Tag Archives: psychological fiction

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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A Weed in A Wheat Field?

Writing is the most powerful of the Arts, which is why the Founders listed freedom of speech and freedom of the press among the inalienable Rights that Congress is prohibited from legislating against, in Amendment I of the Constitution of the United States of America.

550px-Censored_rubber_stamp.svgI’ve encountered a number of blog posts recently that encourage novelists to grapple fearlessly with difficult topics and controversial issues, and above all, to write to please themselves. Sadly, some others of the citizenry do not voluntarily assume the same restraint under which Congress must operate, and those individuals take it upon themselves to urge censorship upon novelists whose Muse leads them to include in their stories situations or behavior of which those readers disapprove. Sometimes the self-appointed censors succeed.

The personality and motives of fictional characters are illustrated by the action and dialogue, but in a psychological novel we also get more of the deep stuff, where personality and motivation originate. Such intimations can elicit a strong visceral reaction in a reader, but the remedy for that is not censorship. The reader is free to close the cover and simply say of that book, “It’s not for me.”

As a clinician, the psychology of reading and writing fascinate me. Registered Nurses have to be able to handle all manner of unpleasant things, and when I was in practice, I didn’t have any trouble with the grim realities of healthcare. But I’ve never been able to stomach reading Stephen King – although, oddly enough, the text analyzer at I Write Like says that the first four chapters of Irish Firebrands are written in King’s style (equally shared with that of James Joyce, whom I never had the patience to read).

I Write Like Stephen King_Page_1I Write Like James Joyce_Page_1

Like other forms of Art, whether or not a piece of Writing makes acceptable reading, is in the eye of the beholder. I’ve blogged elsewhere about the excess of execrable language in modern fiction (see Let’s Get Out of the Gutter and Watch Your Language!). But I was surprised about how much otherwise controversial material ended up in Irish Firebrands (see Not Your Mother’s Mills & Boon and If Only Life Would Imitate Art!).

Although toilet-talk text enjoys popular acceptance, fiction that deals with theology doesn’t seem to qualify – unless the writing is hostile towards the faith that’s under examination. If fiction is sympathetic towards religious beliefs and practices, its author may be accused of proselytizing. At the very least, such writing is dismissed to a niche.

John_F._Kennedy,_White_House_photo_portrait,_looking_upRomneyPeople’s religious beliefs can be seen as a manifestation of how they cope: how they make sense of the world and psychologically integrate the events that affect them. But when someone believes something different, it can feel intimidating to another person. Examples of this include the terror some people felt about the election of a Roman Catholic or a Latter-day Saint to the Presidency of the United States, although the Constitution does not deem it necessary to prescribe a religious test for presidential candidates. Like freedom of speech and freedom of the press, freedom from an established religion and freedom to practice religion are also inalienable Rights enumerated in the First Amendment.

robeI enjoy reading what can be described as religious, inspirational, or visionary fiction in a variety of makes and models. One of my favorites is The Robe[1], a biblical novel by Lloyd C. Douglas[2] (1877-1951), who was a clergyman whose experience with faith led him to change his religious denomination during his career.

So it was probably natural for the Muse Polyhymnia to step in and direct Irish Firebrands to cross her genre line. I wrote about several characters whose brands of belief (or lack thereof) interest me, and whose struggles to come to terms with the challenges of their internal and external environments, happen to involve the acquisition and/or practice of those beliefs. The characters in Irish Firebrands are flawed, but they’re not evil, no matter if, who, what, where, when, why or how they may choose to worship.

Real people are born innocent, and most of them remain decent, whether or not they become people of faith, to help them stay that way. That may not always be the case in fiction – not even in other novels that I may write. I just follow the Muse on duty, and take what feels like a realistic route to translate Life into Art.

Sometimes what we write is more effective than it is successful. But if what we’ve written is right for the story, we don’t need to haul out the herbicide tank.


Rose and Wheat by Thad Westhusing

[1] Dr. Douglas didn’t want his writing to be dramatized, but Hollywood did it anyway, and of course they hosed it up. So read the book, don’t bother with the movie. All you’ll be missing is Richard Burton with a perm and wearing a skirt.

[2] He was born approximately one mile from where I wrote Irish Firebrands. Must be something in the water.


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