The Writer's Laboratory: Intro to a New Blog Series
Using psychological science to help authors write how real people truly react
Posted Nov 22, 2017
Stephen King is my all-time favorite writer because he is so good at creating stunningly real characters, trapping them in extraordinary situations, and then watching how they claw their way out. So when Stephen King offers good writing advice (and he does so often), I try to listen. But of all the advice he has given over the years, my favorite is from a 2003 award acceptance speech. In it, he suggests that writers shouldn’t strive to be good writers or even great writers. They should be honest writers.
What does it mean to be an honest writer? According to Uncle Stevie, honest writers are ones who have “told the truth about the way real people would behave in a similar situation.” He uses the true account of an airliner crashing and killing everyone on board. Although the story would have more literary flair if the pilot’s final words were a witty phrase or a touching farewell, that’s not what happens in real life. In truth, the pilot’s final words captured on the black box were this: “Son of a bitch.”
Being an honest writer is important because, ironically, writing fiction is inherently the crafting of a lie. You are creating make-believe characters and placing them in make-believe (and often impossible) situations. But to make the reader truly believe your story, you need to drape these lies on a scaffolding built in reality. And that means knowing how to write characters and create plots that reflect how real people act in the real world.
Okay, so hopefully we are all in agreement that an author needs to write about their characters honestly, but how exactly does one accomplish this goal? The answer—you need to know something about human psychology.
This insight is why aspiring writers often take an Intro to Psychology course in college. They hope to learn things about the way people think, feel, and behave that they can weave into their own writing. But what if you didn’t take psych in college? Or what if you did but it was so long ago you don’t remember what you learned? No worries. That is what this new blog series is for.
“For writers who knowingly lie, for those who substitute unbelievable human behavior for the way people really act, I have nothing but contempt.” (Stephen King, Afterword from “Full Dark, No Stars”)
As a psychologist, I’ve spent two decades studying what people do and why they do it. I’ve conducted laboratory experiments that explore how people react when placed in unusual or undesirable situations. I’ve read thousands of scientific articles on human behavior. What I’ve learned from all this is that humans are predictable but, depending on the context, they don’t always behave the way you would expect. Human behavior can be logical or irrational, selfish or altruistic, kind or hurtful, consciously controlled or automatic.
So how can we anticipate how a person will actually respond? Often, the deciding factor is something small. The person’s personality, the situation, or any of a whole host of factors. To unpack this Pandora’s box of knowledge, you need to learn the factors and processes that affect people’s behaviors, thoughts, and emotions. And unless you’re well-versed in psychological science, you need a guide. Because the more you know about the discoveries made in psychological science, the more equipped you will be to write honestly.
I designed this new blog series, which I am calling The Writer's Laboratory, to combine my two passions—psychological science and fiction writing—in a way that teaches others how to become more honest writers (and as a result, better writers). In each post, I will pick a fascinating psychological concept, briefly discuss the research behind it, then offer suggestions on how to use this information to improve your own writing. When possible, I will pull examples of the concept we’re exploring from common works of fiction—novels, movies, TV shows—to vividly demonstrate how other writers have tapped into human psychology for their own work.
For more information about The Writer's Laboratory or my fiction work, please visit my home page (www.melissaburkley.com)