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How settings make or break your characters

You want to know how powerful a well established setting is? It’s so powerful that when badly done, it can break the reader’s belief in the actions of your characters. Ultimately a weakly developed setting can destroy the reader’s suspension of disbelief in the whole novel. But when well done, a setting supports the believability of even the most unusual behaviors of your characters.

This article applies mainly to novels with unusual settings, ones that alter the bedrock truths about life here in the 21st century that we all take for granted. That’s what I mean by an unusual setting. This can happen in any genre, although it is most often a factor in fantasy and science fiction.

And fair warning: this article may seem less about character development than my usual fare. This is only because it’s impossible to untangle characters from the settings that are the foundation on which the character’s whole life rests. Almost nothing has as much influence on how your characters behave as the setting. If that seems like a strong statement, read on.

Settings have rules

Since all of this ultimately relates to suspension of disbelief, let’s take a second to talk about the non-character-related ways to break the reader’s belief in an unusual setting. For purposes of this article, let’s take our setting as something very different from our own day-to-day world: A sci-fi Mars colony, 25 years after the colony has been established, but based on the technology we have today. I’m purposely choosing an extreme setting to show how far authors can—and should—take the business of settings.

Settings have rules, which have to make sense in and of themselves with respect to the reader’s general knowledge, intuition, and common sense. For instance, here’s a rule that is true for Mars: “Mars is an astonishingly dry place.” With today’s technology, colonists certainly won’t have been able to change the Martian climate in only 25 years, so consequently you would be unwise to stick this in your novel:

McCann opened his eyes to a gray, rainy day. “Oh, fabulous,” he muttered as he rubbed the sleep out of his eyes.

“Quit griping,” said his billet-mate Shariz. “At least it’ll wash the dust off the hab.”

You can’t get away with this because you made it rain on mars. You violated the rules readers will assume a reasonable Mars colony setting ought to have to follow. If you stick this scene in your novel, the reader’s going to think “This joker doesn’t know the first thing about Mars!” and will lose faith in you to tell a believable story. Although if I’m to believe what I wrote back in January (and I suppose I should), even this is kind of character-related too.

Settings affect characters

If I had to sum up this whole article in three words, that would be it. Settings affect characters. Seems obvious, right? Well, it is, but that doesn’t stop writers from forgetting it all the time. Or rather, I suspect what happens is that the author forgets what his setting is from time to time. I know that sounds impossible—how could you forget your setting?—but it does happen.

Settings may be quite outlandish, but the characters in them are still just people. They’re still driven by the same fundamental emotions, impulses, and desires as those of us who live right here on Earth in the 21st century. My suspicion is that authors get caught up in the familiarity of ordinary people, and lose sight of how their particular ordinary people—the ones in their books—are supposed to be affected by the setting. As a result, they end up with characters who think and act in ways that are perfectly normal and believable here on Earth, today, but which violate the expectations one would have for characters in a different setting.

When you hear people talk about books or movies where “the setting is like a character in its own right,” this is what they’re trying to put into words: that the setting has indeed affected the actual characters in accordance with whatever rules go along with that setting. Characters thus have a relationship with the setting as much as they do with other characters.

How to get it right

When you elect to use an unusual setting, you’re taking on some extra up-front work compared with normal-world novelists. You have to borrow a page out of Einstein’s book and do a “thought experiment” about life in your setting. You need to spend some time to figure out what all the explicit and implicit rules of your setting are, and from them, deduce what makes sense for how your characters would live, what they would eat, how they would govern themselves, et cetera.

A good place to start is by making a list of how your setting differs from our real life setting. “It’s like here, but gravity is weaker, there’s barely any air or water, all you have is what you brought from Earth, and instead of six billion people on the planet there are only 54, and they all live together.” If you feel it’s necessary, you might make a list of what’s the same, too. If any of your items relate to people, make them about people generally, not about the specific characters you may have in mind for your story. It’s not time to think about the story yet, not before you’ve got the setting firmly fixed in your mind.

Once you’ve got a handle on what’s the same and what’s different, you’re ready to do the thought experiment. Let’s take those Mars colonists as an example, and let’s offer the further twist that our colonists have been completely cut off from Earth; perhaps a super-virus spread on Earth after the colony was established, wiping out Earth civilization, meaning there will be no future supply ships or new colonists.

Consider the mundane

On some level food, water, and shelter are boring, but you can’t skip them. In fact, you should start your thought experiment with these essentials because if these are missing, it totally re-focuses people’s attention on the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy. In the case of Mars, air can’t be taken for granted either. Still, people don’t like spending their days obsessing over how they’re going to meet these basic needs, and as a result, people tend to organize their lives so as to make this as easy as possible.

You need to consider, within the parameters of your setting, how people are going to keep the bottom of the hierarchy satisfied. Our Mars colonists are going to have to grow their own food. They’re going to have to be fanatical about recycling water and, well, let’s just call it “organic matter.” They will have brought some shelter with them, whatever kind of prefab habitats came on the colony ship, but that’s about it.

Even stuff like the reality of clothes and garbage within this setting, entirely mundane to be sure, have enormous impact on your characters. The colonists will have brought clothes with them, and certainly some quantity of replacements, but that’s it. They can’t just make more at the drop of a hat, nor can they pop ‘round to The Gap to pick up some new khakis. So, taking care of one’s clothes becomes much more important than it is here on Earth. Mundane, yes, but it sure raises the stakes when somebody spills coffee on somebody else’s shirt.

Mars colonists probably wouldn’t even have the concept of garbage. If all you have is what you brought with you from Earth, even a ripped up, coffee stained, sweat pitted old shirt is still going to be a resource. Somebody, somewhere, is going to find a use for it. In a Mars colony, nothing gets thrown away.

Consider social norms

These physical realities around the necessities of life, clothes, garbage, and so forth all shape social behaviors. Those realities dictate how the society within which your characters live conceives of what is acceptable, normal, and even right or wrong.

Our Mars colonists, by necessity, will be hard core recyclers. If somebody dies, the funeral will end with putting the person’s body into the compost heap to be spread around in the gardens, or maybe pureed to be put into the colony’s hydroponics system. To you and me this may seem disrespectful of the dead, or even ghoulish, but to them it’s simply a necessity. Besides, it’s not like they have anywhere else to put the body.

The lack of ready access to new clothes, on the one hand, might mean people would be super paranoid about caring for their clothes. Certainly in the initial years after a colony’s establishment, when social norms from Earth are still engrained in people’s minds, that would be true. But on the other hand, the colony’s dome city or whatever is bound to be 100% climate controlled, kept at a balmy late spring temperature with perfect humidity all the time. That being the case, it’s not like the colonists really need to wear clothes. And as the years go by and clothes wear out, well, maybe it would just be easier to go around naked all the time.

But, on the other-other hand, other forces might oppose casual nudity: The fact that the colonists have extremely limited food, water, air, and space means that they can’t just go around having babies willy-nilly (no pun intended). Procreation would, again by necessity, have to be severely governed. China has a “one child per family” policy; Mars colonists might have a “one child per funeral” policy—nobody gets to be pregnant unless someone else dies to make room. Severe restraints on procreation could lead to highly regulated interactions between men and women. They might even start enforcing gender segregation within the colony to limit the interactions between men and women, and thus, the chances for unapproved pregnancies.

Or take it further: if the colonists know there won’t be any more settlers from Earth because of the super-virus, then it becomes critically important for these colonists to preserve their genetic diversity. This means that when the opportunity for somebody to get pregnant does come up, there will probably be an official colony geneticist whose job it is to decide who the parents will be.

Perhaps, in a society where these are the realities of life, the notion of love and marriage, of loving partnership, would become entirely divorced from the notion of parenthood: You wouldn’t get married because you wanted to have a family with someone. You wouldn’t even expect necessarily to have a family with that person. But you would expect that, at some point, you or your spouse might get a visit from the geneticist saying “I need you go to inseminate (or be inseminated by) so-and-so.” And whether you liked so-and-so or hated their guts would have no bearing on the situation.

Setting equals society

It goes on and on. The more different your setting is from real life, the more that setting changes the way society itself operates. For instance, what do you do if somebody commits a crime? If you have a murder within the colony (hardly unexpected, with the same people cooped up in close quarters year after year), what do you do? How do you punish the killer when there’s no prison to send them to, and you can’t execute them since you need everyone working for the colony’s survival.

That’s what setting does. It determines a great, great deal of the way societies are forced to act. Maybe your setting isn’t so extreme, but I guarantee you, whatever it is about your setting that makes it different from the setting in which you live your own life, that difference will shape the society in which your characters live.

I should note, this thought-experiment process for identifying the ramifications of an unusual setting in fantasy and sci-fi is not all that different from what many writers in other genres do. In novels set in historical time periods novels or in contemporary but exotic parts of the world, the realities of those settings shaped their societies just like a sci-fi Mars colony setting shapes its society. The only difference is that writers whose settings really do or did exist on Earth can do research to learn how the setting actually did shape a society, while fantasy and sci-fi writers have to think it through themselves.

That’s the bottom line. Whether you do it by research or by imagination, you must somehow arrive at a clear mental picture of a society grounded in the immutable factors of human psychology and behavior, but which is also perfectly attuned to the realities of its physical setting. It is this society in which your characters live, so you better know how it works.

Where writers fall down

What I’ve seen in client manuscripts (and the occasional published novel) is writers who haven’t done the necessary work to put this clear mental picture into their own heads before they figure out their plot and before they start writing down what their characters are doing and how they’re reacting.

This is why careful character development is so critical. You have to know how all of your characters think and act—this is the controlled multiple-personalities of writers—but never forget that how your characters think and act is equally determined by their personalities as by the society they live in. And as we just saw, society is a function of setting.

Get it right, and your characters’ non-Earthlike behaviors are not only completely believable but also support the reality of the setting itself. Get it wrong, and behaviors that would be totally believable here on Earth become suddenly nonsensical and collapse the reader’s suspension of disbelief in the setting too.

It doesn’t work to let your characters act like you or I would, based on the rules of modern Earth culture, while living in a setting that is dramatically unlike our modern world. It just falls flat. As a reader, it’s impossible to maintain my suspension of disbelief about the story as a whole when the characters don’t act in ways that are congruous with the explicit and implicit rules of their settings.

Pit your characters against the setting’s rules

So if you want to write a sci-fi romance set on Mars, go for it! But make sure everyone’s behavior is in keeping with the behaviors that make sense—that are necessary—given the realities of the setting. It may mean that the plot you had in mind doesn’t actually work. It may be that the plot you intended turns out to be grounded in modern Earth behaviors that wouldn’t make sense on Mars. Chances are, this will initially come as a disappointment to you.

But trust me, it’s actually a good thing, because it means you’re discovering what Donald Maass calls inherent conflict in your premise: maybe your star-crossed lovers can’t hook up because the very non-Earthlike rules around love and romance in that colony don’t allow it. If that’s what you discover, don’t fight it. Work with it! Readers will love watching your characters explore the tension between their emotional drive to be together and the colony’s overall greater good of keeping the population in check.

When they’re well done—when the characterization lives up to the explicit and implicit rules of the setting—stories that pit characters against the settings they live in can be fascinating both for the plots they contain as well as for their ability to explore human behavior in inventive new situations.

June 29, 2010 20:15 UTC

Tags: character, setting, society, inherent conflict, Donald Maass, suspension of disbelief

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Why smart characters make dumb mistakes


There are times in our novels when we need our characters to make mistakes. After all, they’re only human. There are lots of good reasons for letting our characters screw up. Characters who are perfect are boring to read. Mistakes tend to make a character’s situation worse, which heightens the drama and tension in your story. A sudden mistake can make readers gasp in alarm, while a mistake the reader sees coming but the character doesn’t can make readers laugh or cringe.

The question is, how can you get away with your otherwise smart characters doing dumb things? For our protagonists and antagonists, especially, we often work hard to create an impression of intelligence and capability, which clashes with the very idea of making mistakes. Fortunately, there are patterns to the ways in which regular people (even the smart ones) make mistakes. There are dozens of such patterns, but here are three you might draw on when looking for a good reason why your smart protagonist might do something dumb.

The bandwagon effect

This is more classically known as your mother asking you “If all your friends jumped off a bridge, would you do it too?” The fact is, the world is a complicated place, and taking the time to deeply evaluate the wisdom of everything we might consider doing would just take too long. One of the shortcuts we use to make decisions without all the bothersome evaluation is to use other people’s behavior as a proxy for the evaluation. If we see two restaurants side by side, and only one has a line of people at the door waiting to get in, we’re likely to conclude that one is the better of the two restaurants.

But maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s an awful grease-pit, about to be shut down by the health department, but the owners decided to go out with a bang by holding a “5-cent beer night” special and putting up flyers all over the local college campus. That’s the bandwagon effect in action. Or, taking up smoking because the people at your job all seem to smoke. Or putting all your money into tulip bulbs, silver, or sub-prime mortgages without regard to the underlying strength of those investments.

The bandwagon effect can be quite powerful, and can readily overwhelm rational decision making with emotional decision making. You see a bunch of other people doing something, and you start to think there must be some sense to it. Or worse, you may start to think that you are missing out on whatever it is all those other people know.

For certain types of “going along with the crowd” mistakes, see if there’s a crowd you can create in your novel that you could use to sucker your protagonist into a bad decision.

Isolation effect

This is when you confuse the ease of remembering an instance of an event of some particular type with the actual likelihood of that kind of event happening. That is, our gut feeling as to whether something is relatively likely or unlikely to happen has more to do with whether we can easily remember experiencing or hearing about that kind of event.

Like the lottery. Even simple mathematical analysis shows the lottery to be, as a friend of mine in college once said, “a tax on people who are bad at math.” But when we think about the lottery, what comes to mind are the news stories about ordinary people winning millions of dollars. Our mind is filled with memories of winning events, highly positive outcomes, but is not filled with a statistically appropriate number of losing events. That is, the millions of people who don’t win the lottery every single week, fail to make it onto the evening news.

It works for bad events, too. Like terrorism. Everyone can easily remember instances of terrorism, like the 9/11 attacks. From a coldly logical, mathematical perspective, such events are incredibly rare. But not one of us who was old enough to understand what was happening on September 11, 2001, is ever going to forget that event. It’s so easy to remember that it can cause people to vastly over-estimate the chances that it’ll happen again, just like it did before. As a result, some people won’t go into a high rise building now because they’re afraid the building will get hit by a plane, despite the fact that they have vastly greater chances of dying from things they do every day. Like crossing the street.

If you need your character to make an irrational decision, consider putting an emotionally significant effect into the character’s backstory (one that will be easy for the character to remember), that would bias the character away from the sensible choice. Maybe your character witnesses a crime, and the smart thing to do is report it to the police. But that would mess up your whole plot; you need the character to avoid going to the police. You could put some kind of bad police experience into the character’s backstory. Maybe when the character was a kid, his dad had a similar experience, and did report the crime to the cops, who then ended up treating him as a suspect too. Maybe the cops showed up at the dad’s place of business, asking a bunch of baseless and embarrassing questions, which caused the dad to lose his job and the family to lose their home. A character with this backstory might well fall sway to the isolation effect and, by over-estimating the risk of being falsely accused, choose not to go to the cops.

Confirmation bias

This is the tendency to interpret new information in support of what you already believe. Rationally, we should look at new information to see whether it more strongly supports or contradicts what we believe. Or whether it supports something we don’t believe. But what people actually do, most of the time, is to try to construct a scenario in which new information bolsters existing beliefs. Sometimes, people can tie themselves all in knots, inventing the most bizarre rationalizations by which to harmonize what they believe with contradictory evidence.

For example, let’s say one evening you get it into your head that now is a good time to refinance your house, because you were flipping channels and caught a bit of some pundit show on cable news where some nicely dressed and serious looking guy said “...and so people might think about refinancing.” Well, maybe it is and maybe it isn’t; you’ll have to do the math to really know. But let’s say that the next morning you turn on the news and hear that the Fed’s prime interest rate just went down by a quarter of a point. You’re likely to think “Ooh, lower rates, that guy last night was right! I’m going to call the bank right now!” On the other hand, let’s say the morning news instead told you that the Fed’s prime interest rate just went up by a quarter of a point. You’re likely to think “Ooh, rates are going up! I’d better call the bank now, before they go up too much!” That’s confirmation bias.

One of the great things about confirmation bias for novelists is that it works so very well with ambiguous information. Which, let’s face it, is about 99% of what we encounter in our lives. Practically everything is subject to interpretation. Where this really shines as a great tool for novelists is in those situations where you have a character on the brink of making a bad decision, and you need something to push them over the edge. That is, you’ve put the idea into the character’s head already. You’ve built up an emotional drive towards that action, but the character can’t quite commit to it because on some level they may know it’s a bad idea. If that sounds like your situation, drop some kind of ambiguous evidence at the character’s feet, and let them interpret it (or misinterpret it) in support of the emotional decision they already want to make.

I use this all the time in situations where I find myself saying to my characters “I need you to such-and-such, but you’re ordinarily too clever to make that kind of mistake.” Confirmation bias is a great way to dupe your characters without destroying the reader’s sense of the character’s general intelligence and sensibility. The other totally fun thing you can do with confirmation bias (depending on your book’s POV) is to let the reader believe something different than the character, so that the reader interprets the ambiguous evidence in the opposite way as the character, and yet, the reader can still understand why the character makes that wrong choice.

Finally, I would be remiss not to mention by way of example, the novel Huge, by James Fuerst. I reviewed this book some months ago here for its wonderful characters and enormously hilarious story and style, but the protagonist’s journey in Huge is the most textbook perfect application of confirmation bias as I can recall ever having read. If you really want to see what a novelist can do with confirmation bias, don’t just read my dinky little blog. Go read that book.

June 26, 2010 04:03 UTC

Tags: character, mistakes, bandwagon effect, isolation effect, confirmation bias, Huge, James Fuerst

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Five more ways to create sympathetic characters

Some while back, I wrote a couple of articles on creating sympathetic characters; one about emotion and another one about stakes. Ever since then, I’ve been meaning to do a third article with some more specific, hands-on strategies for creating sympathetic characters. Today is that day.

But first a bit of context, because like everything in narrative writing, it’s all about “show, don’t tell.” Sympathy arises from the conclusions readers draw about your characters’ personalities based on what you show the characters doing. This includes everything that is observable to the reader: characters’ actions, their dialogue, their inner monologue if you’re into that kind of thing, the way they treat other characters, the choices they make.

All the stuff you show in the narrative does the work of telling the reader what kind of people your characters are, so you don’t have to. That is, you shouldn’t ever have to write “Stanley was a prince among men,” or words to that effect, because Stanley’s observable actions and so forth should make that clear. So keep that in mind: everything else in this article relates to stuff you can show for the specific purpose of helping readers sympathize with your characters.

Use humor

People like funny people, and readers like funny characters. Few things make people more readily comfortable with one another than as good natured humor. To this end, you can show your character being funny, cracking jokes or making witty comments. You can show your character having a humorous outlook on life, finding humor in unusual places, or even resorting to humor as a coping mechanism when situations get particularly grim—sometimes you have to laugh to keep from falling into a complete panic. You can also show your character readily laughing at themselves, rather than taking themselves too seriously.

These are all reactions that, in real people, tend to put us at ease with one another. Jokes, witticisms, and wry commentary give us mirth. Humor in the face of danger is certainly easier to get along with than panic. (Would you want to be stuck in a foxhole with a soldier who was laughing in the face of death, or one who was having a total freak-out meltdown?) A person who easily laughs at himself is someone we aren’t likely to offend easily, which allows us to be more relaxed around him as well. If it works in life, it works in fiction.

Use Admiration

Humor works great for creating sympathy among social peers, but when you need to create sympathy for a character who is inherently more aloof or is intentionally not humorous, admiration may be the ticket. The strategy here is to show that character being masterful at some non-trivial skill. We all tend to admire people who are very, very good at what they do. They may suck at everything else (witness sympathetic jerks like Dr. House), but we can still admire their hard-won skills and root for them on that basis.

This can work in almost any book, because chances are there is some reason relating to skills why that character is your protagonist. You gave the character special skills for some specific purpose relating to the plot. Build on those to create sympathy by showing those skills in action. Even better is when you can show those skills used in unexpected ways but to great effect. MacGyver is probably the most obvious example there.

The Golden Rule

This one is kind of obvious: if you want people to like your character, show the character being a kind to others. I suspect that’s rather self-explanatory, so I won’t belabor it. Rather, I’ll talk about the danger of misusing the Golden Rule.

Human beings (which, never forget, includes your readers) are keenly sensitive in terms of reading the motivations behind people’s actions. If we see a person doing something nice for someone else, we don’t usually have trouble determining whether the action is sincere or disingenuous. Whether the action comes from the heart, or comes via some ulterior motive. For example, when we see politicians kissing babies in a crowd or filling sandbags at the site of a flooding river, we can be pretty sure they are motivated at least in part by the presence of TV cameras in the vicinity. We all know politicians are drawn to photo-ops like bees to honey.

In novels, the Golden Rule fails when you toss in scenes of overt kindness that seem to have nothing to do with the rest of the plot. Readers spot the photo-op scene immediately. I found a scene in a client’s novel once where, for no particular reason I could determine, the protagonist suddenly went to the children’s ward at the hospital to bring balloons and ice cream to the sick kiddies. So by all means use the Golden Rule (I wish more people did so in real life!), but for it to be convincing, acts of kindness need to have some plausible connection to the greater context of the scene they’re in or the plot at large, they have to be in proportion to the situation, and there shouldn’t seem to be anything in it for the character other than perhaps someone else’s thanks and appreciation.

Oh, and you have to do it consistently. The ice cream scene in that book was basically the only selfless, nice thing that character did for anybody else in the whole book. A one-time act of kindness does not earn your character a free pass on sympathy for the rest of the book.

"Glad it’s not me!"

You can also trigger readers’ sympathy by being cruel to your characters. Visit upon them misfortunes they don’t deserve. Show bad things happening to your characters, not only so we can see how they rise to the occasion, but also for sympathy. Think about every time you’ve ever driven past another motorist who has been stopped by the police, especially when you notice you’re a few miles-per-hour over the speed limit yourself: some part of you is feeling bad for the other driver’s misfortune while feeling lucky that it wasn’t you.

Make their job harder

Whatever the major story goal is that a character wants to achieve, you can add more sympathy by doing something to the character that makes their job harder. Give them some kind of handicap in that pursuit. It could be a literal, physical handicap: a marathon racer who tears a ligament. It could be an emotional handicap, like fear of needles for someone who has to get some immunizations before traveling overseas on a business trip. It could be a resource handicap, such as trying to get through college while being dirt poor. It could be a skill handicap, like being stranded after having all their stuff stolen in a foreign country where they don’t speak the language.

Whatever situation your character is in, whatever goal they have in a specific scene or for the whole book, see if there’s something you can change about the character (either inwardly or outwardly) that would make the goal harder to achieve. There usually is, and it’s always a great way to add believable sympathy.


The reader’s sympathy doesn’t come for free. You do have to work for it. Fortunately, creating sympathetic characters isn’t as hard as a lot of things in novel-craft. There are lots of ways to create it, and for the most part, readers want to sympathize with your characters anyway. They’re predisposed to do so, and probably will if you give any kind of decent effort at portraying your characters sympathetically.

And one more tip: these tips work for your book’s villains, too...

June 22, 2010 20:21 UTC

Tags: character, sympathy, show don't tell

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Why stakes work

Sure, the view is great, but why would anybody go to all the bother of building a castle up there? Can you imagine how long it must have taken to haul all those stone blocks up the mountain on donkey carts or whatever? I mean, seriously—put an observation deck up there and build a staircase if you want the view, but why build a whole castle up there? Must have cost a fortune!

No doubt it did. So why do it? Why build a mountaintop castle there in picturesque San Marino, and why do it on hundreds of other peaks scattered across Europe? Why not build your castle somewhere more convenient?

Because what’s mine is mine

There’s one simple reason. Defense. Mountaintop fortresses are much harder to conquer than fortresses down on the flats, which if you’re considering where to build your castle during medieval Europe, when the wars never ceased and national borders shifted faster than mapmakers could keep up, is a major selling point.

Trust me, we’ll see what this has to do with the stakes in our novels in a minute. The point is, build your stronghold on a mountaintop, collect all your wealth (what’s left after building the castle, anyway) and power there, and you’re much more likely to keep somebody from taking it away from you.

Gain versus loss

What’s mine is mine, so the saying goes, and what’s true for kings is true for commoners: people will generally put a lot more effort into keeping what they have than in obtaining something they don’t have. Behavioral economists call this “divestiture aversion” or alternately “the endowment effect,” although I quite prefer the latter for its obvious double-entendre possibilities. I swear. Only a bunch of behavioral economists could suggest a name like that with a straight face.


The endowment effect can play out in grandiose castles or in more subtle ways. British traffic enforcement assigns you “penalty points” when you get caught speeding and so forth. But the Italians do it the other way around: they start you out with 12 points and take them away for traffic infractions, because subconsciously the urge to preserve your points is a stronger motivator to follow the rules.

Why does it work?

I can’t say for sure why people act this way, but intuitively, we understand that they do. Our language even reflects it through phrases such as “what’s mine is mine,” and its implied counterpart “don’t you dare try to take it.”

Personally, I think it has to do with emotional attachment. We become attached to the things we have. Material things—stuff we have earned by the sweat of our brow, things we have been given by loved ones, or simply things we’ve had for so long they become part of the fabric of our lives. Abstract things—our sense of identity, legal and political freedoms, our physical abilities. And of course, other people through their relationships to us.

Put in slightly different terms, if you break the “World’s Greatest Dad” coffee mug my kids gave me, it isn’t sufficient recompense to buy me an identical mug. You can’t replace the emotional attachment I had to the original mug. Although the two mugs may be identical, the one my kids gave me has a higher value to me, because of the emotional attachment, than a new one fresh from the store.

If someone cares to do some MRI scans or something, I’d almost bet money that this effect stems from the more ancient parts of our brains, the ones that are also responsible for parenting instincts. The instinct to value our children more highly than anything else and protect them even up to our own deaths is deeply rooted in biology and survival of the species. To me, it’s not a great stretch to imagine our shiny new neo-cortexes generalizing this parenting instinct towards everything we consider to be ours.

That’s my theory, anyway.

Using the endowment effect in your novels

Ok, here we go, and you’ll be glad you stuck with this article because there’s plenty you can do with it.

Create a strong emotional motivation for action. You ever get stuck in your novel, knowing that a character needs to do something—say, stand up to her heartless and insensitive boss—but you can’t figure out a plausible reason why she’d do it? Use the endowment effect. Link the action you want her to take to the defense of something she owns or hold dear, and you’ve got it. The thing she holds dear becomes additional stakes pushing her towards doing what you need her to do.

For example, maybe your heroine works at an ad agency that’s doing a pro-bono work for a women’s shelter fundraiser. Her boss doesn’t care, since it’s not for a big account client, and wants to simply recycle a similar ad campaign from ten years ago. You need your character to say “No! That’s not good enough. That ad won’t play today and you know it!” But why would she do it?

Let’s go big-stakes: What if her sister’s staying at that shelter, having only narrowly escaped from drug addiction and a violent husband? And what if the shelter is running on a shoestring, and needs a big take from the fundraiser in order to pay off their creditors and stay in operation? If the fundraising campaign fails, your protagonist might lose her sister: the sister would be turned out on the street, and might well slip back into her old life, complete with drugs and abusive husband. Only this time, she might not survive.

Under those circumstances, wouldn’t she fight hard to do whatever she could to keep her sister off the streets? You bet she would. And if that means standing up to her boss and demanding that they put as much effort into the fundraiser promotions as they would for a national brand ad campaign, then by god that’s what she’ll do!

That’s perhaps a melodramatic example, but you get the picture: if inaction threatens to cause the loss of something a character values, the character will be motivated to act. But remember: keep it proportional; in most cases, the lengths someone is willing to go to in order to avoid a loss should be commensurate with the degree of that loss. Readers will believe a parent throwing themselves in front of a train in order to push their child out of the way, but they’ll have much more trouble believing the same action if, say, it were a stray kitten on the tracks. No matter how cute the kitten.

Create a dramatic bluff. If someone is explicitly threatening to visit a loss upon your character, you can ratchet the tension and drama in a scene right up to the roof by having the character proclaim that he doesn’t, in fact, care about whatever’s being threatened. Viewers of Lost will remember the scene where Benjamin Linus claims not to care about the girl some amoral commandos are holding at gunpoint. They make the standard offer: do what we want, or we’ll shoot her. He bluffs: “Go ahead. She means nothing to me.” The girl, of course, is his daughter and in fact means a great deal to him. Instant drama.

Convey the importance of something else. That same scene from Lost achieves another storytelling goal as well: it quite effectively conveys the degree to which Ben values the secrets he is trying to protect. He values them so much he’s willing to put his daughter up as the ante in a very high-stakes bluff. This can work whether the character wins or loses the bluff, but in my opinion it’s more effective if the character loses. Actually suffering the loss of something the character values—being forced to follow through on the sacrifice—will convey the importance of the other thing much more clearly. After all, the deadliest urge a writer can fall prey to is letting your characters off the hook.

Create a believable victory over a stronger opponent. The flip side of the endowment effect is that, all else being equal, if one person is trying to take something belonging to someone else, the attacker’s motivation to follow through will be inherently less than the defender’s motivation to hold onto what they have. That scene from the end of Stand By Me where young Gordie Lachance stands up to the much stronger town bully Ace Merrill is just such a scene. On the surface, the two are vying for the glory of reporting the location of the missing boy’s body to the authorities. That’s all Ace is fighting for. But Gordie is not only fighting for that glory, but also for his own self esteem and the memory of his brother. For Gordie, the emotional attachments pulling on him in that moment are so much stronger than those pulling on Ace, that not only is it totally believable to see Gordie pull a gun on Ace, but also that Ace backs down.

The basis of stakes

Whatever the reason, whether it’s emotion or biology or both, people will fight hard to hold on to what they have and what they value. It’s such a powerful lever controlling the actions our characters that I would argue the endowment effect is in fact the basis underlying the whole concept of stakes in our novels. More writing books than I care to name (E.g. Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat!) talk about the importance of having compelling stakes in your novel. And well they should. But not a one of them I’ve ever read has stopped to talk about why it is we care about stakes at all.

It’s because of the endowment effect. A novel’s stakes, whatever they are, represent something that is had by the characters, by society, or whoever. The central conflict puts this thing at risk. Thus, characters are motivated to defend it, sometimes even at the cost of their lives.

June 19, 2010 04:21 UTC

Tags: character, endowment effect, stakes, bluff, motivation

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How to portray an inspiring leader

Joan of Arc. Napoleon. Susan B. Anthony. Gandhi. Hitler. Winston Churchill. Martin Luther King. Jim Jones. Whatever you may think of these men and women personally or the causes they championed, there is little argument that they all have something in common. All of them were highly effective leaders of their respective causes. That is, people followed them. They all exuded inspirational leadership.

Some novels call out for an inspirational leader, either as a main character or someone the story’s main characters can themselves admire or vilify. If that fits your current work-in-progress—or one you may be thinking about for the future—read on, for there are a couple of key techniques we can learn from history’s successful leaders. Now fasten your seat belts; this article is a long one.

Leaders share their vision.

All effective leaders, whether their aims be good or ill, have a vision for the future. And they share it with their followers. Whatever they’re after, whatever kind of change they want to create in the world, these leaders have a clear vision for it. And their vision is regularly manifested in their speech. They are not shy about sharing that vision with anyone and everyone.

The speech of effective leaders is peppered with leading phrases and future looking language: “I can see a day when …” Or “I imagine …” Or “I believe that in the future, …” And yes, “I have a dream.” These aspirational and inspirational phrases are how effective leaders open people’s minds and imaginations to their visions.

So if you’ve got a character who needs to inspire others to action—who needs to create a following—make liberal use of future-looking language. And try to make it distinctive. “I have a dream” will forever be associated with Martin Luther King. Your novel’s leader character needs his or her own unique phrasing, something that can become as much a part of the character’s identity and description as height or hair color.

Simple, vivid, and emotional

Great leaders also articulate their vision in vivid, colorful terms. They do it through imagery and metaphor, through evocative similes. They don’t do it through statistics and bulleted lists. Gandhi did not go around talking about how India’s Gross Domestic Product would go up if India achieved self-rule and equality for all. No. He talked about fairness, love, equality. He talked about simple, basic concepts that anyone could understand and that resonated with the emotions of his followers. And when he did have to use a statistic, he kept it lively:

When I despair, I remember that all through history the ways of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants, and murderers, and for a time they can seem invincible, but in the end they always fall. Think of it—always.

That’s a statistic—"tyranny ultimately fails 100% of the time"—but look at the wonderful language Gandhi used to express that statistic and how he built a small emotional story around it, and one that serves also to reassure his followers: “this movement is hard and sometimes I fear we will never succeed, but this undeniable fact of history always picks me right back up.” He admits to the same doubts that his followers must surely have had, then offers them a compelling reason to have hope. He explicitly commands listeners (note the imperative voice in “Think about it") to ponder what he has said, and to let this undeniable fact of history do the same for them.

So let your leaders talk about fundamentals. Let them talk about their vision in terms of lofty, philosophical, and emotional words like “love,” “truth,” “equality,” “freedom,” “success,” and so forth. Let them convey their visions in terms that are at once simple but vivid, and that connect with their followers’ hearts.

The what/how/why trap

Still, a great vision and vivid emotional language is not enough. Leaders with vision and vivid language may yet fail by falling into the “what/how/why” trap. And my thanks go to Simon Sinek for bringing this to my attention, because it’s brilliant.

Leader falls into the trap by explaining their vision for the future in terms of what they want to do. If pressed, they will give some details of a plan for how to do it. Chances are, no one will think to ask them why they’re doing it in the first place, which is good for them, because they probably haven’t spent much time thinking about it.

Great leaders explain their visions in exactly the opposite way. Great leaders talk almost exclusively about why they do what they do. They talk about their purpose. Their cause. What they believe deep down to their toes. Sinek explains this in marketing terms: “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”

Great leaders speak to that. Gandhi spoke to validate the basic belief that politically repressed Indians were worthy of every bit as much respect, dignity, opportunity, and freedom as any Englishman—even though they weren’t getting it under British rule.

Yet, most people instinctively talk about what, because what is concrete. It’s tangible. It’s obvious. The problem is, talking about what doesn’t motivate people to action. Talking about why does. If your novel’s leader wants any followers, talking about why had better be the first thing out of his or her lips.

It works because people know immediately whether they agree or disagree with a philosophical principle, which is what so many whys boil down to. When Martin Luther King talked about equality among the races, people knew right away whether they agreed with that basic belief, or whether it scared them. Had he jumped right to a concrete change—say, passing Affirmative Action legislation—he’d have met with much more resistance because even among people who agree with the core belief about equality, they might well differ over whether Affirmative Action was a good way to promote it. Let your leader characters stick with the philosophical principles, and leave the pesky concrete details to others.

Let actions demonstrate the why.

In 1930, Mahatma Gandhi walked almost 400 kilometers to the coast so he could make salt from seawater. Under British Rule at the time, you couldn’t just make salt. You had to pay a special tax. Gandhi’s why had to do with freedom and opportunity. Thus, he did not make speeches about how the Indian people desperately needed access to cheaper salt. That wouldn’t have demonstrated freedom and opportunity in vivid terms.

Instead, he simply made salt. He showed that he had the freedom and ability to do so, and thus, that the tax was both unjust and unenforceable. He did not make an appeal to what he felt needed to change ("we must force the British to repeal the salt tax!"). He talked about why, about the fundamental injustice of the tax, something the Indian people readily understood and agreed with. And the people responded. By the time he reached Dundi, on the seashore, some 50,000 people were there to join him in his protest.

Actions speak louder than words. And in “show, don’t tell” parlance, your leader characters will be much more believable if you can find actions for them to take that demonstrate the why behind their visions. What can your leader characters do to demonstrate their vision and exemplify their why?

Followers follow for themselves

Nobody followed Gandhi to the sea, trekking those hundreds of kilometers—on foot, mind you—because their salt shakers were empty. They weren’t hoping Gandhi was going to go into the salt business, selling lower-cost, tax-free salt. No. They did it for themselves. They followed Gandhi all the way to the sea because his words and his actions validated their own beliefs about themselves. They followed because Gandhi shared their personal vision for opportunity in a free India.

The same thing happened in America’s Civil Rights movement. When Martin Luther King went to Washington, D.C. to deliver his famous “I have a dream speech,” a quarter of a million people showed up to listen under the hot summer sun. They didn’t do it for him. They didn’t do it because they thought he’d feel bad if there was only a small crowd. They did it for themselves, because they wanted to be involved in remaking America according to the vision they shared with King for a more equitable society. And I can’t resist borrowing a line from Sinek here:

Notice, Martin Luther King gave the “I have a dream” speech, not the “I have a plan” speech.

He didn’t say what needed to change, but rather, what he believed. And people who shared those beliefs took his cause for their own, and volunteered. So let your leader characters speak to the secret, unvoiced dreams and visions of the people around them. Let your leader characters give their followers an outlet for pursuing their own dreams. Because the truth about leadership is that it’s not about the leader. It’s about the followers, and validating their reasons for following.

Heroes vs. villains.

Of course, the basic visionary and communication skills of effective leaders can be used for good or for evil. There’s a reason Hitler and Jim Jones were in the list at the top of this article. In truth, there’s not much separating the heroes from the villains. In hindsight, we can tell the difference through our judgments about the rightness or wrongness of their visions. But in the moment, at the time the characters in your book are deciding how to lead or whether to follow, hindsight is unavailable, and it can be damned hard to tell a hero from a villain.

This is because on an emotional level, there is no difference to the followers between a heroic and a villainous leader. Both heroic and villainous leaders alike call out to their followers by appealing to the best in them. They invoke the highest levels of Maslow’s hierarchy to inspire their followers towards greatness or towards what they argue is a better and brighter future.

For the heroic leaders, this appeal is genuine and heartfelt. Such leaders themselves believe what they are saying. Villainous leaders, by contrast, appeal to their followers better natures while at the same time arranging for themselves to be the beneficiaries of their followers’ efforts. Cult leaders, politicians, and corporate PR campaigns often do this (make of that what you will).

A picture of leadership

Through all of this, I hope a picture of what effective leaders actually do becomes clear. Great leaders have a vision. They share their vision in vivid, emotional terms. They speak in terms of broad, philosophical fundamentals, not concrete minutia. They focus on why they are passionate for their vision, not on what they think needs to change. And they let their actions demonstrate the truth of their beliefs.

By doing so, they call out to the shared beliefs held by people who ought to be their followers and motivate those people to take up the cause as well. That is how leaders inspire movements, and if you show your leader characters doing those things, readers will have no trouble believing you when an army of followers materializes around that person.

June 15, 2010 00:05 UTC

Tags: character, leadership, vision, actions, show don't tell, believability

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You just don't understand me!

Today’s article is in some sense about the opposite of my last one on the fundamental attribution error. That article is all about what happens because we can’t see deeply enough into the minds and lives of others. This one is all about what happens because other people can’t see into our minds.

The illusion of transparency

As usual, psychologists have a name for this, the “illusion of transparency.” What it means is that we tend to over-estimate the degree to which people can see our own mental states: our hopes and dreams, our desires, our attitudes, our beliefs, and our emotional states. We think it’s obvious when we’re frustrated, or confused about something and want someone to explain more, or stressed out from working 12 hour days non-stop. We think these things are on the surface, and that people will thus react to us as we would wish, without us having to tell them what we want or need.

But they don’t, because in fact our inner lives are not so obvious to everyone else. That’s the illusion: we’re not as transparent as we think.

Misunderstanding, resentment, and conflict

Much like I talked about a long time ago in my article on inner vs. outer character arcs, the illusion of transparency creates a mismatch between how we see ourselves and how other people see us. We see our inner self, with all our strife and troubles, while other people only see the calm facade we project on the surface.

It’s not hard to see how to build this into a rising-tension sequence. Take two characters. Let one of them do something that is hard for them, that represents real effort and struggle. Something for which they wish want a bit of recognition.

Maybe it’s an employee and her boss. Let’s say the employee volunteers to do some large, yet tedious, pile of work that nobody else wants to touch. Like, say, manually verifying that the shipping addresses of all 10,000 customers in the database have a valid zip code. Perhaps she does it because she’s new and isn’t secure in her job yet. Or maybe she’s angling for a promotion. Whatever the case, she sucks it up and does the job, staying late every night and coming in on weekends for two weeks straight until it’s finished.

But of course, she doesn’t make a big deal about it to anybody, because that would be fishing for compliments and she doesn’t want to come across a needy drama queen. So she just mentions in her weekly meeting with her boss, “Oh, and I took care of the zip code thing. It’s done now.”

And he says “Oh, great. Thanks. Now, what about the marketing proposal for Zipco Industries?”

To her, the bags under her eyes have never felt larger or looked darker. She feels frazzled beyond belief. But he can’t see that. She’s still putting her best professional face forward. As far as he can tell she’s fine, so it’s on to the next order of business. He misses entirely her need to be recognized for the yeoman effort she put forth. There’s the misunderstanding.

Next time a nasty pile of grunt-work comes along, guess who gets asked to do it? That’s right, the gal who did it last time without making a big fuss about it. Now, not only was her effort not recognized, but she feels penalized for doing all that work by having been given yet another crappy job to handle. Cue some resentment.

Another round of absent recognition is sure to follow, until ultimately something gives. This mis-match between how she perceives her efforts and the recognition she feels she has earned, versus how her boss sees her will boil over in a fabulous, juicy rant. “I work myself to rags around here, and what do I get? Nothing! Not a word of thanks. Not a pat on the back, or a little bit of a bonus, or even a measly comp day! Well you know what, you insensitive jerk? You can take this job and shove it!”

And that’s part of the fun of novels: letting our characters do the stuff we wish we had the sheer temerity to do in real life.

No, it’s not hard at all to see how the illusion of transparency can lead people into some seriously conflict-laden situations. And we have no one to blame but ourselves: first, we make the mistake of over-estimating the degree to which others can see how we feel. Our indignation at the way we are then treated (or feel we have been mistreated), then causes us to commit the fundamental attribution error by assuming the worst about the people we feel have done us wrong. In fact, they didn’t do anything wrong. It’s not their fault they aren’t telepathic. We’re not as transparent as we think.

Empathy, kindness, and compassion

Of course, there’s a flip-side too. Some people are weirdly good at sensing what’s going on with the people around them. Some people just know when you need a hug or when to say “hey, wow, that was great lasagna. Can I have your recipe?” or whatever it might be. Some people seem to have the magic x-ray glasses that do render others transparent.

We call that “empathy,” and people who have it tend to respond with shows of kindness and compassion. So as writers, if we want readers to believe that a character is empathetic in that way, we can simply show them doing or saying just what another character needs right in that moment. This is the person who, unbidden, plops down on the couch and hands their distraught housemate a dish of ice-cream, then casually asks “so, how was work today?” Small acts of kindness, or simply of caring about how someone else is feeling, are gold for portraying your novel’s sensitive people.

Empathy, maliciousness, and manipulation

Then there’s the dark side of empathy. It’s not a rule that empathetic people are kind and compassionate. It’s only a tendency. Some of them use their power for evil. I mean, if you have a knack for intuiting people’s emotional states and emotional needs, it’s easy to manipulate them. At your whim, you can give them what they want, withhold it, or hold it out as a promise in exchange for something else.

These are your “users,” your emotionally manipulative types who never need to raise a hand in anger or resort to violence because they have a much more powerful tool at their disposal: the ability to twist other people’s emotional states and needs to their own ends. As writers, we can use this dark side of empathy to create some seriously wicked characters. These are people who immediately spot what kind of emotional interaction someone else is craving, and then ponder how they can turn it to their own advantage.

Getting in your characters’ heads

Making good use of the illusion of transparency can be tricky for writers, because to us, all of our characters are perfectly transparent. We’re the ones who decide how everyone feels; to us, there’s no mystery about that like there is with other people in the real world. This is where you need to practice that controlled multiple-personalities technique I wrote about back in April. In any interaction between characters, you have to work hard to keep each person’s mental state clear in your own head, so as to create believable interactions between them.

The danger, since characters are so transparent to us, is that it’s all too easy to let our characters slip into the same compassionate insights we have for them, even if that wouldn’t be realistic or wouldn’t fit the situation. And when that happens, you lose hold of the very source of conflict that the illusion of transparency would otherwise provide.

June 08, 2010 22:41 UTC

Tags: character, illusion of transparency, emotion, conflict, empathy

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Why you suck but I don't

Ok, ok,you don’t suck. Jeez, don’t get all excited! But people committing the fundamental attribution error think you do.

The fundamental attribution error relates to how we interpret things when somebody screws up. Not to put too fine a point on it, but people’s default tendency is to apply an egregious double-standard in this regard: we interpret our own failings as the result of circumstance, but we assume the failings of others are the result of obvious and tragic character flaws within them.

Or in other words, “I was late because I hit all the red lights and got stuck behind an old granny in a land-yacht who didn’t understand what the gas pedal was for, but you were late because you obviously don’t know how to plan and manage your time.”

We commit this double standard for a pretty obvious reason: we know everything about our own circumstances, but comparatively little about other people’s circumstances. We don’t see other people walking around with their circumstances all nicely labeled for us. We don’t know if a co-worker was late for an important meeting because he really is lousy at time management, or because he was taking a call from his mother who lives three states away, panicking because his father had slipped in the shower and she didn’t know what to do.

Had we known that, we’d likely have cut the guy some slack for taking five minutes to talk his mom down and get her to dial 9-1-1. But we can’t see that. All we see is him coming into the meeting late and with a sheepish look on his face.

That’s the fundamental attribution error. And like most human behaviors, there’s a lot writers can do with it.

Create empathy. If you want readers to empathize with a somebody who screws up, just make sure they know the circumstantial reasons contributing to the screw-up. Novels give us a freedom that real life doesn’t, which is to show our readers the circumstances attached to any characters we care to. Use this power wisely.

Show positive personality traits. If you want to show a character as being fair-minded, empathetic, compassionate, forgiving, et cetera, then show them working hard not to commit the fundamental attribution error. Show them trying to think of what circumstances might have contributed to another character’s mistakes. Simply letting a character wait for evidence to come in, rather than rushing to judge someone, can work wonders for casting that character as a thoughtful, considerate person.

Show denial. Sometimes, people really do screw up because of core character flaws, and yet, under the right circumstances others will work very, very hard indeed to find a circumstantial explanation for that person’s failings. Wives who cover for their husbands’ alcoholism (or vice versa) is perhaps the most cliché example, but there are many others. While we never have all the information about someone else’s circumstances, we always have some; the difference between denial and commendable fair-mindedness is in how we heed or ignore the evidence we do have, especially when ignoring it leads to bad consequences for us.

Create a Pollyanna character. A Pollyanna is a naively or hopelessly optimistic character. One who always looks on the bright side, despite any and all evidence to the converse. Applied to people, this philosophy can certainly be a good thing (see show positive personality traits, above). Still, you know what they say about too much of a good thing. Imagine that you have a co-worker who is habitually late, and another co-worker who always gives that person the benefit of the doubt, or even goes so far as to invent hypothetical excuses on that person’s behalf ("I’ll bet he just had car trouble"). What would you think about that second co-worker? Chances are, that’s not someone whose judgment you’d particularly trust, since they’re ignoring what is obvious for all to see.

Create a hothead or unreliable flake. The flip-side is that if you want to if you want to show a character being judgmental, showing them rushing to judgment—committing the fundamental attribution error—is a great way to go, especially if you couple it with that same character going to great lengths to explain away his own failings to others. This is the person who always thinks the best of himself and the worst of others. Note, for this you’ll need to be using a narrative point-of-view that allows the character and the reader to have different information, so the reader can empathize with the mistake-maker, while hothead character rushes to judge.

Create a dramatic twist. Finally (and this is one of my favorites), if you want to spring a reversal on the reader in which you take a character from being viewed negatively to being viewed positively, let the reader and any relevant POV characters commit this error, but then later, reveal to them the circumstances. That is, show the character making a mistake, and other characters attributing it to the mistake-maker’s personality. If you’re not too heavy-handed about it, chances are the reader will go right along with it and make the exact same mistake themselves. Then later, you can reveal the circumstances leading up to that person’s mistake, and use that information to pivot everyone’s attitude about that person.

Got any other great ways to take advantage of the fundamental attribution error? Share them in the comments!

June 03, 2010 23:45 UTC

Tags: character, fundamental attribution error, judgment, pollyanna, reversals

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