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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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21 Comments:

Posted by K.M. Weiland on April 26, 2010 22:50 UTC

I agree utterly. Good fiction is thinking fiction, and it can hardly achieve that if the author himself isn’t a thinker. I (perhaps simplistically) tend to divide people - and characters - into two divisions: those who are “aware” and those who are not. The best characters are those who have an awareness of a deeper sense of psychology and philosophy.

Posted by John Robert on April 26, 2010 23:29 UTC

When you use “schizophrenia", I presume you actually mean “dissociative identity disorder", commonly known as multiple personality disorder: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dissociativeidentitydisorder

Simply defined, schizophrenia is the disassociation of thought and reality. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schizophrenia It’s not something that a writer should try to emulate.

Posted by Jason Black on April 26, 2010 23:37 UTC

@John Robert:

When you use “schizophrenia", I presume you actually mean “dissociative identity disorder”

Yes, that’s quite true. I’m using “schizophrenia” more in the casual, cultural understanding of the word, however inaccurate, as meaning “multiple personalities.” Actual psychology/psychiatry students should, of course, go by the DSM definitions of these terms instead of the less accurate definitions used by laypersons.

Nevertheless, fiction is written (usually, anyway) for the layperson so in accordance with the dictum to “know your audience,” I encourage writers to use whatever terms most help them get into their audience’s mindset (yet another level of theory of mind for writers to keep track of).

Posted by Camille on April 27, 2010 15:31 UTC

It always amazes me when people don’t have a theory of mind.

To go back to an earlier post of yours, that’s one of the reasons for House’s appeal too. He has a wonderfully developed theory of mind, even if he also has difficulty comprehending the emotional side of what he sees in other people’s heads.

And, BTW, thanks again for the great blog. In many ways it’s about developing that theory of mind. I find myself blogging on subjects inspired by your posts. (I try to remember to link back when I do.)

Posted by Groo on April 27, 2010 15:42 UTC

This is exactly a problem with one of my old critique partners. I could never put it in words or identify it, but her characters just sucked. She was fine with the first person POV self-insert, but she was completely ridiculous and unrealistic with everyone else. It was obvious reading the other characters that this was someone who had no understanding of other people. Now you’ve explained it to me. Thank you!

Posted by Min on April 28, 2010 16:32 UTC

I’m sorry Mr. Black. Your site seems very nice, but I am completely put off by your misuse of the term schizophrenia. Ultimately your “theory of mind” point is spot on. However, mental health has such a poor reputation in this country, that it saddens me to see people misuse terms like this. It is NOT the layperson’s understanding of schizophrenia to mean “multiple personality". In fact multiple personality is the layperson’s term for dissociative identity disorder.

What is most offensive to me, is that once someone corrected the misuse, you disregarded it with your explanation. Choosing instead to continuing to foster the uneducated view of the subject to your readers without regard for presenting the correct information.

Now all your readers who understand what your saying to mean “controlled schizophrenia” will tell other people, “hey, I’ve got” or “I’m trying to have controlled schizophrenia to understand my characters” without a true understanding of they are actually saying to others. Not to mention, how uneducated they may sound if they say it to someone who knows what schizophrenia means. Layperson or not, many people know someone who is affected by the disease and therefore would take offense to it.

It would be far more culturally and socially acceptable to transition your meaning of theory of mind into “multiple personality disorder,” as it is what you really mean by saying schizophrenia.

It is very clear you’ve never worked with or had someone close to you with schizophrenia. If you did, I doubt very much you’d be able to draw a line between the destructive degenerative disease and theory of mind.

Posted by Jason Black on April 28, 2010 17:19 UTC

@Min:

I take your point. Obviously, my aim is not to belittle true mental illness, nor to sow the seeds of misinformation in the public at large.

My aim is to help writers write better novels. I’m pretty sure people who come to this blog are coming for that, not as a budget replacement for med school.

Believe it or not, I actually did consider titling the article “the controlled multiple personality disorder of writers.” What hung me up was the word “disorder.” Because the skill I’m suggesting writers develop is in no way a disorder. It’s good to have an acutely sharp sense for how other people’s minds work.

To me, that connotation leaves a bad taste in the mouth, and I just couldn’t get away from that. But, that’s just me. You and John Robert obviously feel differently about it, and strongly so. I won’t dismiss that, because my opinion is only that: one person’s.

So, how about we leave it up to the readers. Please vote, if you would, on whether you prefer the pithy term “controlled schizophrenia” or the wordier but more accurate term “controlled multiple personality disorder.”

Posted by Min on April 28, 2010 18:09 UTC

No doubt your readers are not seeking out your site as a budget replacement for med school.

I would agree, that encouraging writers to have a “disorder” is not productive. Neither is propagating a term that doesn’t mean what you intend it to.

To be honest, I wouldn’t want either term used in this way as it is, no matter your intention, belittling true mental illness. Encouraging those who do not suffer from it to use it in a crass incorrect way. Similar to how ADD and OCD has become comical explanation for people’s quirks that have nothing to do with the real implications of the illness. I ask at what point do you, as a person providing information to people, feel some sense of social responsibility?

In the end I think you could drop off the “disorder” part of “controlled multiple personality” and still get your point across.

Posted by Jason Black on April 28, 2010 18:21 UTC

@Min:

In the end I think you could drop off the “disorder” part of “controlled multiple personality” and still get your point across.

That’s a pretty good suggestion. Thanks. Sometimes the simple solutions are the best. I’ll think on it a bit. And thank you for your thougtful comments!

Posted by Shari on April 28, 2010 19:24 UTC

This is brilliant, although that Friends episode hurt my brain a little, lol.

Posted by Delia on April 29, 2010 08:59 UTC

This is the first time I have visited this blog, and am grateful for the level of thought put into the post and the following commentary. As a novice author, I understood the post to be about the importance of creating believable characters by “channeling” various personal qualities, grasping and utilizing the “theory of mind". It’s irrelevant what the work to create a realistic character is called in this type of discussion. The post was about how to experience, control, and relay a character’s mental and emotional qualities effectively to an audience. I think “control(ling) multiple personalities of writers” is the clearest terminology to define a successful author’s process. It was (seemingly) not intended to hijack the discussion, leading to irrelevant topics that are not helpful to those of us who want to learn effective methods to create characters that an audience will enjoy. I would appreciate learning more about how others have successfully “become” their characters. Do you allow your characters to lead, and if so, when do you step in to control the activity or personal quality? Thank you!

Posted by Teresa Frohock on April 29, 2010 16:07 UTC

What a fascinating way to put it! I’d never heard of theory of mind before, but you did an excellent job of explaining how it can work for writers in terms of characterization.

All the work we do to create character biographies for such superficial things as looks, job, favorite music, etc., is how we stumble around seeking the theory of mind of our characters.

Thanks! You’ve given me a short-cut to my next group of characters. Teresa

Posted by Jason Black on April 29, 2010 16:24 UTC

@Delia writes:

I would appreciate learning more about how others have successfully “become” their characters. Do you allow your characters to lead, and if so, when do you step in to control the activity or personal quality?

I think the writers who allow their characters to lead are the ones who have that keenly developed “gut feel” for theory of mind. They just have great intuition about it so they don’t really need to think about what their characters would do and so forth; they just know these things.

I’m very jealous of these writers.

I’m in the other camp, the analytical camp (no surprise, if you’ve read much else on my blog). For me, it’s much more a process of carefully thinking through the attributes that make up each of my character’s theories of mind, and working out how those would interact.

Both techniques work very well, but I’m jealous of the “gut feel” writers because to me it seems like they don’t have to do this extra bit of work that I do. On the other hand, who knows, maybe they’re jealous of me because I don’t have to worry about characters hijacking the plot so much. :)

Posted by Theresa Milstein on April 29, 2010 16:39 UTC

When I write or think about my WIP, I almost live in my characters’ heads. If they aren’t real to me, how can I make them real? I don’t know if I’ve got it all “right", but that’s my process.

Posted by Min on April 30, 2010 14:17 UTC

Mr. Black

You’re welcome for the suggestion and I appreciate that you posted the comments, even if I came across harsh. A lot of people wouldn’t have.

Posted by jennifer on May 03, 2010 15:24 UTC

Great post! I knew about theory of mind, but I didn’t know what it was called or even the depth that knowledge of it creates. My boyfriend and I watched an interview the other day with author Ray Bradbury, and Bradbury mentioned that he didn’t write a single one of his stories; his characters told him what to write and he just typed it out for them. My boyfriend then mentioned something about him being “crazy,” which made me laugh. If he knew characters were talking inside my head too, he might think I was just as crazy! Controlled schizophrenia definitely describes it!

Posted by Elissa Malcohn on May 05, 2010 04:40 UTC

Working with “imaginal others” is another way to put it. Psychologist Mary Watkins has a terrific book, <i>Invisible Guests: The Development of Imaginal Dialogues</i> (Analytic Press, 1986), which looks at everything from imaginary playmates to shamanism to MPD to the use of imaginal others in therapy. Chapter 7 is titled, “’The Characters Speak Because They Want to Speak’: The Autonomy of the Imaginal Other,” and deals specifically with the relationship of authors to their characters. Her examples are very similar to Jennifer’s description of what Bradbury said. Watkins quotes from poet Marina Tsvetaeva and writers Enid Blyton, Henry James, Flannery O’Connor, and Alice Walker. Theory of mind is not addressed per se, but I believe the characters “taking over” may stem from that kind of modeling. I post excerpts from Watkins’ book <a href="http://hurricanecountry.blogspot.com/2005/12/collaborations_113458706292154444.html">here</a>.

Posted by Anna on September 18, 2010 23:38 UTC

And I thought I was the only one - haha

Posted by William on August 21, 2011 17:10 UTC

Just found your blog. Good read! This pretty much describes the biggest challenge I’ve faced as a writer. Having Asperger’s Syndrome, I sometimes have difficulty with theory of mind, though I’ve gotten much better at it. Thankfully, many of my characters come fairly natural to me. That’s helpful, except when dialogue makes them all sound the same.

Posted by Jason Raub on May 29, 2012 17:27 UTC

I think this article is interesting. Thinking of the charictors in my head telling me what to write seem’s like a good way to write a story, I wish i was able to do that. My 8’ish year old niese can write short stories though with more than one charictor & that’s one reason I think imagination has alot more to do with stories and charictors, like seeing what they say and do rather than thinking to hard about it, more a watching in another world type of thing than multi-personalities. Do writers? zone out while writeing, I bet they do into another world. I don’t like to think of any thing as boring, the word boring it’s self bothers me. If I tried to ‘control’ multi personalities in my head they would not be other personalities, they would just be me minipulating some thing with a name to interact in a believeable way with other things with names, too taxing, would give any one a bad headache. I’m rambling, neat! article. - :) (if my spelling is bad please forgive, thanks!)

Posted by Jason Black on May 29, 2012 21:16 UTC

Every writer’s experience is bound to be different. I can only speak for myself, but when I write, I wouldn’t say that I “zone out” into another world. I gather some writers do, but that’s not me. Everybody has to find a working style that, well, works for them.

For me, it’s not so much zoning out as a juggling act demanding extreme focus on a great many parts, all moving together. Every scene has a job to do—or more than one. To make that happen I have to simultaneously manage the stage direction (physical motion of people and objects in the scene) the dialogue (so as to keep every character’s voice distinct to them), the flow of information within the scene (both from one character to another, and from book to reader), elements of writing craft such as vocabulary (a piece of historical fiction demands greater use of old-fashioned terms and expressions), sentence structure (both for grammatical correctness as well as creating pleasing variety in sentence forms), and even such things as “pet words” in my own style that can’t be used too often or they become distracting to the reader.

It’s a lot to keep track of all at once. Other writers will have their own lists of what’s top-of-mind while they write, but for me, it’s the juggling act that keeps all of those things from falling on the floor in a great heap.

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