Monday, November 27, 2006

Psych 101 for writers, readers, and characters

Q#3: How does conditioning, as defined by psychologists, have an influence on a novelist?

A: Quick and dirty answer is--I write, I get paid. More seriously, authors get the job done out of a sense of ritual and conditioning, and the more times one writes, the easier it becomes; it helps if there are built in rewards for finishing a scene, celebrating a breakthrough, etc.

In fiction, characters work out of a sense of conditioned response all the time. A positive character feels ill-at-ease in a hotel room, unable to sleep. Said character can't control her environment as at home. Same character exhibits a sense of relief and comfort in home. Characters begin with conditioned traits, often a bedrock of traits that can't or won't be denied or blasted out, and the writer's job is to blast away to see what happens if the bedrock conditioning (often childhood conditioning) begins to crumble or show chinks. In fact every great story and film is about this. Authors also work hard at exploding a 'load' of culturally conditioned notions about race, religion, education, and other issues as well by challenging the character who may believe something only because he has known no alternative.

Scarlett of Gone with the Wind fame leaps out as example. It's kind of a war between character and author. A character wants nothing more than to hold onto 'himself' and keep himself intact while an author most assuredly must tear him down, layer by layer until said character is examining his own beliefs and traits. He cannot remain static; can't be a Pavlovian fellow, and if he is and can't get beyond conditioned response the story and character will fall flat and bore the reader to the cliche of tears. A miser who remains a miser will not be as interesting as Ebeneezer Scrooge. By the way, the three pigs, conditioned to hide and flee rather than strike out do in some versions of the tale die because they can't change with the times or are technologically limited--laugh-track follows!

Watch for Q#4 -- How does memory affect the writing of a novel?

Friday, November 17, 2006

Psych 101 for writers, readers, and characters

Over a period of time, I will be considering 10 questions that delve into the relationship between psychology and writing the novel, and being a novelist. In other words, what has psychology got to do with imagination and creation--creating whole worlds populated with people out of ink marks on a page? The following questions and answers delve into the psychology of the author himself, and eventually will also ask about the psychology of characters an author creates: This is Psych 101 for Authors and readers interested in the craft and creative impulse.

Q.#2: How do sensation and perception enter into the realm of fiction writing?

A: Sensation and perception are the conduits to creativity, and without these and the detail they arrive at, the author could never make the unbelievable believable. E.B. White crafted through sense and perception detail a full-blown relationship between a spider and a pig in Charlotte's Web, a tale to make grown men and women, including gruff old gramps, weep for the death of a spider. How'd he do that? He paid extreme detail to the senses and perceptions of his characters and to his own as he wrote the story. In the details, White tugs at every sense we own and then some. How things look to the eye, taste to the tonuge, feel to the touch, smell to the nose, sound to the ear, feel to the spirit--our 6th sense. The entire body is wired to the brain, and the hands and other sense organs are the visible extensions of the brain, and we SEE only what the brain sess, and the brain sees through the senses, which make everything metaphorical and visual. Perception and sensation provide images, and even Einstein relied on images to see patterns and when we see patterns we learn, we SEE, we know, and we own the result.

A writer's stock'n'trrade is his tools and one of the largest paint brushes he or she uses is the notions of perception and sensations. It is our job to make the odors rise off the black ink marks on the page, and to make the sound effects create an effect to make you jump, and to make you fear what you're picking up, or to laugh aloud, or to smile at a fond perhaps lost memory. In a horror novel, creating a monster and making readers truly believe in its reality is no less a task than E.B. White's making you cry over Charlotte's demise. It is the same task. Make the reader believe the unbelievable. Every story is a war, a confrontation between or among combatants, and even if there is no violence in the story, every story hinges upon conflict and conflict resolution. No one gets through a war unscathed. Just as White so subtly invovles us in the life of Wilbur the pig and Charlotte the spider, whose war was with the unfeeling society that had laid out Wilbur's future for him--the slaughter house--Shelley involves us in the life of Frankenstein, Stoker in Dracula's problems, and so forth. The "devil is in the details" means the senses and perception. The author is always working to pull these out of the reader, and in doing so, he must first pull them from himself.

So Sensory impulses and perceptions enter into a story at every level and on every page, even the psychological perceptions as when a smart cop is interrogating a smarter suspect. Each character in a story is sizing up another, and through the various perceptions of said characters does 'characterization' -- busy determining if the other is a threat or an ally. Take the notion to Gone with the Wind....Rhett and Scarlet. Everyone in the book is laboring under right or wrong perceptions and the reader's every sensation is yanked at and tugged on....

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Psych 101 for writers, readers, and characters

Over a period of time, I will be considering 10 questions that delve into the relationship between psychology and writing the novel, and being a novelist. In other words, what has psychology got to do with imagination and creation--creating whole worlds populated with people out of ink marks on a page? The following questions and answers delve into the psychology of the author himself, and eventually will also ask about the psychology of characters an author creates: This is Psych 101 for Authors and readers interested in the craft and creative impulse.

Q: How does data collection and scientific method play a role in being a mystery\suspense\romance]\western\YA\ or horror writer?

A: Data collection and scientific method drive the construction of a suspense novel if the novel is based on research and a foundation of truth, as is the case in many novels. As with John Sanford, Michael Creighton, Dean Koontz, and Thomas Harris, my own novels have an information and knowledge base forming the bedrock of the suspense or terror. The research may be in the arena of viruses as in my FleshWar, dealing with a pandemic caused by an East Indian 'mythological' creature (also requiring research). It may be in medicine as in my ME novels, the Instinct Series or in how psychics work and view themselves as in my Psi Blue. It may be in the historical arena as in City for Ransom. The research helps tremendously to mold the characters, giving them a foundation and backbone and an inkling as to who they are. It provides the creation (character) with medical, professional, and career goals, a belief system and a method of coping with the world he or she walks through.

As the author, I am at once involved in scientific inquiry; I must inquire into how things work and how people work or think or behave and why. What a character says, does, and thinks equals who he is both in the real world perception and in perception of ficitonal charactrs--defines him in the mind of the reader. Often the plot as well hinges upon some aspect of science or medicine, profiling techniqes, handwriting analysis, interrogation techniques, or old fashioned police methodology. So the collection of information is essential in novels wherein the backbone of the story hinges on factual matters (truth is stranger than fiction, so I put it to use). To do this accurately, the author must gather and analyze information and pass it along to readers; they in turn learn something new (hopefully), analyze the data for themselves (hopefully), and perhaps feel a sense of enlightenment or fright or are otherwise moved say to laughter or to tears, and to some higher perception brought on by the 'world say of Inspector Alastair Ransom' in City for Ransom set in gaslight Chicago against the backdrop of the Columbian Exposition.

The questions an author seeks information on may be as varied as "At what temperature a body burns 'cleanly' and without leaving a trace?" to "How many pints of blood in the average male as opposed to female body?" to "Precisely what freedom of interrogation and 'power' the average detective had in 1893 and what constituted an autopsy in 1893?"

Psychology 101 asks us to consider research, information gathering, and analysis and the scientific method. Does it play a part in writing? Absolutely, for even if your novel is written without a stitch of research, you are drawing on and collecting memory and detail from the library in your head and imagination vault. Not every author uses research; Stephen King prides himself on doing no research but in using all imagination. However, imagination itself draws on experience and data collection and scientific method.

Next Question we'll take up is: How does sensation and perception center into the realm of writing the novel or short story (whatever category)?

Quick and Dirty Answer: Sensation is the bedrock upon which an author makes you, the reader, believe in the unbelievable.

For the complete answer to #2 on the way to #10 turn in next week.