Thursday 9 April 2009

“Characters for Life”: Why Carolyn See’s Advice for Developing Fictional Characters May Just Work

In the past decade or so, empirical research in the psychology of creative writing is finding that it is often the case that writers do not go searching for characters to populate their fictional worlds; the characters come to them. As discussed in an earlier piece on this blog (August 12, 2008), the psychologist Marjorie Taylor and colleagues have found evidence that adult fiction writers experience what she calls the “illusion of independent agency,” in which writers experience their characters as “having their own thoughts, feelings, and actions” (Taylor, Hodges, & Kohányi, 2002/2003, p. 366). A whopping 92% of her sample of 50 experienced this phenomenon. Another study conducted in-depth interviews with five fiction writers and found that writers often describe the writing experience in “passive terms, as if the fictionworld were acting on them, even possessing them” (Doyle, 1998, p. 32).

But how is a pedagogy of fiction writing possible if this model of writing accurately represents the writing process? In one of the most interesting chapters on the development of characters that I have read, Carolyn See, author of six novels and professor at UCLA, tacks smartly between the Scylla of the 20-questions character development exercise and the Charybdis of the prolonged wait for characters to drop by to say hello. In Making a literary life: Advice for writers and other dreamers (2002), See proposes a third option which entails creating two sorts of lists. The first is a “list of the ten most ‘important’ people in your life... Whom do you love? Who betrayed you? Whom did you betray? Who drives you nuts? Who’s out of your reach? Who’s your role model? Who’s your benchmark for insanity? Quick! Write the list" See, p. 118). Then make another list of “the other kind of important people you know ... the ones who gave you the willies. Who creep you out and you don’t know why" (p. 120). Together, she claims, these “are your ‘characters for life'" (p. 121). After this exercise, one is to cast the person before one’s eyes and focus on what one is seeing.

See’s proposal may seem obvious as a character development strategy, but I would just like to explore briefly why, from a psychological point of view, this strategy would stand a very good chance of bringing the writer to that moment of experiencing the “illusion of independent agency” in her characters. First, the writer’s emotions elicited by focusing on these people would have a breadth and depth that the writer might not feel toward characters who have originated from more analytical methods (e.g., pondering: What color is his hair? What is her favorite hobby? What makes him tick?). Research has shown that we are more likely to remember details concerning new acquaintances who are like a significant other and to make judgments concerning them similar to those made about significant others (Andersen & Glassman, 1996). In addition, the value that a significant other places on attaining a goal affects our own perception of value in, and performance and persistence in, attaining it (Shah, 2003). Further, the writer’s awareness of the breadth and depth of emotional range in her characters may be precisely what is needed to sustain the “illusion of independent agency” in the writer and the sense of verisimilitude for the reader. The characters as they eventually develop away from the writer’s memories of the “important” people on the list have to be capable of surprising the writer, and perhaps only characters of whose multi-faceted emotional lives the writer is aware can do that.

Second, See insists that the list should be written “without thinking about it, or trying to make a good impression on anyone, or a bad impression either” (See, p. 118). Once people give themselves the extra three seconds to think about their “important people” and their “willies” people, any help the “adaptive unconscious” (Wilson, 2002) would have lent to developing verisimilar characters is out the window. Characters do not have to make sense to the writer as they are arriving on the scene, even in their inchoate form of important people in our lives. See says of herself that the “important” people “illumine my character, shine lights into the dark cavern of my ‘self’” (p. 124); but they can only do that if they are not already selected out (during those extra three seconds) to illumine one’s character with a conscious goal in mind.

The third reason See’s advice seems to me particularly likely to work lies in the number of “important” people she proposes. See gives examples of her own important people and comes up with ten “important” people and six “willies” people, and then on occasion refers to the writer’s 10-16 people on “the list.” Evolutionary biologist Robin Dunbar notes that when people are asked to write down the names of people whose death tomorrow would devastate them (called their “sympathy group”), the average lies between 11 and 12; similarly, when people must name persons whom they contact at least once a month, the number lies between 10 and 15 (Dunbar, 1996/2004, p. 76). He notes further, “It is striking that groups of this size are common in situations where very close co-ordination of behaviour is required: juries, the inner cabinets of many governments, the number of apostles, the size of most sports teams” (ibid), and “these groups are limited by the way in which you relate emotionally to people” (p. 77). Very close co-ordination of behavior of characters would seem also to be required for the writer creating and concatenating a series of discrete emotional episodes that will move the reader. Those 10-16 people on “the list” are likely the most, in their guise as characters, with whom the writer could maintain an intimate imaginary emotional life for a sustained period of time. Of course, not all characters would have to show up in every fictional narrative, but their presence in the imagination of the writer is likely limited by this range. Indeed, See does not qualify her statement with any caveat that one need expand the list as the number of stories one writes grows, or that one need tailor the list for particular purposes. Instead, one visits and revisits the same folks again and again, discovering more about them, the characters they scaffold, and about oneself, as one goes along.

Andersen, S. M., & Glassman, N. S. (1996). Responding to significant others when they are not there: Effects on interpersonal inference, motivation, and affect. In R. M. Sorrentino & E. T. Higgins (Eds.) Handbook of motivation and cognition, Vol. 3 (pp. 262-321). New York: Guilford.

Doyle, C. L. (1998). The writer tells: The creative process in the writing of literary fiction. Creativity Research Journal, 11, 29-37.

Dunbar, R. (1996/2004). Grooming, gossip and the evolution of language. London: Faber and Faber.

See, C. (2002). Making a literary life: Advice for writers and other dreamers. New York: Random House.

Shah, J. (2003). The motivational looking glass: How significant others implicitly affect goal appraisals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85, 424-439.

Taylor, M., Hodges, S. D., & Kohányi, A. (2002/2003). The illusion of independent agency: Do adult fiction writers experience their characters as having minds of their own? Imagination, Cognition and Personality, 22 (4), 361-380.

Wilson, T. D. (2002). Strangers to ourselves: Discovering the adaptive unconscious. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

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