June 18, 2010

Maybe we're not crazy!

As writers, I’m sure that all of us have at one time or another had a friend or relative lovingly suggest that we are completely insane.

“If you don’t want that character to die, why don’t you just change the story so that he lives?”

“What do you mean you didn’t see that coming? You wrote the story!”

“You’re laughing at something your character said? You’re the one who wrote what she said!”

“Your character isn’t cooperating with you? Seriously…”

“You’re the writer – just make the characters do whatever you want them to do!”

Yes, I suppose we can all admit that to a ‘normal’ person, we writers are just a little weird. However, weird though we may be, perhaps we’re not crazy after all! Here is my theory – a scientific explanation – as to why we writers can’t always control what our characters do, and why they sometimes surprise us:

When you meet a new person – a real one, say, at church or at work – the first thing you get is a visual of their physical appearance. You introduce yourself and start a conversation with them, usually asking questions pertaining to the immediate surroundings and/or circumstances (Are you new in town? What brought you to this church? Have you worked here long?).

Then you start asking broad, generalized questions (Where are you from? What do you do for a living?). Then you begin moving on into more personal questions, learning opinions, etc. while still keeping a bit of distance (What kind of movies do you like? What did you think of the election results?).

Gradually, as a relationship develops, you can begin asking more personal, intimate questions, learning who the person is at their very core (What is your deepest desire? Your greatest fear?) and as they begin to learn to trust you in return, they will often share their deepest, darkest secrets with you.

Once you know a person at this level, you can begin to predict with some accuracy how they will respond to given situations. Have you ever had someone tell you “So-and-so did such-and-such,” and you knew in your very heart that there was no way on earth that story could be right? That is because you know that person, and you know how they respond.

These stages of getting to know a person work much the same way for writers getting to know a fictional character. For me at least, the first thing I get from a character is their physical appearance. I start asking questions, then, starting with broad, generalized questions, and moving on towards the deep, intimate questions, until I know who that person is at their very core.

My theory is that your subconscious mind does not know the difference between a fictional character and a real person.

Think about it: you have given your mind the same information and stimuli with the fictional character as you would have with a real one, starting with physical appearance and moving on into who the person/character really is in their heart of hearts.

Just as your subconscious mind allows you to ‘just know’ what your best friend will do in a particular situation, it allows you to ‘just know’ what your character will do. To change it would be to force them into doing something out of character. When you write a line of dialogue or action for another character, your subconscious mind can process all of that information and make a prediction as to how your main character will respond. The result is that witty line of dialogue that you find so hilarious; that recourse that you really don’t want the character to take but that they are bound and determined to take anyway; that action response that you never saw coming, but that makes perfect sense.

And that is why a fictional character can feel so real to us, just like they were a real person.

So, while we writers may still be eccentric and weird according to our friends and relatives, maybe we’re not completely insane after all. What do you think? Does this theory sound viable to you? Or do you have your own theory about why the writer’s mind works the way it does?


  1. Not a bad theory, but if it is true it is somewhat dangerous to be a writer. I could easily imagine things about a person I do not know very well and start to feel that what I have imagined is true. That could become very confusing in the long run. :)

  2. As I've said before, I like this theory. I think it's definitely plausible for some writers.

  3. Did you see my other one, Mary? Also, I love the new background.


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