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?


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Blogger D.S. Dollman said...

Gosh, Robert,for a minute there I thought you were writing a ghost story! Ebeneezer Scrooge is an interesting character to me because, in so many performances of this story he retains a touch of sneaky and sarcasm. In other words, you can still see his basic personality poking through in spite of the miraculous change in the way he views his fellow humans. DSD

4:24 AM  
Anonymous Rob Walker said...

DSD -- precisely, the bedrock characteristics are challenged in a story, but they remain intact all the same as in real life so often. Ever try to really, really chink away at someone's addiction or character?

Rob Walker

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