Existential psychologist Rollo May argued that all of us experience ontological guilt (i.e. guilt about being who and what we are and must be). This is in part because we are only ever able to perceive our “fellow man through [our] own limited and biased eyes,” which means that we “always to some extent [fail] fully to understand and meet the other person’s needs.” This “is an inescapable result of the fact that each of us…has no choice but to look through the world through [our] own eyes.”
Stepping Outside Our Comfort Zone
One of the challenges of being a writer is that we need to be able to see beyond our own limited and biased perspective on the world. Even if we’re writing a first-person story, if we can’t imagine reasons for the other characters to respond differently than the hero/ine, we have no conflict, and thus no real story. The characters begin to run together, and everybody makes choices that work together.
Life isn’t like that. Go into a crowded room and invite people to share what they think on gun control. You’ll see very quickly that everybody has an opinion—and some people are awfully aggressive in defending those opinions, and in trying to convince others to see the world their way. And though such a conversation may start in a civil way, the louder and angrier people on one side get, the louder and angrier the other side gets.
But you, dear writer, don’t have the luxury of picking one perspective and blindly sticking to it. If you want readers to be engaged in the story’s conflicts, you must learn to do more than entertain both sides of the conflict your hero/ine is facing—you have to be convincing in portraying each opponent’s take on that issue.
“The test of a first-rate intelligence,” said writer F. Scott Fitzgerald, “is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” It’s that retaining the ability to function that can get tough. There are a lot of psychological mechanisms that work to keep us from experiencing cognitive dissonance—the tension or disequilibrium one develops when simultaneously holding two or more conflicting thoughts. I sometimes tell my students that this is the hypocrite effect—we’re uncomfortable when we know we’re being a hypocrite because we’re acting or believing in a way that doesn’t fit with our existing values.
To reduce the discomfort, we promptly reject or modify one of the inconsistent beliefs, change our behavior, or use a defense mechanism (e.g. deny evidence, rationalize). But there is another choice. We can temporarily put a moratorium on deciding what to believe or do and use critical thinking (reason) to explore each side of a conflict. (Bet you never thought you’d be asked to use all those critical thinking skills your teachers tried to pound into your head to be a better writer!)
Once you genuinely understand why someone might believe something other than what your hero/ine does, you can convincingly portray both sides. It’s not that your characters are going to be rational about their beliefs and values and choices, but if you don’t understand why someone else might wholeheartedly believe something in conflict with your viewpoint, you’re certainly not going to be able to write convincingly about it.
Defending Opposing Beliefs
You may actually experience a little cognitive dissonance yourself if you do this right. You may find yourself thinking “this villainous viewpoint is starting to make a frightening amount of sense.” Great—now you’re going to be able to write a fantastic conflict!
The reason we experience dissonance ourselves when doing an exercise like this is that the toughest issues usually aren’t black and white—they’re filled with gray. And once you start investigating, really trying to understand, you may find that the opposing viewpoint is as nuanced as yours…and as compelling.
Hot topics like gun control are hot topics because there’s no simple answer—arm everyone vs. arm no one. The solution most likely lies somewhere in the middle. The problem is that when we believe one things, we have a tendency to summarize our opponents’ opinions into the simplest (and usually stupidest) terms we can. It’s much easier to fight a “stupid” opinion than it is to really get in there and see that a) you might be wrong and b) the answer may not be an easy one.
Your teachers probably had you write “compare and contrast” papers that looked at opposing opinions, but I’ve found that a more effective technique is to give someone a piece of paper (or the time and space to talk) and tell them that it’s their job to convince someone else of Viewpoint A. Then, after they’ve done their very best on that, you have them swap over to Viewpoint B and try just as hard to convince someone.
When you give a character a viewpoint, she should fight just that hard to convince others of her perspective. She isn’t going to change her mind easily, and she’s probably not going to be willing to listen to even a reasonable argument for the opposing viewpoint—cognitive dissonance gets in the way.
Don’t Forget the Emotional and Personal Investment
Remember that your character will be emotionally and personally invested in a belief. He gets something from believing what he does. In the above example, someone who believes in free will gets to believe he controls his own life and to see himself as an autonomous creature. But someone who doesn’t believe in free will can argue that he is not responsible for his mistakes or tendencies—genetics or fate or luck have made him the way he is, and he can’t change it. (I’m also referencing something called locus of control here—someone with an internal locus of control believes he is in control of his own fate, while someone with an external locus of control believes others are.)
I currently have a student who seems to be a critical thinker overall. He can’t believe some of the illogical things some people believe, and he can speak rationally about many topics. And yet he believes wholeheartedly in UFOs. He keeps trying to convince me—with blurry videos of distant objects—that allegedly unexplained phenomena are evidence of UFOs. But as with crop circles, there is most likely a mundane explanation. (The mundane explanation for crop circles is that someone goes out in a field and methodically flattens the growth there to create a distinctive pattern.) In keeping with my critical thinking gist, it’s not that I’m not open to the idea that aliens in UFOs are going to come visit us—it’s just that I want a lot better evidence than a blurry video or photograph. I joke that when I see aliens the way New York saw aliens in The Avengers, I’ll buy it. Until then…I’m skeptical. But there again—I can see why someone would believe in aliens. They want to believe in the fantastic. In something bigger than themselves.
Remember, when it comes to human nature, we all want to hang onto what we “know” about the world. We’re invested in those beliefs, and we’ll go to great lengths to keep those beliefs intact and convince others that we're right.
Make sure your characters are just as determined, and just as convincing.
May, R. (2004). Contributions of existential psychotherapy. In R. May & E. Angel (Eds.), Existence (p. 54). Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield.
Dr. Carolyn Kaufman is the author of The Writer's Guide to Psychology: How to Write Accurately About Psychological Disorders, Clinical Treatment and Human Behavior. More information is available on the book's website.
© 2013 Carolyn Kaufman, PsyD ♦ Psychology for Writers on Psychology Today