Tag Archives: psychological fiction

Opportunity Knocks….

KleinBottle-Figure8-01These two years of blogging have been a wild ride through the Parallel Universe. I’ve explored the writing process that took me by surprise almost six years ago, and in doing so, I feel as if we’ve all drawn closer together as Artists, especially when the 7 Reasonable Rules series of posts and the Indie Author graphics struck chords of universal feeling.

The ball’s on the other side of the net, now. More than 100 readers downloaded the preview at Smashwords. The PDF Sample Chapter and the Audiobook sample are also available for the perusal of others who might like to try their hand at taking apart Irish Firebrands and finding out what makes it tick. Readers who would like to finish the story and post a review may contact me via the Feedback page Guestbook form.

Questions that I’d like to have answered by readers include:

  • What sensory cues are most effective?
  • Where does the research most successfully take you?
  • How many genres does it cross, and how would you rank them?
  • Why do you think the characters behave the way they do?
  • When did you find it easiest to put the book down?
  • Who is in the book’s audience? 

Thank you for accompanying me on the great adventure that’s been Irish Firebrands!


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You Couldn’t Make It Up.

Non-writers invariably ask novelists, “Is it a true story?” or “Do you see yourself in any of the characters?” or even the baldly forthright “Is it autobiographical?” Sometimes these questions are drama-queen code-speak for, “Are you outing the family skeletons?” or “Am I going to be named and shamed?”

There’s nothing to fear. Reality-shows notwithstanding, and even with what may be a little “help” from a “friend” (I use those terms advisedly, as you’ll soon see), real lives rarely make a successful transition to Storytime, in print or otherwise. For example:

I’ve lived a strange enough life, so that in accordance with the “write what you know” advice, Irish Firebrands contains random fragments that could be considered extremely loosely based on events I’ve witnessed, heard about, or otherwise experienced.

Critter in "possum" mode

A composite cameo appearance was constructed from the lives of my three cats (two of which had already gone to the Happy Hunting Grounds – this one’s just pretending). But no scene or situation reproduces a particular episode from anyone’s actual life.

A few first names (and one surname) from my family history were used, and they’re all common names*, but my research did turn up some information that made it seem like a good idea to change two characters’ names. It’s a risk that’s run by works set in any time period or genre, and usually results in their bearing a disclaimer like, “This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to real people or events is coincidental.”

The majority of Irish Firebrands is the product of four years of cultural immersion-based research. Looking back on the experience of writing it, I’m reminded of those food package health hazard warnings: “This is a natural product. May contain pits. Produced on equipment that processes nuts. May have traces of truth.”

With my current WIP being a historical that takes place from about 1906 to 1936, there’s only one fragment of an interpersonal event in it that can be traced to an old family anecdote. The rest is made from whole cloth woven on the loom of research. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Chronology is king: Getting the fictional and factual timelines to mesh is a challenge.

I’ve posted elsewhere about the importance of factual accuracy. Unless we’re writing fantasy or alternative history, it’s the gold standard, but even works in those genres have to maintain consistency with the history and facts of the world building that went into them.

But where documentation fails, and there may be doubt about what could have happened, any reasonable opinion will do. Readers may not like the sort of spin an author puts on such situations, but circumstantial evidence is why the handiest thing about history is that it’s impossible to slander the dead.

That’s where artistic license enters, and we get Storytime.

* One of my sons is fond of saying, “I get killed off on page 3,” but that’s not true. A character bearing a derivative of his name didn’t even show up until page 6 of the first printing of Irish Firebrands. What ultimately happens to that character is anybody’s guess.

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Easier Said Than Done.

Comments periodically circulate in the blogosphere about the poor willpower of people who keep checking their blog posts and social media for Likes and comments, or who keep looking at reviews and sales statistics for the books they’ve written. “Behave yourselves!” is the message, but however well-meaning, it’s not helpful, because willpower has nothing to do with it. 

What’s at work here is something called operant conditioning. In this area of behavioral psychology, as demonstrated by B. F. Skinner’s famous pigeon-in-a-box, rewarding a behavior tends to reinforce it, while punishing a behavior tends to extinguish it. Also, intermittent reinforcement is the most powerful reward of all.

Our brains are wired to find the rewards of intermittent reinforcement most compelling. It’s what drives the response to the pleasurable stimuli that fuel survival: think of hunter-gatherers in search of sustenance and sex. So the rewarding intermittent reinforcement of spikes in Likes, comments, reviews and sales is what keeps people coming back to those pages.

Organic_Honey_(1)Drosophila_melanogaster_-_side_(aka)Operant conditioning is what’s behind the ancient adage, “You get more flies with honey than with vinegar.” However, there’s a catch: whether or not something is a reinforcement or a punishment can also depend on other variables. There’s a species of fruit fly that’s drawn to vinegar; in fact, it’s called a “vinegar fly.” (I used to make vinegar at home.)

This kind of behavioral psychology is why the parental advice about playground bullies, “Just ignore him, and he’ll stop,” rarely works, in the short term. When there is daily contact, the least bit of a rewarding response to a bully’s baiting is enough to keep the bad behavior going. Extinguishing childhood bullying by ignoring it usually works only when a fairly long period of reward deprivation intervenes (such as during the long summer break), and that, only because children’s brains are constantly developing in response to active stimuli. During the interval, the bully finds a different victim, or else just “grows out of it,” and forgets to engage in bullying, because a more compelling kind of rewarded behavior has arisen to supplant it.

Breaking habits in adults can be very difficult. Now and then, someone does succeed with going cold turkey. For example, I became quite good at making delicious bread from scratch, but once I discovered that gluten was the cause of some of my health problems, my relationship with wheat, rye, and barley was instantly and permanently ended. I’ve been gluten-free for many years, now, and I’ve never looked back. I just don’t feel any temptation to “cheat”: My gut reacts painfully to very small amounts of gluten, so the consequences would be too severe.

Effectively breaking a conditioned response usually takes the consistent application of a stronger reward than the one that established the undesirable behavior. This has important meaning for the choices that characters make in novels. Sometimes they’re aware of what’s going on, as in this passage from Irish Firebrands:

Resist! She recalled the cognitive-behavioural therapy that in the past had helped her gain control of her runaway emotions: Your feelings for each other resist extinction because they’re getting intermittent reinforcement. So, until you stop reinforcing them, you’ll get spontaneous recovery of those feelings. Keep him focussed on the baby, and when it’s born – when he’s got his own child to love – those feelings won’t be reinforced – and then they’ll go extinct

But most of the time, fictional characters are clueless about the tangled wiring inside their heads; nevertheless, although most readers will not be clinicians, they do have the instinct to easily identify characters who behave unrealistically, whether they are heroes or villains. This usually results in charges of cardboard characterization. As Authors who translate Life into Written Art, our challenge is to tell stories about characters whose actions are consistent with behavioral psychology.

So what can be done, if we do want to break the habits engendered by the intermittent reinforcement provided by social media and other rewarding stimuli? We could try putting ourselves into a virtual operant conditioning chamber, perhaps by using chocolate chips as food pellets, to reward behavior that doesn’t entail compulsive Internet surfing … such as getting that work-in-progress novel finished.


Some important final notes:

Adult bullying responds to the same kinds of reward stimuli (think: appeasing Hitler), but there’s little chance for adult brains to grow out of it. Incarceration can become necessary, but it rarely results in a cure, for reasons which are beyond the scope of a blog post about the psychology behind fictional character behavior.

Operant conditioning is also why, as frustrating, frightening or infuriating it may feel to see someone remain in an abusive relationship, we must not be judgmental of such victims, and we must never give up trying to help them. You might think that the conditioned response called “learned helplessness” is in operation in this case (and in very severe circumstances, that is possible), but most of the time, for a victim of domestic abuse it’s a matter of intermittent reinforcement, provided by the reward of the perpetrator’s “honeymoon phase.”

It is imperative for persons with debilitating psychological issues to receive competent professional mental health care.

Text © 2014 by Christine Plouvier. All Rights Reserved.


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