory of mind on a deeper level? What happens when you realize that part of your theory of mind about any of your individual characters should include that character’s own sense of theory of mind about others.

This can get confusing pretty quickly, so re-read that a couple of times if you have to.

What can you do with theory of mind

When your theory of mind about a character is rich enough to include whether the character’s theory of mind is poorly or strongly developed, then you can start to play with it to achieve some specific effects:

  • Boring people. As I talked about in my last article, boring people don’t have strong insights into other people’s minds. Boring people are deficient in the ability to infer what other people think about them. Boring people, as it were, have a weakly developed sense of theory of mind which makes them blind to how others perceive them.

  • Children. Small children of age 4 or thereabouts, give it take a year or so, haven’t yet figured out theory of mind. A kid may be plenty smart, possessed of sharp mental faculties, they just haven’t yet determined that other people have minds different than their own. Determining when and how theory of mind develops as children mature has been the subject of countless research studies, but for you the writer, you can use theory of mind to help portray young children. It shows up most readily in modeling other people’s factual knowledge about the world. Young children tend to believe that everyone knows the same set of facts that they do. So, for example, to a young child the game of hide-and-seek is entirely pointless: they can hide anywhere they want, but as far as they’re concerned, the seeker will automatically know where they have hidden, because they themselves know where they are.

  • Deception. Speaking of hide-and-seek, theory of mind lies at the root of all deception. You cannot intentionally deceive someone else without having a good theory of the other person’s mind. Deception is all about manipulating the other person’s beliefs, usually as a means to affect the other person’s actions. But, you cannot do that without first having a good sense for the other person’s beliefs, knowledge, and goals. If you understand the other person on that level, you can predict how they will behave, and thus, you can figure out how to manipulate their beliefs in order to induce them to act how you want. Or, as Friends so aptly put it, they don’t know that we know they know. Note: if your theory of mind about the other person happens to be wrong in some key aspect, the person’s reactions to your manipulations might really surprise you, which is itself a great strategy for novelists to employ.

Walking in many people’s shoes

Don’t resort to taking meds or anything, but strive for this controlled multiple personality syndrome. Like any skill, you have to work on it. It’s not just a good idea, it’s the law. “Black’s Law,” if I may be so cheeky as to label it: Writers must have a strongly developed theory of mind.

If anything, your proficiency with theory of mind must be stronger than normal because it’s not enough to simply understand theory of mind. You also have to know what to do with it.

April 26, 2010 19:26 UTC

Tags: character, theory of mind, boring, children, deception, controlled multiple personalities

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The joys of a perfectly boring character

The other day I did an article about creating a loveable jerk as your protagonist. Let me be clear: I am not now going to suggest that you also set about creating a protagonist who is an utter bore.

A boring supporting character, on the other hand, can be a delight for readers.

It’s not that boring characters are, in and of themselves, interesting or delightful. That would be something of an oxymoron. What boring characters can do is create interesting and delightful situations for your readers to enjoy.

Why boring is fun

Ok, it’s not fun. In real life, boring people aren’t fun at all. Nor are they fun for our protagonists to deal with. But they can be fun for readers, because bores can be a great source of laughs. In particular, they can serve as hilarious obstacles between your protagonists and their goals.

Humor comes when the boring person—often un-knowingly—skewers the protagonist on the horns of an uncomfortable social dilemma: how can she get the bore out of her way without being rude? Obviously, most protagonists are socially adept enough that they can empathize with other people. This empathy is the basis for a strong form of social inhibition, in which the protagonist doesn’t want to be rude to the bore because she doesn’t want to hurt the bore’s feelings.

Dr. House doesn’t have this problem. But then, he’s a jerk. He doesn’t care whose feelings he hurts. If your protagonist isn’t a jerk, it’s only natural she will try to deal with bores using the same, polite techniques that work for regular people. She’s trying not to bruise anybody’s ego. Except that bores, by their nature, don’t respond to those techniques like normal people do.

It doesn’t take much imagination to see the many ways these mismatched interaction styles can lead to uncomfortable, frustrating, and potentially humorous situations. Is your protagonist rushing to get the kids out the door for school? Have a boring neighbor drop by to borrow a light bulb, but first spend 10 minutes explaining the backstory behind how her own bulb came to be burnt out. You get the idea: making your protagonist deal with a complete bore on top of what’s actually important to her in the scene can be a humorous way to follow that old writer’s adage, “when in doubt, make it worse.”


The central trait of boring people is social cluelessness. Whatever thoughts are bouncing around inside their boring little heads, those thoughts don’t intersect strongly enough with reality to give these people any insight into what other people think about them. The problem is, cluelessness is itself internal to the bore; it’s invisible from the outside. Yet, as a writer you know better than to jump inside the heads of all of our minor characters. And you do, right?

What you need is something external to show the reader. As a writer, put yourself into the bore’s shoes—it’s controlled schizophrenia again—and ask how you’d reveal yourself without knowing it:

  • You would be into something nobody else cares about. Find something truly meaningless in the grander scheme of life, like perhaps the subtle differences between different brands of styling mousse. Then talk about that whenever you can, with great passion and enthusiasm. Talk about it in great detail, too, as though other people actually know what the hell you’re talking about, and as though they share your fascination with the subject.

  • You would interrupt people with random, barely tangential stuff. This is especially effective when the normal person is trying to explain something to you, such as why that clunking sound from your car’s engine compartment might be something you want to have looked at. By all means, interrupt with a five minute digression about seat belt design from a thing you saw on the Discovery Channel one time. Don’t forget to double your bore-o-meter rating by coupling this with the technique of assuming that having had even the slightest exposure to the subject—say, having once overheard some guys in the high school cafeteria talking about what they were doing in auto shop that day—makes you as much of an expert as the normal person who’s trying to help you understand something.

  • You would go in blind. Initiate social interactions with normal people without first checking to see whether such interaction is necessary, welcome, or even marginally appropriate for the normal person’s situation. Don’t sweat it! Just barge on in and start extolling the joys of the new imported French styling mousse you ordered from the internet. Whatever they were talking about can’t possibly be as important. Oh, and don’t forget to fill them in on all the details of the website’s order form and the problems you had even ordering the mousse because you refuse to upgrade to a modern browser. That’s key information!

  • You would be oblivious to anyone but yourself. This doesn’t mean to be a raging egomaniac (although bores sometimes are). It just means being blind to the subtle cues normal people drop in the context of normal social interactions. Be so inwardly focused on what you want in the moment, on what you personally hope to get from the conversation, that you entirely forget to consider that the normal person may, just barely, maybe, quite possibly, have some needs of her own.

The boring view of rudeness

Having decided how to show the bore’s total boring-ness, what’s your protagonist going to do about it? In seeking to avoid being rude, what she’s really doing is seeking to avoid being blunt. A regular person knows to drop subtle hints, because regular people pick up on those and respond appropriately. When you’re overly blunt towards a regular person, this comes across as rudeness because it implies that you don’t think the regular person is smart or socially savvy enough to pick up on those clues. That hurts their feelings, and there you go: social inhibitions kick in.

Here’s the kicker: The boring person doesn’t see it that way. The bore is in fact, not smart or socially savvy enough to pick up on those clues. That’s why they engage in boring behavior in the first place! They literally don’t know any better. Your subtle clues won’t register with them. How do you get the bore out of your way without being rude? Simple: You don’t. Boring people, by their nature, need to be dealt with more bluntly. It’s the only way.

Being blunt without being mean

Watching your protagonist squirm on the hook, struggling to escape without resorting to rude bluntness, can be comedy gold. But at the end of the scene, she’s going to have to get rude. There is no other escape. She will eventually have to force herself to let go of those social inhibitions, and do something that feels completely horrible. Still, your protagonist has options. She can be blunt in a neutral way or in a mean-spirited way.

She might say “I’m bored now. Goodbye.” Or hold up her hand and say “I need to stop you there. I don’t have time for this.” If she’s feeling mean, she might say “Shut up and don’t talk to me anymore. You have nothing interesting to say.” Or, perhaps, she might just walk away, leaving the bore in mid-sentence. To her, that’s such a breach of ordinary social protocol, she can hardly bring herself to do it. But then, she’s a normal person. For your readers, who are mostly going to be normal people too, they’ll get the humor in that moment.

Also remember, much of the fun of a lively novel is watching characters do and say all the things we can’t get away with in real life. So don’t be afraid to let loose! Whatever the protagonist does, she’s not going to get out of the situation without doing something that would seem rude to a normal person. The only differences are in kind and degree of rudeness.

Yet from the boring character’s perspective, the moment may well not feel blunt or rude at all. The bore may just nod and say “oh, ok,” then go off in search of another victim. The bore may even feel a certain affection for what just happened. What the bore just experienced was (at last!) someone speaking their language. It could be, in fact, that the protagonist’s bluntness, effective though it was in the moment, only makes the bore more eager to speak to her again later...

April 21, 2010 22:45 UTC

Tags: character, boring, clueless, interaction, empathy

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What potholes can teach you about plot holes

I defy you to look at that picture and not think “what kind of idiot would drive his car into a pothole like that?” Maybe not in those words, but be honest: your first thought upon seeing that picture was probably some kind of reflection on the driver of the car.

If not, you’re a better person than I am.

Why should this be? The driver didn’t put that pothole in the street. He or she didn’t fill it with brown water making it look like nothing more dangerous than an enormous puddle. It’s hardly the driver’s fault, so why do we so quickly jump to conclusions that blame the driver for falling into the hole?

We do it because situations are rarely so simple as to have a single cause.

Chain of causality

Most situations, or at least the interesting ones, have a chain of causes behind them. Remember that old children’s rhyme about “for want of a nail, the shoe was lost?” The one that starts with a horse losing its shoe, and ends up with the loss of a kingdom? This goes for plot holes too, except in reverse.

The driver drove into the pothole. Yup. He did it. But before that, some rain came, or—ooh! even better, maybe a nearby sewer pipe leaked raw sewage into it—thus obscuring the hole. But before that, before you can even have the possibility of there being a sewage-filled pothole, you have to have a road. So somebody had to build the road, which means some surveyors and soil engineers and so forth came, poked around, and decided it was ok to build a road right there. One of those guys must have missed an underground stream that sucked the soil away from under the road, thus allowing the road to collapse in a giant hole. It was that guy’s fault. Or maybe it was the fault of the people on the planning commission who decided there ought to be a road there in the first place.

You get the point. It wasn’t really the driver’s fault. The ultimate fault lies much further back in time, along a chain of causality that the driver can’t possibly have been aware of. There’s a whole system of causation that led up to the driver half crawling, half swimming in abject misery, out of a sewage-filled pothole.

But systemic causation, as it’s called, is hard to understand. At the very least, understanding it requires some thought and effort. In real life, and in the act of reading a novel, it is always much easier to lay the blame on the most proximate cause of the situation. We blame the most immediate link in the chain.

That’s why we blame the idiot driver, even if it’s not his fault.

Plot holes make your characters look bad

What’s true for potholes in the road is also true for plot holes in your novels. They make your characters look like fools. Only as a secondary effect do they make you, the writer, look amateurish and unskilled. That’s embarrassing for you, but it’s fatal for your characters. By the time your readers work their way far enough back through that chain of causality to find the root cause—you—the damage has been done. The reader has already had those negative thoughts about your characters.

You can’t take those thoughts back. You know how in a courtroom, when a lawyer says something out of bounds and the judge directs the jury to “disregard the prosecuting attorney’s remarks?” Who are they kidding? The jury isn’t going to forget it. It’s exactly the same here. By the time the reader gets around to realizing they ought to blame you for the plot hole, it’s too late. The jury is tainted. The reader has already become prejudiced against your character because of the plot hole.

Two kinds of holes to watch out for

Strange actions: The first is when you make a character do something inexplicable. Something that may well achieve an obvious story objective for you, but which is difficult to reconcile with what the reader knows about the character’s motivations and state of mind. If you leave the reader scratching their head, wondering “why would he do that?” then you’ve got a problem.

You may be entirely correct, from a story structure perspective, to want the character to do that thing. That might be absolutely the right thing to happen in the story. The only problem is that you’ve created a nonsensical moment for the reader because you haven’t done the work of putting the character in a frame of mind where it makes sense for him to do that thing.

That is, if you want your character to suddenly throw a turkey drumstick at the bride while she’s taking her wedding vows, you’d better set it up ahead of time so the reader will understand, at that very moment, why your character would do such a thing.

Thankfully, most writers understand this, and I don’t see a lot of this type of plot hole in my clients’ work.

Strange inactions: The second kind of plot hole, the kind I see much more often from my clients, is when the writer fails to let a character do something that makes obvious sense to the reader within the context of a situation. I see this all the time, I really do. Writers set their characters up with all sorts of nasty problems to wrestle with, but they fail to notice that the situations they’ve crafted still permit their characters to take obvious actions that would solve the problem.

This happens because writers want their characters to take more difficult paths towards the solution. And rightly so: difficulty equals drama. Where they go wrong is that they don’t first eliminate all the obvious strategies. They just make their characters jump straight to the difficult way of doing things.

Worse, they also usually fail to let their characters even consider taking any simpler steps to solve the problem.

Take the turkey drumstick guy again. Maybe he doesn’t want the bride to marry that particular groom, because you’re writing a romance novel and romance novels thrive on unrequited love. If he’s sitting in the audience, he’s got a problem. How to break up this wedding? Chances are he doesn’t actually have a turkey drumstick to chuck at the bride—that would just be weird. So what’s he going to do? One obvious thing would be, when the minister says “speak now or forever hold your peace,” for him to stand up and say something. It can be a total lie, that doesn’t matter. Surely he could think of something to say—"she’s carrying my baby!"—that would prevent the ceremony from getting to the kissy part.

If the reader watches this character let that moment pass without uttering a word, and without even thinking about uttering a word, then you’ve got a problem because you just allowed your character to let an obvious solution to his problem pass right by. Maybe that’s on purpose, because you want the guy to have to really fight to win her over. Having her be married certainly raises the level of challenge—and thus drama—he faces. Good instinct.

But you can’t leave the reader wondering “why didn’t he say anything?” It’s fine that he doesn’t, so long as you make it make sense. Maybe at this point he’s not sure yet he wants to fight for her. Maybe he’s being all noble, letting her have what she seems to want. That’s fine. Give the reader a reason so his inaction makes sense.

But you can’t just let the moment pass un-remarked upon just because you’re too eager to get on with the solution you have in mind. Sure, you the writer have already picked a solution. But a real person—which you want your character to be—would try, or at least consider, many possible solutions along the way.

Strange and inexplicable inaction, even more than strange actions, demands justification.

You might get lucky

As it happens, there is a third kind of plot hole that doesn’t reflect badly on your characters. So take heart: If the stars align in your favor, you may be dealing with this third kind. These are the plot holes so horrible they make you look bad directly. Typically, this third kind is when you make your characters do something they shouldn’t actually be able to do, but that they obviously wish they could. Like, when your character discovers he’s out of ammo, but then a couple of pages later fires two more shots at the bad guy anyway.

Outright errors like that can’t possibly be the character’s fault. This kind of plot hole only makes you look bad. Lucky you!

But most of the time, you won’t get lucky. Most plot holes are more subtle, more insidious, and much more damaging because they involve the choices and actions your characters make or fail to make. This is one of the hardest parts of learning to write effective fiction because it demands so much from the writer.

Controlled schizophrenia

To avoid damaging your characters through these kinds of plot holes, you must become skilled at a kind of controlled schizophrenia. You must be in many heads at once. You must be in your own head so you can keep the story moving where you want it to go. You must be in the heads of every character in a scene, so you can keep their choices and actions consistent with their goals. And, on top of all of that, you must also be in the reader’s head, so you can spot when a character’s action or inaction will seem strange.

That’s a lot to keep track of. Yet you must do it because ultimately you are responsible for the entire chain of causation of the situations in your novel. The whole chain of causation is your creation, but never forget that readers will blame your characters first when something in that chain goes awry.

April 15, 2010 18:02 UTC

Tags: character, plot holes, action, inaction, choice

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So, your protagonist is a first-rate jerk

You’d be hard pressed to find a protagonist on any successful show who’s a bigger jerk than Dr. Gregory House. He hates everybody, except for hot chicks he lusts after. He has no bedside manner. He’s cranky, argumentative, abusive, dismissive, manipulative, and a raging egomaniac. In short, he’s an utter bastard, and no one in their right mind would want him coming anywhere near them with that thermometer.

But for some reason, viewers can’t stop watching.

Readers are the same way. They really enjoy books with protagonists who are jerks. They’ll even go for books with characters who, like Dr. House, are mean as hell so long as the writer manages one key trick. The bastard has to be a loveable bastard. How does that work?


Being an outright jerk isn’t exactly normal. There is a lot of social pressure on people to conform to the accepted standards of polite behavior. Resisting that pressure is hard, so the first question in a reader’s mind is going to be why is this character such a jerk? I think most of us, under the skin, are jerks to some degree—we all think badly of others at times, and wish we could say out loud what we’re really thinking about them—but we hold back. We know that’ s not ok, so we hold it in.

House doesn’t. He’s utterly uninhibited in his jerkism. Readers will wonder why, and you have to give the reader a good answer here in order to create some sympathy. In House’s case, it is because he has suffered great personal loss. He needed surgery on his leg to save his life, but it left him permanently debilitated and with chronic pain. Oh, and his wife left him. That’s enough to put anybody in a cranky mood, so when we see why House is a jerk, we’re able to sympathize with him.

House, in five stages terms, is stuck in a mixture of anger and depression. Intellectually, he recognizes the reality of his injuries and his wife’s departure, but emotionally he’s stuck. He hasn’t fully moved on to acceptance. Anger makes him want to lash out at the world and everyone in it through jerk behaviors. The depths of his depression—coupled with his over-sized ego—mean that he simply does not care what anybody else thinks of him. At all. Together, those factors remove the normal inhibitions that keep the rest of us in line.

So maybe your jerk had something bad happen to him in the past, and he’s only acting that way because he hasn’t truly gotten over it yet. But there are other reasons. One reason that can work very well in middle-grade and young-adult literature, is simple immaturity. A character can be a jerk simply because he or she hasn’t yet learned that it’s a losing strategy for life.

Redeeming qualities

As well as informing the reader why your protagonist is a jerk, to be loveable the jerk must also have some kind of redeeming qualities. A jerk with no redeeming qualities whatsoever is just a psychopath. If there’s no good in the character at all, then you’re in Hannibal Lecter territory rather than Dr. House territory. And true to form, Dr. House does have a number of significant redeeming qualities.

First, he’s incredibly good at what he does. The whole show is premised on his being the best diagnostic medical practitioner around, bar none. Patients come to him when nobody else can figure out what’s wrong, and he always figures it out.

Second, he’s relentlessly passionate about his work. He will go to any length to figure out what the patient’s problem is, and in fact often turns his jerkish uninhibitneness to good use in that pursuit. He’s not above stealing a blood sample from an unconscious patient, faking insurance forms so he can get a MRI scan for an uninsured patient, lying to his boss, breaking into patients’ houses to search for environmental factors behind their disease, et cetera.

Third, sometimes we see him make an effort not to be a jerk. He knows he’s a jerk. He knows that’s not the best thing to be. So sometimes we see him do a good deed or offer someone a kindness. Not often, but sometimes. Rarity makes those moments extra powerful.

And fourth, there seems to be hope for him. As the show dribbles out his backstory, little by little, we see that he wasn’t always like this. Or at least, not so much so. We understand that he’s caught in the grip of anger and depression. His hurt is deep, so his healing will take a long time. We all anticipate the day when he will at last reach emotional acceptance, although it will not likely come before the show’s final episode.

That’s House. Whatever redeeming qualities you give your characters, they should be ones that motivate the character to take morally right actions, even amid all the jerk things they do.

Show redeeming qualities in action

I’d be remiss not to warn of a danger with redeeming qualities in novels. TV writers, in a certain sense, have the luxury of images. A TV show doesn’t typically have a narrator, babbling over the quiet spaces of a show, explaining what’s going on. TV writers, thus, have no choice but to find ways of showing House’s redeeming qualities in action. They have no way of telling us that House is relentless when on the trail of an elusive disease microbe, except to show him acting that way.

Novelists—and I see this a lot from clients who are still working on their first or second manuscripts—do have the opportunity of using outright narration to convey information to the reader. The written word, as opposed to the filmed image, gives you the option to do that. But I caution you strongly: explaining to the reader in a paragraph that your protagonist will go to any lengths to get the job done—that is, telling them, is not as effective as showing the character taking those actions.

This is at the heart of what the “show, don’t tell” rule of creative writing means. TV writers have no choice. They have to show, rather than tell. You do have a choice, so make the right one.

Character arc

Finally, consider your character’s overall arc. In a TV show like House, the whole show is predicated on House being a jerk. They can’t really change that without drastically altering the reason why people watch the show in the first place. This is why we know that Dr. House will never reach emotional acceptance until the show’s final episode. That’s the soonest point where it makes sense for a recurring TV show to change something fundamental about their premise.

In a novel, you have more options. Your book is going to end—and unless you’re working on a series that is already sold to a publisher—it needs to end in a way that provides emotional closure for the reader. Most often, that means allowing a jerk character to move beyond being a jerk, at least in some small way. Most often, it means creating some kind of overall character arc within the larger plot, through which your jerk protagonist ends up a better person by the end.

This doesn’t mean the character has to do a one-eighty and become the nicest guy in the whole world. Far from it. You can provide the emotional closure even with minor changes in a character’s behavior. Maybe your protagonist ends up only slightly less of a jerk than when the book started out. That’s ok. (And if you’re hoping to turn the book into a series, preserving as many jerk qualities as you can will help you.) But showing at least one moment of the character doing something that isn’t a jerk move, that he couldn’t or wouldn’t have been able to do at the start of the book, can still provide the emotional closure readers seek.

I said most often you can satisfy the reader by allowing the character some personal growth, but not always. You might have a story in which the character actually does need to be a jerk. Maybe your character is a repo-man, who makes a living repossessing cars from people delinquent on their car payments. It’s not a fun job. People get mad when you take their car away, no matter how much they might deserve it. Just to get by, your character might need to be a jerk. Or maybe your character is an police officer in a vice unit, deep undercover within a dangerous gang. Being a jerk is the only way to fit in, get the job done, and survive.

Stories like those require that the character be a jerk, and don’t permit you to change it. But even in those stories, you can provide the reader with emotional closure through a character arc. You’ll just use a different kind of arc. Rather than an arc of personal growth by the character, you’ll use an arc structured around revealing to the reader a difference between the jerk behavior the character is forced to engage in, versus a less jerkish inner self that the character would rather be, but can’t. The emotional point of the story is for the reader to understand the character, rather than for the character to change.

Why it all works

Loveable jerks make great protagonists because we all wish we could act that way. We wish we could be so dis-inhibited and free as to act on every impulse we have, whether kindly or mean-spirited. In real life, we can’t. The social costs are too high. Jerks get punished by having few, if any, friends. Jerks are the first ones to get fired when their employers face a choice of who to lay off. Jerks, if they are so disinhibited as to flaunt the law, can easily jerk their way right into prison.

Thus we love our loveable jerks because through them we can indulge our own jerkish fantasies. As writers, we can do a lot worse than giving our readers the chance to live vicariously through the characters in our novels.

April 12, 2010 19:38 UTC

Tags: character, anti-hero, redeeming qualities, character arc, misfortune, immaturity

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How to break the rules of emotional response

This is part six in a five part series (yes, yes, I know) of detailed explorations into the five stages of grief model of emotional response. If you missed the beginning, Part 1 starts here

There’s this saying in fiction that no rules are absolute. You can break any rule, so long as it works. That’s entirely true. Thus, as a little bonus for anybody who had the patience to read the first five parts of my series on the rules of emotional response, I thought it would be fun to explore some of the effects you can achieve by intentionally violating the reader’s expectations about how characters respond.

Violating Denial

The thing about the five stages of grief is that stage 1, denial, always starts with misfortunes that are by definition surprising. They are unexpected events, ones that are usually unpleasant. If they were expected, they wouldn’t be surprising. They would be things that already fit with the character’s view of the world, and so there would be no need for the five stages at all. No surprise, no denial.

So what do you get when you show an unpleasant surprise but no denial? Generally, one of two things. Or both.

One is gullibility. If a character accepts a misfortune too readily, perhaps the character is just a fool who will take anything at face value. This is the effect—an unintentional effect—I most often see in work from my clients who don’t yet have the hang of portraying the five stages of grief. The dynamic in play is that the writer hasn’t sufficiently separated themselves from their characters. To the writer, the misfortune is no surprise at all: the writer knew it was coming all along, because he planned it. Consequently, he has forgotten to let his characters show the surprise he himself isn’t feeling.

That’s how the mistake comes about, but the reader doesn’t care about any of that. To the reader, the lack of surprise from the character simply comes across as a failure of the character’s intellect.

The other effect you can create by violating denial is trust. Trust, if you think about it, is kind of like gullibility. When the unpleasant surprise is a piece of unwanted information that comes from another character rather than from direct experience, the character may skip denial (or may experience it only very briefly) if he has sufficient trust and respect for the messenger.

This type of denial violation is great for showing trust, because it signals to the reader that the character is voluntarily suppressing his own judgment in favor of a judgment made by someone he accepts as smarter, wiser, better informed, or just generally speaking more authoritative than himself.

Violating Anger

After denial comes anger. If you violate a reader’s expectations by skipping the anger, you’re conveying a mental state in your character of “I accept that the misfortune is real, but I’m not going to flip out about it.” That’s fine, but be aware that in doing so you’re going to force your character to ask why. Two things come to mind, one that is temperamental, one situational.

First, it may simply be that your character’s temperament is a highly rational one. Anger rarely helps address a misfortune. It is nearly always wasted effort, in which case why do it? A character who is so rational as to skip over anger will, however, likely also skip over bargaining and depression as well, in order to get down to the business of overcoming the misfortune.

Second, the situation may not permit the luxury of anger, no matter how strongly the character might be inclined to be angry. Take two soldiers, make them the closest of brothers-in-arms, and put them in an intense firefight. Let one man be shot in plain view of the other. Yet, with bullets flying right and left, the man left standing simply has no time for anger. More than anything else, in that moment he needs to keep his head figuratively, in order to keep it literally. At that moment, he doesn’t have the luxury of getting mad (Hollywood portrayals of battle scenes notwithstanding); he needs to focus.

In particularly intense situations, you can use violations of anger to convey the stakes of the situation itself. But note, this doesn’t mean the anger is negated entirely. Rather, it is deferred. That soldier might not get mad in the heat of battle, but later, once he’s back at camp and things have quieted down, that anger’s going to come out. Skip it then, and you risk damaging the reader’s perceptions of the character on a much deeper level. Skip it then, and you’ll portray him as an emotionally cold fish who didn’t really care about his buddy after all.

Violating Bargaining

Let’s say you’ve had denial and anger, but you want to skip the bargaining. What does that get you? That gets you pride, in its many forms. This is a character whose mental state is “I may be upset about this situation, but I’m not gonna beg!”

Again, the question is why? Why not beg? Is it because the character is too proud to ask for help (all too common for men in our society)? Is it because the character is trying to preserve his dignity, and is willing to forego whatever slim chance of success that begging seems to offer (although you who have read the stage 3 article on begging know it’s a false hope) in order to retain the ability to think of himself in positive terms? Or is it a reflection of some kind of self-assurance, in which the character doesn’t even feel an impulse towards begging because he has the inner confidence that he’ll be able to get through it somehow? In that last case, your character is likely to skip depression as well.

The final reason not to beg, and one I talked about in part 3 of this series, is because bargaining often makes no sense. When a misfortune is not attributable to anyone with whom you could try to negotiate, then again, what’s the point? If a tornado is bearing down on your house, there’s not much point in trying to bargain with it to veer left. Situational misfortunes that are simple bad luck, and not caused by the choices of any other entities in the novel, are ones where you can skip the bargaining with no particular adverse consequences to your character.

Violating Depression

What can you do with a character who doesn’t get depressed about his misfortunes? Quite a lot, actually. Skipping the depression can show many different things.

It can show perspective. Most of the time, if you take a mental step back and look at the larger picture of life and what matters, you’ll see that the misfortunes life throws at us don’t really amount to much. If you come out of a restaurant only to find that your car has been stolen, well, that’s a bummer but does it really matter? Sure, you’ll be inconvenienced while your insurance company investigates and finally cuts you a check, but so what? In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t matter much.

It can show resilience. A character who rolls with the punches may well go through denial, anger, and bargaining, but having exhausted those won’t let himself get down about the situation. He’ll put on a brave face and carry on. What can get interesting for the writer is the distinction between genuine resilience and putting on an act. Is the character truly resilient, or is he putting on an act for the rest of the world’s benefit while inwardly spiraling down into depression?

Finally, there’s a danger involved with skipping the depression stage. You may inadvertently signal a lack of concern about the consequences the misfortune entails. When a misfortune threatens something of value to the character, or constitutes a significant obstacle between the character and his story goals, failing to show any moments of sadness or doomxiety could signal to the reader that the character doesn’t really care about those goals.

Violating Acceptance

Lastly, how can you violate the acceptance stage to your advantage? Remember, when a character emerges from depression into acceptance, that generally signals a shift in the character’s world-view towards a view that encompasses the misfortune and all of its consequences. So what do you get if you show him being done with depression, and yet not moving into acceptance?

You show resolve. The character is saying to himself “you know what? I’m not going to take that. I refuse to let this situation stand. I refuse to accept this as the way the world has to be!”

This can be enormously powerful as a turning point in a novel. You can subject a character to a serious misfortune, and let him fully experience stages 1 through 4. Let him hit wallow in deep blackness of depression and hit an emotional rock bottom. But from there, don’t just let him shrug his shoulders and accept the misfortune as immutable, as how things are. Let him instead emerge from depression in a fighting mood, ready to un-do whatever horrible thing you dumped on him.


BAD HASHThere’s a lot you can do with violations of the five stages of grief. You can, in fact, create some highly memorable characters. Characters like good old Forrest Gump. Forrest is the perfect example, because he pretty much skips the five stages entirely, and that’s what makes him so memorable.

Being not very smart, he doesn’t really do denial. To him, everyone is more authoritative than he is, so he’s accustomed to taking other people’s word on things. Skip the denial in that fashion, and there’s no particular reason to engage in anger, bargaining, or depression. And even though he chucks the whole five stages right out the window, it’s believable to the audience because for Forrest the whole world doesn’t make much more sense than what people tell him, so there’s nothing really to do except get on with things.

So that’s it. My thanks to everyone who stuck with this long series over the past couple of weeks. Go forth and add emotional realism to your characters’ reactions, but don’t be afraid to break the rules. Like they say, you can break any rule so long as it works. My hope is that I’ve been able to shed some light on just a few of the ways you can both use and abuse the rules.

< Back to part 5: Acceptance | Forward to writing better novels!

April 07, 2010 20:39 UTC

Tags: character, emotion, believability, grief, expectations, breaking the rules, gullibility, trust, stakes, pride, dignity, confidence, perspective, resilience, resolve

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Standing on magic legs

This is part five in a five part series of detailed explorations into the five stages of grief model of emotional response.

You have to pity poor Lieutenant Dan from Forrest Gump. The poor guy goes through a lot after getting his legs shot off in Vietnam. He’s a great example of the five stages. He really shows them, especially anger and depression.

What I love about Lieutenant Dan is this moment of acceptance near the end of the movie. Here, we’ve seen Lt. Dan at the worst points of the five stages. We’ve seen him in drunken stupor. We’ve seen him raging against life and God. We’ve seen him in the blackest of black moods.

But here, we see him standing on his “magic legs” as Forrest calls them, happy. Because for all that he has been through, he has finally reached acceptance.

Acceptance is moving on with life. A character reaches it only when his old view of the world—the one that was invalidated by whatever misfortune he had to face, the one he held on to through three avoidance stages—fully gives way to a new world view that incorporates the reality of the misfortune plus its consequences. Seeing Lieutenant Dan, standing on new legs and with a new love by his side, is a powerful visual metaphor for acceptance.

As I wrote in the depression article, depression comes from either true grief, or from “doomxiety.” Consequently, the way characters express acceptance as they overcome these varieties of depression also take different forms.

Acceptance after true grief. There are four categories acceptance behaviors fit into. Well, there are probably more than that, but these are the big ones.

Re-engaging with life. Grief can make people withdraw from the friends, families, jobs, and all the other meaningful aspects of life. If your protagonist has done this, show acceptance by letting the character re-engage with life. Let him call an old friend for dinner or a movie, or get out of bed to go play catch with his kid in the backyard. This re-realization of what’s really important in life is classic acceptance.

Reaching out to the world. Grief can also make a character pull away from the whole world. Acceptance, then, means reaching back out to the world. Acceptance means gaining a new, forward-looking attitude. One that is characterized by justifiable hope for the future. Look for actions your character can do that fit with your story and which the character wouldn’t do if he didn’t have any hope that his actions could yield a positive result. And note, buying a lottery ticket doesn’t count. That’s not justifiable hope, that’s desperation.

Being creative. Grief also blocks people’s creative urges. Painters don’t have the will to pick up a brush, chefs lose interest in finding innovative new combinations of ingredients and techniques. Whatever artistic impulses a person has, whatever joy he takes in the act of creativity, is blocked. So, showing your protagonist taking up his particular art again is a wonderful way to show acceptance without being too heavy-handed about it.

Shifting perspective. Finally, characters can show acceptance by reaching a new perspective on past events. For example, if your protagonist has lost a loved one, he will have spent some time in the depression stage, literally grieving for the loss of that person. But when he reaches acceptance, he may be able to view the person’s death in a new light. He may instead be able to focus on the good parts of the person’s life, the experiences he shared with that person, the positive impact that person’s life has had on the world.

I love a good example, and recently I found one in Natalie Standiford’s How to say Goodbye in Robot. She wrote one of the sweetest moments of perspective shifting acceptance I’ve ever read. I won’t say too much because I don’t want to spoil what is a wonderful book, but in it there’s a character who experiences a perspective shift about someone he has lost. In it, while musing about the possibility that the departed person might be a ghost, he says:

“If he haunts you, you’re lucky.”

Pure acceptance. And if you want to know how powerful this can be for the reader, I’ll offer the opinion that the book is worth reading for that one line alone.

Acceptance after doomxiety. As I wrote last time, “doomxiety” is a foreboding sense of anxiety over bad consequences of a misfortune that a character feels are inevitable. Doomxiety is most relevant for situational misfortunes, which are often the exact kinds of roadblocks we throw in front of our characters in order to make them struggle for success.

Doomxiety comes when you confront a character with a plot obstacle that seems insurmountable. Your character feels stuck because he has no plan for conquering the obstacle, and a belief that he’ll never find a good plan. Consequently, you can show a character moving from doomxiety to acceptance by combatting those elements.

Change the belief. Particularly effective is showing the moment when your protagonist realizes that the present—the bad consequences—may indeed suck, but that there is a way to cope. Show the character changing his belief from “there is no plan for coping with this situation” to “there must be a way to cope, and I’m going to find it.” Even if he doesn’t know what that plan is, just changing to a belief that there’s a plan out there waiting to be found signals the character’s first steps in getting un-stuck.

Find the plan. Next, show the character actually finding the plan. Having a belief in the future is wonderful, but let it bear fruit. Let your protagonist find that plan for how he’s going to get past whatever problem you’ve tossed at him.

Implement the plan. Your character may have found the best plan in the world for confronting the problem he’s facing. But he isn’t truly un-stuck until he takes action. He must put that plan into motion before readers will really believe he has moved into acceptance.

Conclusion Above all, what you must realize about acceptance is that it is the moment of emotional resolution to all that has come before. While bargaining may be the most dispensable stage in this whole long emotional process, acceptance is not. In fact, acceptance is not so much required as it is inevitable; unless you end your novel in the middle of the depression stage it is difficult to imagine how you could skip it. Acceptance is shown through the hopeful, forward-looking, resolute actions that a character takes following a misfortune. How could you even move your plot forward without showing it?

The trick is to make it believable. The trick is to make it feel real in the reader’s heart. The trick is to show acceptance in a way that gives readers an emotional resolution to everything they’ve witnessed the character endure before. When done really well, acceptance comes without fanfare and trumpets. If the stage has been properly set by using the first four stages of grief as a blueprint, acceptance can pass in a single line of dialogue—If he haunts you, you’re lucky—and yet still carry such impact as to justify your whole novel.

< Back to part 4: Depression | Coming Wednesday: Bonus Part 6!

April 05, 2010 19:21 UTC

Tags: character, emotion, believability, grief, acceptance, doomxiety, Natalie Standiford

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What am I going to do now?

This is part four in a five part series of detailed explorations into the five stages of grief model of emotional response.

"What am I going to do now?"

That’s probably what this guy is thinking. He just got laid off. That’s a big unpleasant surprise. His now-former boss probably endured his transitions through denial, anger, and bargaining (you can just imagine the scene, right?) before escorting him out the front door. And here he sits in the grip of depression. We can relate, right?

Of course we can, because depression is to be expected. It’s a normal part of the human response to bad news. That fellow is stressing out about how he’s going to make his next mortgage payment, how he’s going to put food on the table, how he’s going to manage if someone in his family should have an accident or get sick. His mind is busy exploring all the horrible consequences that seem inevitable now that he’s unemployed.

I’d be depressed too.

The heart of grief

The whole sequence of emotional response to bad news is called “the five stages of grief,” but if there’s any true grief to be had, it’s here in this stage. The prior stages are all about avoidance in one form or another. But now those have passed, and if the bad news was about some genuine form of loss—death of a loved one, loss of a job, of one’s social position, or of anything else a person has an emotional involvement with—then grief is appropriate. That is, grief in the classical sense of “sadness arising from loss.”

If that’s your character’s situation, go ahead and let him wallow in grief for a while. Show him moping around or crying. Show him letting go of activities he once enjoyed, because he has lost the person he enjoyed sharing those activities with. This is all to the good of your novel, because it shows readers the depth of the hurt. It shows, through observable effects on a character’s behavior, the level of emotional involvement the character had with whatever he lost.


But bad news comes in many forms, not just the loss of emotionally significant people and things. When the bad news is something different, classical grief isn’t always appropriate. But people still show signs of depression in these circumstances, it just stems from a different source than grief. It isn’t sadness arising from loss.

Think about the guy on the steps. Maybe he hated his job. Maybe he had zero emotional attachment to it, but what he’s depressed about is that movie of future horrible consequences playing in his head. He isn’t experiencing classical grief. He’s not actually sad that he lost the job he hated. He’s experiencing something else, something English doesn’t quite have a word for. I’m calling it “doomxiety.”

What he’s feeling is a foreboding sense of anxiety over bad consequences he feels are inevitable. His depression stems from the looming descent of those consequences into his life and his family’s life, combined with his inability to see how he’s going to cope.

He’s stuck in an emotional place where, after the previous three avoidance stages have passed, he can now see all the bad that’s coming his way but he cannot yet see how he’s going to cope with it. He may, in fact, believe that there is no possible way to cope effectively. The core of doomxiety is this stuck-ness, this lack of a plan for coping, coupled with an emotional sense that there is no such plan to be found.

He feels trapped and powerless. He feels anxious and doomed, hence “doomxiety.” If you know of a real word that captures all that, please share it down in the comments. I don’t even care if it’s an English word. I’ve been racking my brains to find one (and thanks to @leira_carola for helping), to no avail.

Doomxiety—until somebody comes up with a better word for it—is what you should strive to show the reader in these situations.


Finally, don’t forget to indulge the reader’s voyeuristic glee. Whatever its source—true grief or doomxiety—the depression stage is miserable. The guy on the steps is definitely not having a good time.

Nobody likes feeling depressed, but there’s no denying that readers certainly enjoy reading about other people’s suffering. So, while I don’t think you should go overboard on the suffering (unless you’re writing one of those novels), neither should you short-change it.

Find a nice balance between too much and too little. Too little, and you’ll sabotage the reader’s belief in the character’s suffering. Too much, and the reader might get bored or turned off to the book. But in between lies a sweet-spot where the suffering is both believable to the reader and satisfying to the reader’s inner voyeur. Don’t deny the reader that vicarious pleasure; instead, aim for it.

< Back to part 3: Bargaining | Forward to part 4: Acceptance

April 02, 2010 16:53 UTC

Tags: character, emotion, believability, grief, depression, doomxiety

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