On a recent drive I began listening to the Hidden Brain podcast, with the brilliant Shankar Vedantam. I had listened to scattered episodes before, but never in a systematic way. But this was a long drive and I wound up listening to more than half a dozen episodes, each one fascinating, engaging, and informative. If you’re not familiar with the podcast, which focuses on topics related to psychology, neurobiology, and human behavior, you should check it out. It’s pretty amazing
During my drive, though, one episode in particular lodged in my thoughts, because it threatens to undermine a lot of what I do every day as a writer.
The episode, which first aired only a couple of weeks ago, is called “How to Really Know Another Person.” And the upshot of the discussion was that we can’t really know another person, that when it comes to sussing out the reactions and emotions of other people, we are, as a species, kind of inept.
When we write fiction, we present our stories from the viewpoint of our narrating or point of view characters. Sometimes we use just one point of view character. Sometimes we use several. But when we use more than one, we only switch point of view with a new scene or chapter. At any given moment in a story, we are limited to our narrating character’s perspective. We can know what they are thinking and feeling and remembering, but that’s all. The moment we start to give our readers access to the thoughts and emotions of several characters at once, we are violating point of view and falling into omniscient voice, which is out of favor in today’s literary market. The term used for this — not kindly, I might add — is “head-hopping.” It’s something we don’t want to do.
And so, in order to give our readers insights into the emotions and thoughts of actors other than our point of view characters, we have to rely on the observations and insights of the narrating character. Those characters might pick up on facial expressions, gestures, tone of voice, subtleties of spoken conversation, and any number of other clues to keep readers in the know about the feelings, motivations, thoughts, and loyalties of the people the POV characters encounter. The narrators are our readers’ guides to all elements of our stories, and so their interpretations of these interactions are crucial to furthering our plots.
But now let’s return to the Hidden Brain podcast I heard. As Vedantam points out at the beginning of the episode, recent studies have shown that “many of the clues we use to read the minds of others, are suspect.” In other words, all those things I have my point of view characters picking up on, are, in reality, less than accurate. According to his guest on the program,Tessa West, an associate professor of psychology at New York University, the best way for us to find out what others are thinking and how they are feeling is — surprise! — to ask them, and to make our questions as specific and focused as possible.
The problem with this, of course is that while this may make for better relationships in the real world, it makes for truly lousy fiction. If all the misunderstandings and intrigue and misdirection among our many characters were simply cleared up by heart-to-heart conversations, our novels would all be thirty pages long and boring as hell. More to the point, the solution offered by Doctor West — which, again, is probably really good advice for improving interactions in the real world — doesn’t account for the fact that many of our fictional relationships are adversarial. A character who asks forthright questions of a potential enemy probably isn’t going to get honest answers, at least not without making the exchanges seem incredibly contrived and unconvincing.
So what are we to do? The tools our POV characters rely on don’t really work. Should we have them habitually draw the wrong conclusions from their interactions with other characters? That is likely to tick off our readers before too long. An unreliable narrator is one thing. A buffoon is quite another.
Or do we assume that most of our readers don’t listen to the Hidden Brain, and that even if they do, what they want from us is a good story, rather than an accurate portrayal of the latest in psychological research?
It probably won’t surprise you to learn that this is the approach I recommend for others and also the one I intend to stick to myself. Let’s be honest: fiction is always an imperfect reflection of reality, and not just because of the magic systems and invented worlds we find in fantasy. As an example, our characters tend to be far more articulate than we are. If we wrote dialogue the way it sounds in the real world, it would be full of “um”s and “you know”s and “like”s and such. We would have a ton of spoken sentences that never quite get to the point or follow rules of grammar. Instead, the conversations we write for our characters sound the way we wish our real-world conversations sounded — witty, snappy, clear, natural.
In the same way, I will continue to allow my point of view characters to pick up on visual and aural clues as indicators of what others are thinking and feeling. Yes, after listening to the podcast, I may choose to have them get things wrong slightly more often. But my characters are not going to start asking questions of one another that are too frank to maintain suspense.
Sure, I want my stories to be believable. But I also want them to entertain.