Category: A Pint with the Professor

A Pint with the Professor: Heuristics and Character Archetypes

Heuristics and Character Archetypes

One thing people are not often aware of is the sheer number of shortcuts the brain takes when processing information. We see what we see, right? Well, not really. Believe it or not, human vision is actually full of many problems, but the brain sorts it all out, and pulls it together into the image that we perceive. Since this introduces quite a lot of opportunity for error, one might ask why this is something that the human brain does instead of working toward more accurate processing of information. Well, the reason for that is because the brain only has a finite capacity to take in and process information. So the brain has to work to limit the amount of information that comes in. Also, the brain works to reduce the processing time in order to be most efficient. The brain uses heuristics, which are mental shortcuts that we are not even aware are occurring. About.com provides an effective and efficient definition, “A heuristic is a mental shortcut that allows people to solve problems and make judgments quickly and efficiently. These rule-of-thumb strategies shorten decision-making time and allow people to function without constantly stopping to think about their next course of action.”

Dramatica Character Archetypes

This is why I think character archetypes can work well in writing fiction. The brain, already primed to seek familiar information so that it can efficiently process information, is already primed to look for the familiar. Heuristics are things that have worked for us in the past. For example, we tend to judge people based on our experiences with similar people in the past. Instead of starting over with learning about this new person, our brain tries to take some mental shortcuts to help us formulate an opinion of this new person, based on our past experiences. For example, we may see someone with a nifty hat, and remember a brilliant psychology teacher that had a smart collection of sharp looking hats. This might help us to immediately trust the opinion of this handsome new devil, based on our experience with such a person in the past.

Wikimedia, Creative Commons License

Wikimedia, Creative Commons LicenseThis is why I think archetypes work, to a certain extent. We look for the familiar in the characters we read, and archetypes help us to quickly identify and classify a character. I love the Dramatica character archetypes, because they are broad enough to allow for creativity in exactly how the archetypes are applied, but we can quickly find the familiar when we are presented with them.

Unfamiliar Familiarity

In my consumption of fiction, I think that a really well crafted story is one balances novel stimulus with familiar stimulus. For example, if I write, “The man spat on his hand as he hopped around in circles with one toe in his ear;” that is wacky, odd, and not likely to be something I would identify with. In other words, it is too unfamiliar because it is well outside my familiarity with how people behave. A story that is too predictable can be boring. In my estimation then, it is that delicate and artistic balance between enough familiarity to help the reader feel like they know what is going on, with enough surprise to keep the reader guessing and turning the pages. Archetypes then help the writer present a character that has enough familiarity to help so that the reader does not feel completely lost. The Dramatica archetypes are also broad enough that they allow for creative application, so that each character can still be unique in meaningful ways.

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You Already Failed Your New Year’s Resolution, Now What?

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Setting and achieving goals is an important part of therapy, and also very important in everyday life. As a therapist, I have to be able to help people set and achieve goals. As a writer, of course my goals are about making sure I fit writing into my life.

There is something motivating about starting fresh. When I was in public school, I can remember the start of every new academic year would begin with my proclamation that I was going to be more organized and do better in school that year. I graduated high school with a 2.79 GPA, so you can guess how that went.

Similarly, I think there is something to the new year that welcomes setting new goals and trying to achieve new things. Many people set resolutions for the New Year, but New Year’s Resolutions are notoriously not followed through upon. If you have already failed in your New Year’s Resolutions, then don’t give up! You can still do this, and here are a few suggestions to help you.

Is Your Goal Realistic?

It is important that goals are achievable. Losing twenty pounds a month may be hard. When the going gets tough, the tough grab a milkshake and watch How I Met Your Mother re-runs. Make sure your goals are actually achievable, or you are setting yourself up for failure. There is something intrinsically motivating about setting goals. There is also something intrinsically motivating about a achieving goals. Keep your long term goals high, but consider re-evaluating your short term goals to be more realistic. You can celebrate each small victory, which will be motivating as you continue toward your long-term goal.

Make a Public Commitment

When we make a commitment to other people, we are much more likely to follow through on it. My wife and I have been encouraging each other to eat healthy, exercise, and lose weight. It is motivating for both of us that we get encouragement from each other. It is also helpful knowing that we will hold each other accountable for achieving our goals.

Consider a Further Breakdown

I alluded to this above, but consider making short term goals that use the “baby steps” mentioned in the film, What About Bob? One gentleman I knew came up with a goal that he would exercise before opening a beer after work each night. He started by walking around his living room. Then each step was only slightly larger than the last. Since each step was only a bit bigger than the last, it was easy to stay motivated and follow through. The last I heard, he was up to several miles.

Reward Yourself

People all work for positive reinforcement, recognition, and rewards. This is something that sounds true for kids, but do rewards really work for adults? Think of it this way, would you still go to work if you did not get paid at all? Probably not. Consider rewarding yourself with a trip to the coffee shop, a new CD, or whatever works for you. It can be incredibly motivating to know that you get to go to have a coffee because you worked so hard for it.

Most Importantly, Never Give Up

If a goal is important to you, then keep working toward it. Avoid the all or nothing type of thinking that often leads to abandoning a New Year’s Resolution. Just because it didn’t work out for you one week, does not mean that you have to let go of the idea of meeting your goal. It may be time to re-examine the goal, come up with more baby steps, or find some way to motivate yourself some more, but don’t allow yourself to give up over one small defeat!

What is Your Reader/Writer Personality? A Quick Test

There are many different personality tests, and they are often used in organizational psychology, where consultants work in the workplace to help co-workers understand one another. I recently took one at work, as I have also done in the past, and I thought of how it applied to those who read or write fiction. I have decided to use the True Colors personality type here because of its simplicity and applicability, but as I mentioned before, there are many others available.

True Colors was started by Don Lowry in the seventies, and still has a strong following. It categorizes personality types into four broad categories, based on a color. The green in me (you will know what that means soon), feels compelled to warn you that the human condition is not easily simplified into four discrete categories. In other words, the accuracy and applicability of this personality test will only get you so far. You know you the best, and you may have more than one color personality type that influences you, or it may vary based on the particular topic or situation. Overall, however, I think this is a good metric for building understanding.

For those in critique/writing groups, I think that understanding ourselves and others also goes a long way toward dealing with conflict. When we see these personality colors in ourselves and others, we can appreciate our differences, and view others as different instead of viewing them as wrong.

I am going to explain each personality type is it applies to fiction writers and readers. Please note that this is based on my own subjective view of writers and readers, as well as my knowledge of the True Colors personality types. I like to think I am a pretty effective therapist and manager, but I am also human.

Click here to take the personality test. Then return here to see what you personality type means for you as a reader or writer of fiction.

WikiMedia

Gold: Consistency

The gold personality is one that thrives on rules and traditions. They have a strong sense of duty and commitment. They desire things like punctuality and organization. They measure worth by completion. They are likely to be a part of groups, and like to be respected. They enjoy being in positions of authority, and like to bring stability.

As a Reader

These are the so-called “grammar nazis” that everyone refers to. Rules exist for a reason, and golds do not like to read the work of people who refuse to follow the rules. They appreciate worlds, characters, and stories that are internally consistent, and follow the rules of writing. They have no use for works that are riddled with grammar, spelling, or punctuation errors. Golds can sometimes get lost in the nit-picky details, to the exclusion of the more emotional aspects of writing. Writing is a science, not an art.

As a Writer

Great at editing, golds go the extra mile to ensure every last typo is tried, convicted and executed. They tend to put a lot of thought into their stories, and like it when all of the rules of their fictional worlds are explored and adhered to. The three act structure. show don’t tell, and other traditional rules of writing and publishing are their bread and butter.

In a Writing/Critique Group

They make it a point to be on-time, and to follow through on their commitments. They appreciate others who are also punctual and follow-through on their commitments. They like to set up the rules and to help govern the group. They have little tolerance for people who are late, do not follow the rules, or do not follow-through on their commitments. They are the person everyone turns to for grammar advice, or when they believe a general rule or guideline will assist them. They can come across as harsh, rude, judgmental, and overly concerned with “rules.”

WikiMedia

Blue: Feeling

The Blue personality values nurturing, relationships, and emotions. They are very much drawn to literature and love symbolism. They love expression and creativity, and encourage the same in others. Blues need harmony, and make decisions based on feelings.

As a Reader

They want to connect with characters, and love stories that convey an inspirational message. They tend to like stories that have happy endings that neatly tie of all conflicts with a nice, silky bow. They love stories that are creative, and can be bored with stories that are too far “inside the box.” Some typos and mechanical errors are okay, as well as some minor holes in the plot, as long as they have a good feel for the characters and the characters are creative and compelling.

As a Writer

They tend to be “seat-of-the-pants” writers, and really like to develop their characters to the fullest. Conflicts in their stories will often force their characters to examine their feelings and character flaws, and grow as “person.” They thrive on positive feedback from others, as that is really why they write. They strongly believe in ideals, and bring that into their writing. They have a difficult time dealing with confrontation, can move at a slow pace, lose sight of important details, and do not tend to initiate.

In a Writing/Critique Group

The group cheerleader, they want to make sure everyone knows they are valued and heard. They can sometimes have a hard time with not taking criticism personally. They often do well at finding compromise. They love opportunities to be creative and connect with others emotionally.

WikiMedia

Green: Thinking

Innovative, and logical, they like to be seen as being competent. They are curious, require intellectual freedom, and can question authority. They seek perfection in all that they do, including play activities. They seek intellectual stimulation, and value trying to solve intriguing problems. They can be oblivious to emotions at times and can be seen as being detached.

As a Reader

Grammar, spelling and punctuation errors bother them, but a small amount can be overlooked if the rest of the story is compelling. They prefer stories that are well thought out, and have little tolerance for poorly developed magic or other systems that do not seem to follow a logical trajectory. They value brevity and concise communication. They like to analyze any systems that may be at play in the fictional world.

As a Writer

They tend to spend a lot of time thinking and researching. No detail is too small to spend an inordinate amount of time researching and thinking about before proceeding. They tend to overlook the more emotional aspects of stories, such as scene descriptions and emotional expression by characters. They like to bring innovation to their writing. They are constantly seeking to improve their writing skills. They can be hesitant to try new things. Sometimes they can get so lost in the details of a story, and “thinking things through,” that they forget to write the story, or get bored and move on.

In a Writing/Critique Group

They are curious, and value differing viewpoints. They want people to respect them, and to feel valued as a part of the group. They are good problem-solvers, and at organizing a workable system for the group and the group structure, such as how and what is reviewed in the group. They can have a hard time making decisions in an effort to fully think things through. They can be seen as being cold, detached, on unemotional to others, particularly those strongly connected to feelings. They do not tolerate “fools.”

WikiMedia

Orange: Adventure

Oranges are free, spontaneous, and impulsively take risks. They are active, optimistic, and thrive on crisis. They are animated and dynamic, love to be the center of attention, and are very competitive. They are generous and optimistic. They are fun, and bring excitement.  They need public recognition of their abilities. They are enthusiastic, but tend to over-commit and overestimate results. They act first and think second.

As a Reader

They appreciate stories that cater to their sense of adventure. They like bold books, and love variety on their bookshelves. Formulaic novels bore them to tears, and they may often switch from one story to the next, depending on their current whims. They like stories filled with adventure, in one form or another. They will tend to avoid stories that they see as overly depressing.

As a Writer

They don’t like deadlines. Rules can be important, but sometimes it is just as important to find creative ways to break all the rules. They do not like to feel controlled in their creative endeavors. They like to write big, bold and beautiful. They like to write about action and adventure. Writing is an art, not a science. They are the ultimate, “seat-of-the-pants” writers. Oranges can “figure out the details later, when they get there.” They believe stories should be fun to read.

 In a Writing/Critique Group

They can sometimes have trouble fitting in and finding acceptance. They can be competitive, when others do not perceive something as a competition. They bring a spark of fun and adventure to the group. They do not like to make commitments, and may often not keep them, as they prefer to live in the moment. Logic and objectivity do not factor into their behaviors, and they may have a hard time connecting with people who are driven by logic. They prefer a casual feel to the group, rather than a formal structure. They love to talk, and can sometimes dominate conversations.

Concluding Remarks

Anything that is a generalization will always have some margin of error. I meant for this to be fun, and maybe useful,  but it no way is it a rigid rule manual for all human behavior. So definitely take things with a grain of salt. Be aware that people usually have one color they are really strong in, one that is a runner-up, and then a distant one (fourth place) that they have the most difficult time with in others.

I would really love to get your feedback. What did your personality come out as? Did the description fit you as a person who loves to read or write fiction? What parts did not fit? Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment!

A Pint with the Professor: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Characterization

Maslow’s Hierarchy Applied to Fictional Characters

Recently, both of my youngest two children have been dealing with croup, which has reminded me just how much sense Maslow’s Hierarchy makes in everyday lives. My youngest was in the hospital briefly, which also explains the lack of posts. Sorry. 🙂

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs  makes sense in real life, and also makes sense when looking at characters in fiction stories. I recall the symphony director that worked with Metallica on their S & M album talking about how the orchestra sometimes worked harmoniously with the band, and other times worked in disharmony with the band, to create something amazing. I think the same is true in great stories. Humanity can be expressed accurately, through the careful adherence to what is known about humans, or it can be a character study of someone who falls well outside the expected norm. Either way, having an understanding of the norm is an important part of work that embodies the use of such knowledge.

The Hierarchy

In Brief

The hierarchy is organized such that each level of the pyramid rests upon the other. So that lower level needs need to be met before higher level needs are able to be met. For example, food is at the bottom, with the idea that someone who is starving is not likely to have the time to spare to worry about whether or not he or she has friends. So physiological needs have to be met before safety and security needs are worried about. Safety and security needs have to be met before social needs are worried about. And so on and so forth.

Physiological Needs

These are basic, biological survival needs. This includes:  Air, Shelter, Water, Food, Sleep, and Sex. Some argue that sex does not belong here, as it is not essential for survival. Maslow argued it is a biological imperative, the drive to procreate.

Safety and Security Needs

The need to feel secure and safe. This includes: Physical Safety, Psychological Safety, Economic Security, and Social Security. Note that this is both physical and psychological. If a tiger is attacking, one is not physically safe. If a tiger may attack at any moment, one does not feel psychologically safe.

Social Needs

This is the need to belong. This includes: Friendship and Family, and the need for Intimacy. As we learn more about the brain, it shows us more and more that we are physically designed within our brain structure to connect with others.

Esteem

This is having self-respect and the respect of others. This includes:  Self-esteem, Confidence, Respect of Others, and Achievement. Notice that we are moving definitely more into the realm of the psychological. The inner world of the person.

Self-Actualization

A person realizing their full and complete potential. This includes: Creativity, Problem Solving, Innovation, and Fulfillment. Maslow saw achievement of self-actualization this as relatively rare. Think of Gandhi, Mother Theresa, Buddha, and Martin Luther King Jr. Maslow saw most people in real life as being in that state of seeking self-actualization. Oftentimes, characters are in this state as well.

Application to Characters

One obvious application to fictional characters is their story as they strive to meet the needs of one of more levels. In dystopian novels, for example, characters are often trying to meet the basic physiological or safety and security needs. Food and a safe place to live can be compelling needs. Application need not be restricted to the lower levels, however, as there are great stories at all levels of the hierarchy. Think of a character that is striving to find a place where they belong, or people that they belong to. Think of a character trying to achieve something important, while also struggling with self-esteem or identity issues. And at the top of the pyramid we have someone finally able to solve a major problem in the story, or fulfilling some purpose or fulfilling a purpose. Perhaps they had to struggle up the pyramid as the story progresses in order to get to that fulfillment.

One thing about fiction is that characters are often larger than life, or unique. So the characters are often an exaggeration or a unique, uncommon, or even rare circumstance. While Maslow saw it being relatively rare for someone to achieve self-actualization, it happens for characters in fiction stories all the time.

Opposites React

Another way that stories can grab the attention of readers is being going against what is expected. Not everyone knows who Maslow is or what his hierarchy states, but it has really become a part of our culture. Let me give you an example: When we are announcing big news or having an important meeting, we often make sure there is food and refreshments. At work and at home, we strive to ensure our environment is safe and secure, and that comes before things like televisions. I did not research it, but I once read that Einstein wrote important papers while he was young, poor, and alone. So he was able to achieve and apply his creative genius, despite being in a circumstance where he had not met his lower level needs. Doesn’t that make a compelling story? In fact, the case can be made that many historical leaders, both malign and benevolent, cast off the traditional routes of meeting lower needs in order to reach for the upper level needs.

The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games is a great example of the application of the hierarchy. This is set up right away as the lowest districts are concerned with basic survival, such as food, while those in the Capitol have such abundant food that they are able to focus on other things like politics and fashion. In fact, that is the very control that the government has over the people, that they hold the survival of the lower districts in their hands. The lower districts are stuck in the bottom of the pyramid, while the upper districts (and the President) are free to meet their esteem and creative needs.

Another facet of this in the Hunger Games is the fact that Katniss is asked to consider the top of the pyramid, while she is still trying to get he needs met at the bottom of the pyramid. She sees herself as just surviving the Hunger Games, while everyone else sees her as fighting for freedom. They ask her to join in the rebellion, forcing her to move to the top of the pyrmaid, when really she has been focused only on her survival needs up to that point.

So a good fictional story, driven by characters can work in concert with Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs, or work in direct conflict with the theory. Either way, it can make for compelling and interesting characters that are fun to read about.

About This Feature: A Pint with the Professor is a (somewhat) bi-weekly feature where I apply the things I know about psychology, sociology and other related disciplines to fiction. I love thoughtful fiction, and I love hearing from authors and writers of speculative fiction when they think deeply about their fictional worlds and the people and cultures in those worlds. I hope you enjoy reading these posts as much as I enjoy putting them together. 

A Pint with the Professor: The Psychology of Villainy

The Importance of Fleshing out your Villain

People are complicated. Villains, like any other people, are usually complicated. One hallmark of a great villain, in my estimation, is one that I can empathize with. I may not agree with the decisions that they have made, but I can understand why they made those decisions. I am using the term villain and antagonist in this post, because I am really talking about villains for the most part. Not every antagonist needs to be a villain, though, but the same character traits may apply in varying degrees.

If a character is flat, and one-dimensional, then I will not have respect for that character. In most cases, it is important for the reader to have respect for the antagonist, or they will not be able to see the respect that the protagonist has for the antagonist. This is important, because the antagonist is usually the ultimate obstacle for the protagonist.

Empathy for the Antagonist

Justin Cronin, in The Passage is a great example of this. Throughout the novel, I was able to see a bit into the psyche of the nefarious characters, and I found myself sympathizing with people I would normally not want to be friends with. This too me is great fictional writing. These are characters that are the antagonists in the books, and I would never want to be friends with them in real life, but I can find myself understanding them, and even empathizing with them.

Make Your Villain a Personality

Many things can motivate the villain. One thing that the villain should not be, in my opinion, is a character that is not as well thought out as the protagonist, and by association, just the opposite of the antagonist. By this, I mean that the protagonist is good, and the antagonist is evil. The protagonist is messy, and the antagonist is tidy. The protagonist is a country boy, and the antagonist is a city dweller. Booooorrrrriiiiiiiing.

The antagonist should be multidimensional, meaning that they should not been seen solely in contrast with the protagonist. The antagonist should also be a complete personality in their own right. Certainly, there will be some opposition that includes polar opposites, but that should not be the sum extent of the character.

Some Thoughts on Villains

  • Unfiltered Villain – Freud’s theory is that people have three different aspects to their psyche. One of these aspects is the Id, which is our inner toddler. It has basic carnal desires, based on animalistic impulses toward sex and aggression. The Id is chaotic, unreasonable, and seeks immediate pleasure.  The Ego is the person’s self-identity that tries to moderate the impulses of the Id, and the realities of the real world. The SuperEgo develops to help control the person, and have them meet the expectations of society. This is something that develops as a young child starts to become aware of, and influenced by society in general. So the unfiltered villain is one that has a very active Id, but a relatively inactive SuperEgo and/or Ego.  They are driven by instincts of lust and aggression, with little, or no, filtering. A slight variation on this would be the extremely selfish villain, that is just looking out for him or herself.
  • Doin’ the Right Thing Villain– Hitler, and many other historical figures can be thought of in this category.  They may realize they are being looked upon unfavorably for now, but believe that once they have achieved their dream, then the world will come to understand and respect them more. This villain may have other mental health problems that have them seeing the world from a skewed vantage point. They may even see their actions of that of a parent, doing what is best for the child, even though the child may throw a tantrum.
  • Thrill Seeking Villain – Personality theorists have long theorized that there are some people that have a high threshold for pleasure. Something like playing a board game is fun, but running off to Mexico on a whim, or skydiving finally get their heart pumping a little. The Thrill Seeking villain is just trying to make life interesting. Competition and the thrill of edging out an opponent in a high-stakes game is just the ultimate thrill.
  • Turnabout Villain – “You done me wrong,” is more than just the start of a successful country & western song, it is the motivating factor behind this villain type. A villain who is mistreated and abused turns around to do the same to others. Some people that are exposed to violence become peacemakers, while others go with the flow and become violent in turn. With the proliferation of dark fantasy novels, this type of antagonist has shown up a lot in the form of a child who is abused, and grows up turns that abuse on others. This villain may carry around a lot of pain that they may or may not be aware of.
  • Mentally Ill Villain– This kind of villain has mental health problems.
    • The Sociopath – This character has no connection to those parts of the brain that would lead to empathy or connection and concern for others. Some studies have shown that our brains react in sympathy with what we see others going through. For this mental illness, however, this part of their brain just does not function. From an early age, however, they study others, and usually are quite good at “faking it.” That is why the neighbor on TV news always says, “he was such a nice, quiet man.” They can be quite charming, appear very empathetic, and have great concern for others. Is is all an act, however, as underneath it all, they have no real regard for others as anything more than a means to some end.
    • The Mood Disordered – A range of emotions is a normal part of human functioning. Mood disordered characters, however, have wild mood swings that they cannot control. They can become angry an violent at the drop of a hat, even depressed, irritated, and just as quickly snap out of it. This character is a slight exaggeration of what is usually found in real life, but the basis is in reality.
  • Revenge Villain – Perhaps similar to the turnabout villain, this antagonist is exacting revenge on those who he or she believes wronged him. Those who have wronged him or her can be specific people, a group of people, an entire class or society, or the whole world. The whole world you say? Yes, the villain can see the world as stacked against them, particularly if they have experienced a nasty set of life events. People often say “it was meant to be” or even “if God wills it,” so the idea is there for many people, but these villains see the cosmic influence as being negatively set against them.
  • Power Broker – Someone has to be in charge, and have their every whim attended to, and this type of villain says, “why not me?”
  • Resource Manager – This antagonist, particularly useful in more world-building speculative fiction stories, seeks to control a valuable resource or resources. Think of the spice in Dune, water in The Last Stormlord, and so forth. He (or she) who controls the __________, controls everything.

Ultimately I love a villain that is three-dimensional, and seems real. Hopefully that is enough to get you thinking. Maybe I will add more later, if some more comes to me. I would love to hear your comments on other villain types, or villains you love to hate in stories you have read or written. Happy writing!

A Pint with the Professor is a (somewhat) bi-weekly feature where I apply the things I know about psychology, sociology and other related disciplines to fiction. I love thoughtful fiction, and I love hearing from authors and writers of speculative fiction when they think deeply about their fictional worlds and the people and cultures in those worlds. I hope you enjoy reading these posts as much as I enjoy putting them together. 

Why I Don’t Write Every Day, But Should Write More

I have read the advice a million times (that may be a slight exaggeration), writers write, and they must do so every day. I look back at the last year, and I just have not met my writing goals. So I need to re-examine my goals, including how realistic they are, but also whether or not my writing habits are going to be sufficient to meet my goals.

The Argument for Writing Daily

I get the argument for writing every day. It take discipline to be a writer who makes a living by writing, because it is one of those jobs where no one is likely to notice if did not show up one day. So a writer needs to be disciplined and focused in order to get words on the page, make revisions, and generally just make a living. It takes it from being a hobby, to being a career. Since I have not met my writing goals over the last year, I certainly do get that I need to write more often. Writing daily also sets a writer up to be in the habit of writing. I know that is important as well. I can tell you that there have been some weeks where I probably had the time, but decided to do other things.

The Write Time

One thing that is tough for me, and that I see as a flaw in the argument is that writing is not my career. I work a full time job as a therapist, and a part-time job as a college instructor. I am a busy guy. I can tell you that writing is definitively a part of both of my jobs, so I do certainly get a lot of technical writing in. The writing as a therapist is often documentation that includes narratives and descriptions of sessions, so I get plenty of practice there as well. So I do get writing in, but let’s face it, it is very different from creative fiction writing. Since I am not yet making a living as a writer, I still need to make my living in the best way I can, which means that my current jobs come first. Not only do I enjoy them, but they put food on the table. I realize that if I spent more time on writing, it would eventually put food on the table as well, but I am not willing for my kids to starve in the meantime.

One hurdle for me then, is having the time to write fiction. I do think about my stories and my writing every day, but I do not always have the time to write. I do write at work, but it is not the same thing. So fitting in the writing is something I know I need to do more of.

Binge Writing

Joanna Penn discusses her writing style as being more of a binge process. Like me, she has a day job, and does not have the time or energy to write every day. She feels her creative energy builds until she finally finds some release when she has the time. I can really identify with this. She also says that she takes a lot of time to compose her work before she starts writing it. I can also identify with that.

I am not sure I can truly work as a binge writer, as she and other writers fully describe it. I do have those times in my life where I have more time than other times. That is just the truth of my reality. So in that regard, I can certainly identify with that binge writing. However, for me, it is more of a time issue than it is that my creative process is such that I need things to build and then release.

Still I Write

I can’t write fiction every day, I just do not have the time. If that is what it takes, then I would just have to face the fact that I cannot ever be a true author. I refuse to believe that. I am patient and I don’t mind my writing career taking years to develop. I think that patience and diligence is a perfectly acceptable way of breaking into writing, even if I cannot write every single day.

Having said that, I still know I need to write much more often. I am particularly interested in using technology to help make writing easier. I remember reading once that Brandon Sanderson wrote his breakout novel on a smartphone while riding the subway to and from work.  I have no idea how true it is, but it certainly sounds plausible. So I have decided that I need to come up with firmer goals, find more time to write, and test out and use technology tools to help me in doing so. I will try to share what technology I find that works for me in future blog posts, but be patient, because I am not one of those people who writes every day. And I am okay with that!

A Pint with the Professor: The Importance of Economy in Fiction

The Importance of Economy in Fiction

Economy is a social construct. That is something that only has relevance or importance because an entire group of people has made it so. Let’s look at money first. A dollar (or your local counterpart  only has worth because your entire society has given it some agreed upon value. It is really just paper though, with no intrinsic value of its own. It is only worth something because we all agree to let it be worth something. I can trade a dollar for anything at the dollar store, for one of my kids to do a chore, or for a candy bar at the grocery store. This is because we all have agreed to worth of a dollar. We may not have sat and hashed it out, but that is what money is.

As a further example, there are also many things money cannot buy. I cannot buy a car with a dollar. I cannot hire a babysitter for three hours for one dollar. I cannot purchase anything at the jewelry store for one dollar. So our shared agreements dictate both what a dollar is worth, and what it is not worth. Though money may seem mathematical, and certainly we can calculate interest rates and earnings, in the end it really has a worth in the first place because of our shared agreement of worth.

Many societies have a class or caste system based on economics as well. A caste system is very rigid, only rarely allowing movement between castes. A class system is more permeable  allowing movement. The Horatio Alger stories where someone who is born poor is able to claw their way to the top (or at least the middle) through hard work and dedication is an example of how this impacts fiction. Often times, different characters in books are empowered or challenged by the class or caste they are in.

Again, though, this is an agreed upon structuring by society. Your story might take place in a society where wealth of money is treasured above all else, and the class system is rigidly structured, allowing for little movement. Begging may be illegal, with folks born poor being oppressed, jailed, maybe even physically abused, exploited and perhaps even executed. Think about what this would take. Everyone in society would have to agree with this for one reason or another. Police would have to be empowered by their government to jail or abuse the poor. The rich would have to not see at as their responsibility to help the poor and unfortunate. The bystanders would have to stand by, and not intervene. The poor themselves would have to accept this treatment.

This may sound a bit crazy, but think of the Holocaust. Hitler only had power, because people gave it to him. In research experiments conducted later, it was found that people tended to follow authority, especially when the people were absolved of responsibility by that authority. So Hitler just needed to establish himself as an authority, and his insane ideas were taken as truth. Think of it this way, what if every single man woman and child in Germany had said, “no thanks.” That is an overly simplistic solution, but the idea behind it is that Hitler had the power to do what he did, only because a large number of people gave it to him.

This is important, because in fictional worlds, things other than money may have worth too. In a world or time where water is scarce, an economy would develop around water. People need water in order to survive. In a time or place where food is scarce, it might be treated differently. My kids, after eating a meal, often throw some food away that they did not eat. Some of my kids are picky and only like to eat certain things. How would this change if food were to become scarce? Food, water, shelter, warmth, and perhaps some other basic needs, such as sex and procreation might be worth less in a society of abundance, but worth quite a bit more in a society experiencing shortages.

Western society shows they value knowledge by paying people with college degrees more than people without them. We give those people honorary titles, such as “doctor.” Sometimes this gets complex when values intersect. In the United States, we show that we value families by giving people time often when they experience the birth of a child. We show that we value work as well, because we give far less time off than other countries do. So there is a value, enjoy your baby, but don’t take too long before you return to work, or we will stop paying you the money that you can trade for food, clothing and shelter for your family.

We can look at one more example. In the United States, people often complain that teachers get laid off and paid poorly, while athletes and actors make millions or billions of dollars. I can see some of you nodding your head. But why is that? Well, the government pays teachers, and we often vote in spending limits for the governments. Why? Well, there is only so much money to go around. People spend that money on tickets to sporting events, to see movies, and to buy the products that these people advertise. I am sure you are the person that never falls for that, but everyone thinks they are the person that never falls for that, but advertising brings in billions of dollars every year. It would not bring in billions, if it did not work. So what if in your fictional world, teachers were the celebrities? People bought products based on the advertisement and recommendation of teachers. Parents bought passes to get their children in with their favorite teachers, and the most popular teachers made millions as the wealthiest parents paid large sums of money to have their children instructed by such teachers. What would such a society look like? What events would get a society of people in such a condition?

Other things may have an economy too. The value of art, performance, a particular vocation, a powerful resource, knowledge, human contact, children and family, and many other things can vary greatly in your fictional world. Even the value of race, gender, or other psychical features can have some value. They can all have an integral part in your world.

A Pint with the Professor is a (somewhat) weekly feature where I apply the things I know about psychology, sociology and other related disciplines to fiction. I love thoughtful fiction, and I love hearing from authors and writers of speculative fiction when they think deeply about their fictional worlds and the people and cultures in those worlds. I hope you enjoy reading these posts as much as I enjoy putting them together.