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
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
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