Friday, April 20, 2012

5 Psychological Ideas that Will Affect Your Writing

1. Contrast Theory

One of the more important tricks your mind causes, I believe, is the human tendency that when one answer is wrong, the opposite is right. The best example of this is the female character: she starts as an innocent, sweet virgin in the old works, and that is sexist and wrong. Therefore the writer will proceed to contradict that stereotype and make her into a violent, slutty bitch, embracing a new stereotype that has mesmerized movie goers since James Bond met the seventies.

How does this affect you?

Here we come to “thinking out of the box.” Often when an author attempts to be original, unique, and rock the world, he goes as far out of the box as he can. What happens, however, is that every other person trying to be original does the same exact thing, which achieves this sort of effect:



When trying to be novel, artists want to push the boundaries, but they end up doing similar things to each other. Don’t believe me? Ask a group of people to write a story about a wedding, but tell them their goal is to make the main conflict unique from each other and they’re not allowed to talk about it. The results will most likely be a wedding in which the man really wants to get married and the female doesn’t.

The best way to be unique is not by thinking outside of the box, but moving to the corners.

2. The Ugly Duckling Syndrome.




As children, we’re constantly told stories in which uniqueness and individuality are more important than anything else. The Ugly Duckling Syndrome is a story in which the main character is different than all the other people in his culture or situation. An event occurs in which the crowd does something that the reader would find evil and inappropriate, and the main character, being different from everyone else, steps in to prevent it, thereby making himself a hero. This could be when a group of kids are bullying someone and he stops him, or when people are afraid of a monstrous character and she isn’t, or any situation in which no one will do the right thing except for the main character.

How does this affect you?

It’s hard to find an American story that doesn’t have an Ugly Duckling in it. It is not a bad thing, especially because readers appreciate the individual standing above the rest far more than a group of people fighting a wrong individual (though that can come up too.) The appeal of Bella in Twilight is the fact that she’s the only one whose mind can’t be read, that she’s the only one Edward loved in a hundred years, the fact that she’s special. It might be a little unbelievable, but that brings me to my point:

An author has to be very convincing when doing this. Because it is so typical, audiences recognize it immediately, though maybe not consciously. If they feel that the world is formed to fit the main character (the crowd of jerks aren’t motivated in their beating a puppy) then the individual’s strength is diminished by the understanding that “this is a book.” We remember that the author is setting it up for him, aren’t impressed by his actions, and tend to hate the character for receiving such favor.

3. The subconscious wants to make everything normal.


There are a lot of arguments about working by inspiration or planning, which I find to be more about what they assume a person is not doing rather than what they should do, but I won’t go into that.

Working by inspiration means to work through the subconscious. You come up with things on the spot without thinking about it or researching it, and there are many good things that will come of that. (It flows better, it feels more honest, it’s more passionate, etc.) but it is also important to remember that the subconscious’s job is to make everything normal.



The subconscious cannot lie. It can’t change stories to make them more interesting, it wants to tell the events how they are (or should be in some cases.) It can be wrong, sure, but whenever we do something without thinking about it, we are naturally revealing the truth. Hence the term, Freudian Slip.

How does this affect you?

Picture a teenage girl sneaking out of her house. Got that image? Okay, now I am assuming that she is sneaking out of the second floor in a two story home, and that she got free by use of a tree. Where did that house come from? Did you live on a second floor? I did. But it was also a barn, and the one in my mind’s eye is a suburbanite home.

Your conscious self tells your subconscious self what it wants and the subconscious hands it the epitome of the image asked for. We get subconscious definitions of normalcy from different places, so you very well might be one of the people who did have a different image then the one I did, and that can affect you as well.

What this means for you is that we make assumptions without even realizing it, and by recognizing our assumptions, we can suddenly make a unique story out of an old one. By making that girl not live in suburbia, we change the story. By making her live in a barn, we change the story, by having her live on the first floor, we change the story.

It is also important to remember that our assumptions are not necessarily the same as others. This leads to confusion. The subconscious believes that this form of “normalcy” is obvious, and won’t feel the need to explain it. So when your reader is picturing a two story house and you describe her “hopping out the window,” they might be a little disturbed.

4. People in dreams are people you’ve seen


This is a well-known theory in which whenever we dream someone’s face, it’s a face we’ve seen before; the brain cannot make up new images. It might have been someone we’ve only glimpsed for a second, but it’s still real to life.

The idea is that we can’t actually “imagine” anything. Fantasy is a combination of real things in which we put together in order to create something new.

How does this affect you?

This is beneficial knowledge in two ways (if you believe it).

1) The focus on immaculate originality is removed.

Authors constantly struggle with attempts to write what they want to write, but make it new. If you believe that nothing is new because the mind can’t make anything new, it because okay to take inspiration from a character of this book and the basis of this conflict and the setting of this movie and put them together.

2) You understand your assumptions better.

It is hard to recognize assumptions because they are assumptions. We don’t think about them. And though the assumption may be correct and beneficial, it is still often important to notice them just because it teaches you a little about yourself. By realizing that all ideas came from somewhere, when reading your work and just thinking about, “Why did I describe the coffin that way?” you can realize that it was just a vision you had, and then remember where you got it from. If it is a generic mixture of the “epitome” of a coffin, you might consider adding details to change it.

 

5. Viewer genders.


There are many interesting studies on gender and entertainment. Hollywood, for example, has decided that both men and women will go to see a movie about a man, but pretty much only women will see a movie about a woman. (Their boyfriends don’t count.)

How does this affect you?

Many authors believe in writing for your audience. Personally, I believe when considering a demographic in mind, writers tend to dumb down their work because we usually believe that a crowd of people are fairly stupid, no matter the gender, age, or ethnicity.

 Who can blame us?

But, whatever your personal tastes, choosing whether or not to tell a story from the boy’s point of view or the girl’s point of will change the view of your book.

Make Pirates of the Caribbean strictly about Elizabeth Swan, it becomes a romance far more than an action flick.

Because The Princess Bride is more his story than hers (more things happen to him. She just gets married.) Men and women can enjoy it, despite the title.

Often, by making it about the woman, we cut our potential audience in half. We often half to choose the main character based on who we want watching it, which makes it become more of a political position then a story.

This is not supposed to be a feminist rant. It’s not about the problem itself, but how it affects the author. This psychology often leads to hard decision making—Do I make the main character a girl? Do I need to have a token girl? Can I make her story by telling it through his eyes?—in which we find ourselves switching back and forth from because we don’t want to limit our sales.

But, then again, middle aged women tend to be the book buyers in this country, so, who knows?

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Knowing the Rules to Know When to Follow Them

I can’t say for certain that my experiences are common. I once had a cast of college students who once thought I made up the word, “Chagrin,” despite my belief that it was a pretty well known term. Some writers never take a writing class, and just because others have doesn’t mean they’ve been told with the same advice. So when I say we all have heard the phrase, “Know the rules to know when to break them,” it’s really just an assumption.

The expression comes hand in hand with a list of regulations that are sometimes, but aren’t always, true. Teachers will say something along the lines of, “Only use said,” or “Never use said,” and find the overwhelming response, “Joyce doesn’t do that!” So they pass off this popular idiom as an easy way to continue the lesson.

Proving to someone that there is a problem is the hardest part of teaching and even essay writing. We have to establish that global warming is a real thing before we can establish that it’s important and then establish our solution is the best solution. You have to prove to the student that his work is boring, then prove it’s because he’s condescending, then prove that the solution to the problem is really to take out all of the adverbs. Is that the only solution? No. Is it going to work? Only maybe. But the only real way to tell is by trying it.

The problem with telling someone that these rules are meant to be broken is that it indicates they’re not really true. It feels as though there are separate laws for those who suck and those who don’t. This means, of course, to follow the rules would be admitting their own amateur status, which would also reveal to the reader their own amateur status, which is never to be desired.

The problem with these laws is, one, they are blanket solutions. To rid a story of adverbs isn’t going to make a bad book into a great one, and a story isn’t fantastic except for the adverbs. However, putting on airs, being condescending, and over explaining things tend to be common faults of a lot of books, and getting rid of the –lys of the group is a singular solution that someone can offer up without actually reading a specific work and taking the context into consideration.

Understanding these common pieces of advice is important because they often can be helpful. The issue is not the advice itself, but how it requires the student to apply his own context. It puts the responsibility on the author to reexamine his work. Not an issue in a working-world situation because every writer will have to reexamine his work. In a class room setting, though, the teacher is expected to be instructing the student to help him understand how to reexamine anything.

Self awareness is the most important and hardest part of being a writer, and it usually can be expedited with the input of other people. But being self-aware is harder when someone is trying to make twenty people self-aware at the same time.

The biggest problem with these rules, however, is the blatant repeating of them without consideration. The advice, “don’t use passive sentences,” for example, is fairly common. In Stephan King’s On Writing, he only puts in three suggestions, which is “don’t use adverbs,” “don’t use passive sentences,” and “don’t have crappy dialogue.” (There is a reason it’s not utilized as a text book.) A passive sentence is a sentence in which the subject doesn’t do anything: “There was a chair.” What did the chair do? It existed. Or, more often, “The body was carried from the room.” What did the dog do? Nothing. It had things done to it.

The thing about passive sentences, however, is the fact that the term isn’t self explanatory. A person can’t say, “Don’t use passive sentences,” and have a listener know exactly what he’s talking about. It is a phrase that someone invented, sounded good enough to bear repeating, and has been repeated over time. You will not hear this advice given in “their own words,” which means that whenever the advice is given it is being repeated, which indicates that it is not something that many people have come up with on their own. Any “true” advice is rediscovered again and again, where as this advice, however, just seems to be repeated again and again.

Like a game of telephone, the suggestion becomes warped—the reasons for it, what it means—and it becomes even harder to explain to someone why, and more importantly, when, they should use it.

Most writers are of two schools: listen and do without question or become abrasive and refuse the suggestions at all costs. I am, as probably has been made obvious, of the latter. From my point of view, if a rule is there to be broken, then it’s not really a rule at all.

I would, however, like to be of the few who can spectrum it, who can take advice at face value, ignore the way it is said, and take it for its merit, not for the person who is saying it. I do believe that every suggestion comes from a place of truth. It could be warped by misunderstanding, biases, or outright lying “because the ends defy the means,” but, on some level, a person created it with some sort of understanding.

Therefore, I go by the opposite belief. The rules of writing aren’t there to be followed until the author decides they shouldn’t be—there are too many of them and too many inconsistencies and contradictions to even consider that—but the author should do what works until it doesn’t and then go back to the rules. In either case, he must figure out the problem on his own, but in the second scenario, at least he is not making changes that do nothing for the better or the worse.

In the end, the rules are there to solve problems. Figure out the problem, and you can better determine if that “rule” truly is the right solution.

Friday, April 6, 2012

The Darth Vadar Effect

Living in a world of gray, it becomes hard to determine right and wrong, natural laws and religious laws, and whether or not telling that jackass on the comment boards off was a good act or just as bitchy. Fiction, however, has the advantage of thick lines in which we can determine good by the way a person looks, the rumors about him, and who the author likes better. We know who is supposed to be the hero and who is the villian. We are aware of who's side we're expected to be on, and if we weren't sure what was the right answer, we know we'll be told soon enough.

It is interesting, however, to note exactly what some writer's are telling us about good and evil. In the musical Rent, the protagonist is an unemployed, heroine addict, near pedophile, who's main conflict is having to pay the debt he owes. The villian? A man who owns a warehouse and wants to kick out the homeless people loitering to, you know, use it. Grease teaches us that a person isn't living unless she's dressing for her man, smokes, and that abstaining from sex before marriage makes for a bad relationship. The biggest issue, I have, however, is the common theme of "evil tries to do things, good people have things done for them."

From The Lion King to Harry Potter to Star Wars, we see that story over and over. Many tales take this approach, which could be the common foundation of the Hero's Journey, but needless to say, I think no matter the reason for it, it is the reason behind the thought process of the modern people.

The story goes like this: an evil man wants to take over the world. The main character, however, wants for nothing. He maybe has a dream of being a great hero or , but he does nothing to actually take action to achieve that goal. Harry Potter wants a loving family who doesn't lock him in the broom closet, but he doesn't run away, tell them off, or even study hard in hopes of getting out through college. Aladdin wants to live in a palace, but he steals only what will keep his head above water. Little Anakin Skywalker wishes for freedom, but he has yet to make attempts to escape.

Then something happens. A giant comes and tells him he's a winner. A sorcerer takes him aside to give him a job. A Jedi sees his true power. A few turns of luck later, (the child's happen-chance survival against Voldemorte makes him a celebrity, a monkey steals the lamp, the boy happens to fall into a racing ship and uses his innate talent to win) he is taken away from his horrible life to be brought up as The Chosen One.

He then proceeds to chance into creating problems for the evil doer. This, of course, is not a goal for him. He does not want to fight Voldemorte, the wizard just won't stop chasing him. Aladdin doesn't care about Jafar until he goes after the princess. Anakin just goes with the flow.

You can tell the moment that Mr. Skywalker goes evil because he starts to try. Throughout the text of the story, the lucky protagonist doesn't seek the epic super powerful sword, he just gets it. He doesn't make decisive decision to attack the villian, he waits for the marauder to make the first move. The moment that Anakin starts to want something, Padame, power, and everything else that begins with a "p," not only did the movie hint that he was doing bad things, but actually stated, bluntly and out in the open, that a Jedi should never want for anything.

When writing a novel, many people stop because they've subconsciously copied this standard. Writing something in which the antagonist makes all of the moves is hard. The protagonist has to be the conflict, which means that if he hasn't made the decision to stop the villian then the author has to come up with some sort of reason for him to be in the same place at the same time and causing problems.

That is the reason Jafar needed a "diamond in the rough" to go into the Cave of Wonders. He then had to find out that Aladdin was such a person and collected him all in due course. In the movie he does it in a somewhat convoluted way, arresting him to get him into the prison so that he can talk to him when it probably would have been just as simple as to come up to him on the street and offer to pay him. But that would give Aladdin the illustion of initiative. Meanwhile, while the archenemy is commiting to all of this, Aladdin is walking around, twiddling his thumbs. But, because it's his story, the narrator has to come up with something he's doing.

They did well, having two plots going at once. One, the story of Aladdin and Jasmine's romance, the other about Jafar's lust for power. This is a great way of solving the problem by having two goals that exchange problems and locations. However, it also makes Jafar do all of the work.

We wonder why there are people sitting in their basements waiting to be found by greatness. Many of us don't search it out, don't do the work, and truly believe that the untalented have no way of competing with those "meant for bigger things." If we are not good at what we do, why should we bother? Like the characters in our stories, we know that to try is evil and means failure, but to sit around waiting for good things to happen will eventually lead us to our mentors.

If we learn anything from Darth Vadar, that is passion causes nothing but problems, so it is is better to just wait it out.