Category Archives: Writing Tips

Savvy Saturday: Using Prophecy

Happy week before Christmas! If you go to a Christmas service this week, you might find that there are several elements of storytelling that transfer well from the Christmas story to typical fantasy story arcs as accepted in western mythology. (This is, in part, because the Bible gives Western civilization its template for how stories “should” be told.) One of these elements is that of prophecy. We have all seen used prophecy used in fantasy stories – sometimes used well, sometimes used poorly. But what makes “good” prophecy use in a fantasy story? Here are two elements:

  1. Good prophecy gives a mix of specific and general predictions.

If a prophecy only consists of general predictions, it is too easily fulfilled by different people at different points in time. “The Child of Light will confront the Child of Darkness at the place of the end” is a great ominous line – but only if you know who the child of light is, who the child of darkness is, and what is at stake. It doesn’t take any work to create a prophecy that consists of vague generalities, and it doesn’t engage reader interest. If a reader shrugs their shoulders and says, “That prophecy isn’t even saying anything,” then at best, they will not understand why your main characters are so worried about the prophecy, and at worst, they simply won’t care.

On the other hand, if a prophecy consists of entirely specific predictions, once you establish that the prophecy is coming true then knowing the prophecy ahead of time makes the outcome of the book entirely boring for a reader. There is no reason to read a book all the way to the end if it has already been predicted in chapter three that, “The farmer’s son will smite down the lord of darkness when he stumbles over a fallen root, knocking his helmet from his head and smashing in his skull with the sword of his forbearers, which will have been blessed by the old protector of the forest.”

  1. Good prophecy can be legitimately fulfilled in different ways.

The best prophecy is one that sounds like it says one thing, but leaves room for the author to play with audience expectations. Two ways of doing this include having competing prophecies, and having prophecies that have two meanings (a primary and a secondary). Perhaps two different prophecies seem to contradict each other but don’t actually (but how?), or perhaps one prophet was actually mistaken or lying about something (but which is which?) Either way, introducing uncertainty into the supposed certainty of prophecy is a way to keep audience interest in and satisfaction with your story high.

 For instance, the Belgariad by David Eddings revolves around the existence of two prophecies – one written by the light and the other by the dark side of the universe. Both of them predict what will happen in the future, and each has been right in the past, but only one can ultimately prevail. The prophecies in the story are actually characters competing with each other. In contrast, a single prophecy could also have different possible fulfillments if it has a surface-level meaning and a deeper meaning, multiple fulfillments across time (e.g. “soon” and also “at the end of history on a bigger scale”), or if key words in the prophecy have multiple legitimate definitions.

Prophecy can be an integral and fascinating part of a fantasy story. It can drive protagonists to complete their quests, to question or doubt their abilities or future, to wrestle with questions of fate and free will, and to either embrace prophecy or to fight it. But if used poorly – if a prophecy is too specific, too vague, too straightforward, or too convoluted – prophecy can hamstring the effectiveness of your novel.

Savvy Saturday – Autumnal Celebrations

It’s fall! As we finally head into some cooler weather and students settle down into their semester routine, you can use this time to think about some ways in which autumn might make its way into your fantasy worlds and stories. Of course, there are the traditional harvest festivals that you can adapt for your own use – but what other ways might you incorporate this season into your world? Here are some possibilities…

Color Festivals

If a society you have created reveres art and color, autumn could be a season of great celebration! Perhaps there could be contests to create the best pieces of art using fallen leaves, or to find red ears of corn, or to purge one’s house of anything dull and drab in favor of bright reds and golds.

Music Festivals

The autumn winds, rustling of the leaves, and thunderstorms of the season would make a lovely inspiration for musical pieces. Perhaps the musicians of your tribes need to compete to attract the rain spirits or to keep away dangerous creatures that awaken in the fall. Perhaps there is a yearly festival – a gathering of tribes – to compete for status and wealth and enjoy the bounty of the season where winning depends on the quality of the music one can produce.

Weather Festivals

The first thunderstorm of the fall would be a time for celebration in a land marked by dry and rainy seasons. Perhaps they would hold a ceremony where rain is collected and a cup of rain-water is drunk by the chief to symbolize the renewal of the people each year. Perhaps the first leaves that fall each year would be collected and burned as a sign of cleansing and finishing of an old season. Perhaps a people would wait to begin hunting certain animals until the first leaves change color, or only begin wearing certain clothes, singing certain songs, or eating certain foods after the first frost of the year.

What other autumnal celebrations or rituals might occur in a fantasy world? What would make sense given your culture’s geography, history, and belief system? Leave a comment below!

Savvy Saturday – Dividing and Conquering

Sociology theory gives us as writers some fantastic ideas for new worlds we can play with. Every human culture in existence has distinguished between certain groups of individuals, and has chosen obvious identifiers of those groups to help members distinguish themselves from others. Differences may be biological, or they may be purely social (e.g. tattoos), but they exist. “We” are different from “them,” people say, because “we” look like this, or “we” speak this language, or “we” wear these clothes.

Strangely, many of these dividing differences seem like they could have been chosen by chance. The human race has innumerable tiny biological differences among its members, and only a few of them are actually used by society as meaningful differences. Eye color, for instance, is a non-judged characteristic (except for heterochromia, but even that does not carry social stereotypes). Another example would be the shape of one’s face. These characteristics, while they are often associated with a particular cultural group (e.g. blue-eyed, blond-haired Germans, or the round-faced Inuit), are not seen as a primary signal of one’s inheritance. Other factors – the color of one’s skin or hair, the shape of one’s eyes, and so forth, are used instead. These factors are not as definite or easily dividable into groups as society might make us think. Individuals who are half-black and half-white can have skin that looks very dark, very light, or somewhere in the middle. Adding to the confusion, traits or characteristics are sometimes recessive – a grandchild can look very similar to a distinctive grandparent, but not as similar to their parents, as in the case when a child has red hair but neither of their parents do. As the world continues to globalize and grow more diverse, then, the children of the future will look more and more different, even if they come from the same families.

What would happen if a world had not fewer skin colors, but far more? What would happen if it became impossible to tell from someone’s skin color their actual cultural origin? You could make up a fantasy world where this was the case – fairly easily, actually. Perhaps you might make up a world where skin tone was variable the way that height is in our culture, but that height is actually a cultural discriminator. “Mountain-folk” might stare down at others in the world from their bulky six or seven foot tall stature, for instance, refuse to let their children marry anyone who didn’t “measure up,” and maintain traditions and rituals celebrating their height and strength. In contrast, “Flower-folk” might be delicate and small, tending toward grace rather than strength, and might in their culture celebrate the agility, thoughtfulness, and attention to detail that their taller rivals tended to lack. You might similarly choose a different feature – eye color, ear size, nose shape – and make that a key distinguisher of cultural background. You could imagine that horror that might result if an Emerald Eyed daughter ran off with a Sapphire Eyed son – how would the parents choose to raise their children? Would they celebrate the festivals of the earth or of the sky? Would they dance to drums or to flutes? And how could people who are clearly so different from each other have fallen in love anyway?

Fantasy lets us explore real issues of cultural and worldview clash without drawing on real cultures that would give rise to claims of appropriation, inaccurate or unflattering portrayal, or unintended offense. Moreover, it allows us to explore real issues that reflect and speak to current and historical conflicts without bringing automatic political or cultural baggage into the mix. If our protagonists are a cultural group that has been oppressed for centuries and are fighting for their freedom, if we make them one race and their oppressors a different race that is recognizable to readers, we immediately risk alienating our audience or making them assume that we are pushing a political agenda. Instead, if we use sociological theory to make the same point but with different cultural identifiers, we can speak more gently and therefore more powerfully to the same issues.

Think about what types of cultural identifiers you might want to give your societies in the next world you build. Should they be biological or purely social, such as clothes, piercings, tattoos, and other bodily modifications? If biological, how will these differences manifest in how people of different cultures see each other, how they see themselves, and in the cultural practices of their peoples? Instead of trying to get tanned skin or lighter skin, might they want to try to make themselves taller or shorter? Might they try to stretch their ears or noses or make their feet small? What else might they do? Try playing with the ideas! You might come up with something fascinating and perfect for your next story.

Savvy Saturday – Ignorance, Arrogance, and Character Development

Most authors tend to put themselves or people they know into the characters they write. While this can make characters realistic, it also limits the kinds of characters they can include in stories to the kinds of people the author has had interactions with. I was confronted by the realization tonight that I have not been around very many high-school students in recent years – and especially not high-school boys.

Yes. I talked with one tonight. It was an interesting experience, and one that I will try to remember for my writing. I want to start off by stating the caveat that I will not try to extrapolate behavior or thinking processes to all high-schoolers, to all boys, or even to all high-school boys based from one case study. But it does give me an existence proof that some high-school boys do not behave in the reasoned, fact-based manner than I have come to expect from my academic colleagues or the students in my classes. In academia, however loopy one’s ideas may be, people are generally bright enough to not make blatantly false assertions, illogical arguments, or over-generalizations lest they be called on it and taken down a peg (or four). The same apparently doesn’t hold true for all members of the population. I’ve known that in the abstract. It’s a very different experience to see it in person.

Exaggeration itself is not a trait that many of my characters use in my writing, but it does occur. Many people, even rational ones, exaggerate when they get emotional. “Everybody hates me!” a character might wail. Or, “If I don’t pass this class, I’m literally going to die!” (Hopefully, said character is actually exaggerating in this case, or else the story might become a detective murder mystery.)

With this type of emotional exaggeration excepted, I’ve noticed that my own academic training and companionship tends to lead to a characteristic of my characters to speak accurately, carefully, and precisely in my writing. They tend not to speak on subjects about which they have no knowledge, or at least not authoritatively. They tend not to state “facts” as truth when those facts are exaggerations or are simply wrong – at least not to a global, sweeping extent. For instance, while a petulant character of mine might say, “I hate the girls in my class. They’re stupid and all they talk about is clothes,” (a statement which is likely an exaggeration, but may have some basis in fact), I would not write a character who would say matter-of-factly, “Girls are stupid. All they ever do is talk about clothes.” Or, “Of course fraternities don’t actually do things that are illegal during their hazing. If they did, they’d all get caught and stopped.” Similarly, while I might write a character who would say that they were sure that Candidate Y would win an election (and be able to back up their statement with poll results, historic trends, and logical reasoning), I wouldn’t have thought to have a character be “sure” that Candidate Y would win because all of their friends liked him and were going to vote for him.

While I would have expected that no intelligent person would actually make this sort of blatantly inaccurate statement or faulty argument – at least not make it and expect to maintain any sort of intellectual esteem with a listener – it seems that my view of the world was more limited than I had realized. In some ways, this is a good discovery. In the future, I will be able to make more use of a type of character and a way of speaking and thinking (judgmental and assertive in arrogant ignorance) that I would have been otherwise. Hopefully, this will give me greater breadth in the types of situations I can write and the realism of the worlds I can create.

I should note that I do not hold anything against the boy with whom I spoke. He is bright, and it is likely that with some years and maturation that he will realize that many of his views are…well…wrong. But until that point, I will chuckle and remember that not all high-school boys behave like college professors – and hope that I don’t annoy my readers too much when my characters suddenly have to deal with immature, arrogant people who assert things as fact that “just ain’t so.”

Savvy Saturday – The Purpose and Practice of Patriotism

Happy Independence Day! For today’s blog post, I’m going to discuss the idea of patriotism and how fantasy authors can use it for good – or evil. (Muahahaha!) Patriotism, the love of one’s country, is a powerful motivating force for citizens/subjects. Patriotic individuals can be motivated to work harder to create more resources (a positive force, leading to greater wealth gain overall), to give up their resources (a negative force, leading to different distribution of, or even destruction of, wealth), and to support a country’s political leadership (a stabilizing force, leading to greater freedom to act without being questioned).

For obvious reasons, then, politicians and rulers like their citizenry to be patriotic. If people can be spurred to turn their mental, emotional, and physical energies to the good of the country rather than to their own betterment, if they will willingly and cheerfully give up their hard-earned resources to the government, and if they will support and not question their government’s decisions, a political leader can have a much better chance of accomplishing his will both at home and abroad than he would if he had to fight his own people as well as his political enemies.

In any fantasy or science fiction world, then, a savvy government should seek to inspire patriotism in its citizenry. Unfortunately, identification with a group – in this case, with one’s country – is most easily achieved by making negative comparisons between one’s own group and other groups. Other groups, outgroups, are “bad,” and our group, the in-group, is “good.” Further, the strength of in-group solidarity grows in the face of external threats.

If there are not seen to be external threats to a group or nation, then people in that nation are more likely to magnify and focus on the differences between subgroups in the nation and problems occurring in the nation itself. If an external threat to the nation emerges, however, the nation tends to band together and view itself as one homogenous group of people. “We are the same in the ways that matter,” becomes the catchphrase, “and we will not be beaten.” This is the reason that unscrupulous rulers tend to be constantly making war, or threatening war, against other nations – it keeps their citizens from questioning their authority and keeps them looking outside of their borders for threats instead of inside.

There are other ways of promoting patriotism besides painting members of other groups as bad. One of the major ones, sociology theory tells us, is through ritual. When people all take part in a formal, important activity – a ritual – together, they suddenly share something with each other. The greater the time spent in the ritual, the greater the emotional energy invested, the more important, or the higher the symbolic meaning that can be poured into the ritual (see last week’s post for a discussion of how to create symbols), the greater the unifying ability of the ritual to bind people together. By doing things together, a group of individuals becomes a collective, and “I” turns into “we.”

It is for this reason that Important Events in a country’s history – days honoring great leaders, or momentous victorious, or somber defeats – are recognized with formal activities year after year. Parades, speeches, fireworks, flag ceremonies, songs, prayers, salutes, marches…all are designed to remind people of who “we” are, and actually to generate a greater sense of “we”-ness than was present before. Good-hearted rulers or politicians can use these practices and rituals to keep a nation’s spirits up, to remind them of the larger ideals that bind them together, to help them stand strong under fire, and to inspire their citizenry to live peaceably and kindly with each other. Not so good-hearted rulers and politicians use these same tools to blind their citizenry to their own nefarious purposes, to incite them toward hatred of other nations, and occasionally, to try to take over the world.

How do the countries in the worlds you create try to generate patriotism? What historical events or people are the focal points for ritual gatherings and solidarity? Is the patriotism generated only positive focused (celebrating the things that make that particular country great) or also negative focused (condemning the things that other nations or groups do, and warning that our country’s greatness is being threatened by them)? What impact will these events and cultural practices have on the way the citizenry of the country thinks and acts toward each other and their leaders?

With all this in mind, I hope you have a very happy, safe, and positive focused Fourth of July weekend.

Savvy Saturday – Confounding Characters

I’ve written before about the potential danger of handling controversial topics poorly and ham-handedly as a writer. An example from real life raised this issue to me again today, and provides a good example of how to use character diversity and similarity to carefully and sensitively make potentially controversial points. To set the scene, I am (when not writing fiction) a graduate student at a large university, where I teach undergraduate classes and do academic research. Today, a Pakistani coworker of mine who is newer to the university approached me with a question. Knowing that I am religious and American, both of which he is not, he presented me with a teaching predicament: a student in a class of his turned in a religious opinion piece instead of the assigned research paper, and he didn’t know how to react. If he failed the student, he worried that the student might think he was being persecuted because of the religious content of the paper he had turned in, rather than because he had not completed the work as it was assigned.

This raised an interesting point that is very applicable to writers. As a non-religious non-American professor, any action that my coworker took against a religious American student, no matter how justified, could be interpreted by some as an attack against the “other” demographic group rather than as an appropriate response based on a given individual’s action. As I considered the issue, I thought about how I would respond. I would have absolutely no qualms about failing the student – if he complained, I could tell him that I agreed with his beliefs and understood where he came from, and that the reason he earned the failing grade was because he had not completed the assignment as specified. The student would likely not be happy, but would likely connect the reason for the failing grade accurately to his own failure to do the work. If my coworker did exactly the same thing, however, the student could still maintain in his head the fiction that he was being persecuted for his faith, no matter what the reality was.

This situation has clear implications for writers. We, as creators of characters and cultures and worlds, have the luxury of creating individuals who can have fundamental disagreements and fight with each other. We can choose their demographics and their personal background for maximal narrative effect. Even more powerfully, we can choose whose perspective to tell a story from. With this power, however, comes the responsibility of using it well.

If you are going to raise issues that are tied deeply to characteristics that reflect important group identities – whether issues of religion, politics, race, culture, or something similar – then you need to consider the group identities of everyone you involve in your conflict. If you have characters who are different from each other on an important characteristic and you only give one character’s point of view, you could easily find readers assigning group stereotypes to the other character’s actions. An easy way to solve this problem, of course, is to present the situation from both opposing characters’ viewpoints. This will ensure that readers see the reality of the situation, as well as the misconceptions, that are going through all your characters’ heads, and keep them from judging you as an author for your supposed biases regarding certain demographic groups.

If you only want to tell your story from one character’s point of view, however, you are more limited in the type of conflict you can accurately portray without the threat of misunderstanding. If you want to give a nuanced presentation of what is right or wrong in a given situation, then make your conflicting characters similar to each other in all ways that could lead to misinterpretations of motivations. In the case of the example above, if I wrote the scene with a religious professor, I could then incorporate the religious student who blatantly did the assignment incorrectly without my readers thinking that I was saying as an author that all religious individuals are bad academics. The same would not hold true if I wrote it from only the student’s point of view and the professor did not share their belief system.

What issues have you seen raised in novels that have either been handled well or in a biased fashion by their creators? If they were handled badly, how might the author have done it better?

Savvy Saturday – Using the News

Sometimes, fantasy and science fiction writers get their best ideas from new discoveries and technological innovations that are going on in the world around us. For this week’s blog post, I’m going to highlight a few that might get stories spinning in your head. Ready? Let’s go explore the wild, exciting world of fantastical possibilities based on real life happenings…

Imagine if…you could transfer data from one device to another using your own body as a conduit.

AT&T has filed a patent for transferring data using bone vibrations and/or electricity through a person’s body, thus allowing an individual to transfer data from one device he/she is holding directly to another device, without data actually having to be publically broadcast. This would be a completely secure way of data transfer, since data wouldn’t go through the airwaves or over the Internet – it would just go through the owner’s body.

Of course, with just a little bit of fantasy or science fiction tweaking, this idea becomes even more interesting. What if data was able to be transferred from a device into a person’s body with a touch, and remain there until the person touched a different device that would suck up the datastream? Suddenly, spies could walk around a city with valuable, hidden data stored in their very blood and bones, with nothing detectable to sensors. A seemingly innocent transaction – something like picking up an electronic table to sign one’s name on a digital receipt – could actually be a transfer of top secret information. What’s even better is that you could have the establishment of “digital mules” who wouldn’t even have to know what they were doing to be used to an organization’s nefarious ends. “We want you to be a mystery shopper!” an organization might say. “Simply go to these two technology stores, and ask the manager to show you the latest models they have in stock, then give us a report on what you find – we’ll pay you!” Clueless shoppers would gladly participate to make a few bucks, while the organization could transfer data as often as it pleased between its agents at the different technology stores. How could you detect and stop this new version of “spyware”? How else could you adapt this technology to make a fascinating new story?

Imagine if…a culturally abhorred practice were found to have real and drastic health benefits.

A recent news article posited that a cannibalistic tribe in New Guinea actually preserved itself from various forms of disease through its ritualized consumption of human brains. Whether or not this connection actually proves true, it raises an interesting question. What if a practice that “civilized” people find repulsive is discovered to actually bring about a culturally sought after good?

One would imagine that a certain group of people would throw off cultural norms in favor of obtaining the desired reward. (“Cannibalism of one’s dead relatives reverses aging? Fantastic! Who cares about cannibalism if I can live forever?”) Another group of people would certainly reject the “evil” practice, and say that whatever the good might be, it would not be worth the sacrificing of morals to obtain it. (“If that is what it takes to live forever, then we were not meant to live forever!”) A third group would likely incorporate the practice into sacred ritual – turning something “not okay” into something legitimate under certain circumstances. Just as one expects to speak frankly with a doctor who is a complete stranger about topics that would be not appropriate to discuss with other strangers one might meet, “proper” circumstances and rituals could turn an otherwise detestable practice into one that is allowable in certain times in certain ways. (This is, in fact, how most cannibalism was practiced in cannibalistic societies. The dead were not eaten willy-nilly. In contrast, fallen enemies, or great heroes were eaten as part of ceremonies, at certain times, in certain ways, accompanied with much ritual and deeper meaning.) Whatever practice you decide to explore, make sure you take into account the three differing reactions that would be likely in your population.

Keep an eye out for other interesting discoveries or news reports that could inspire your storytelling! Truth is often stranger than fiction, but when fiction takes a truth and runs with it, the result can be magical. What are some other things you’ve seen recently that you could turn into an interesting component of a story?

Savvy Saturday – Conference Insights on Identity

Academic conferences are great things: they give you free food (well, okay, REALLY EXPENSIVE food when you take into account the price of registration), unlimited coffee (whee!), and hours (and hours!) of exposure to cutting-edge knowledge. As an author as well as an academic, this last point is the really exciting part of conference. What’s most exciting is when the research that is presented has obvious and direct implications for story settings or character arcs. And today, for your reading pleasure, I’m going to share with you two of the latest insights from academia about racial identity and consumption that might affect the stories we tell as authors.

Identity changes due to physical moves

In the United States, much of our identity is based on skin color. White, African American, Hispanic, Asian – these things signal to people around us things about our stereotypical background, interests, and social class. Non-white individuals are “minorities” in the U.S., and tend to have minority status as part of their identity. What happens, then, when an individual moves to the United States from a country which has a very different ethnic/racial breakdown? If one is a member of the tribe in power in an African country, and is therefore used to being part of the majority, coming to the U.S. will be a big culture shock. Someone who, on the outside, looks like part of the majority culture (e.g. a white immigrant from Europe) will have a different cultural experience than someone who looks like part of a minority culture (e.g. a black immigrant from Africa) even if both of them grew up as part of their majority culture back home.

How might this play out in a novel? Consider having a hero who travels to a different culture and 1) is visibly different from the majority of individuals in that culture, 2) is not perceived as a rarity or high-status individual because of those visual differences, but 3) is attributed to have a different – and potentially problematic – cultural background than the character actually does because of those visible characteristics. What kinds of character developments or story problems might take place? That’s up for you to decide – but it could be fascinating!

The presence of scripts and rare identity signaling

Imagine that you are writing a fantasy story about two ethnic groups that are visibly distinguishable from each other. One (call it Group X) has historically had power and privilege, and the other (Group Y) has typically been subjugated. While there is a simple upper- and lower-class system based purely on race, it is unlikely that people from Group Y could ever escape from their structurally imposed status. However, if a middle class arises based on wealth, education, ability, etc. rather than ancestry, it might be possible for certain members of the historically low-status group to join it. If people from Group Y are still typically part of the lower class, however, and only certain elite members are able to join a middle class, it becomes important for those middle class members to outwardly signal their new group membership or risk being stereotyped as lower class based on their Group Y status.

The question is, how can the elite members of Group Y do this? The easiest way is to imitate Group X style – to identify a “script” of what middle or high-class people stereotypically do, and make sure to do it even more than members of Group X do. Following scripts means that conspicuous consumption becomes very important. Wearing the right types of clothing and accessories signals others that a person not only has the money to be able to afford higher-class material possessions, but that he or she also has the cultural capital (knowledge) to buy and enjoy the “right” types of possessions. Whereas people from Group X might be able to not follow their group’s script and still be ascribed high-class status, people from Group Y who don’t want to be perceived as low-class have to always follow the rules, always outperform, and to some extent, always consume more (and consume more “correctly”) to maintain their hard-earned status. Of course, this seeming obsession with outward appearance can lead people from Group X to disdainfully say that people from Group Y are shallow, materialistic, and that they try too hard – but if the alternative for members of a stereotypically lower-class racial group is to be perceived as an outsider, as poor and uneducated, or even as a potential criminal, it’s no wonder that signaling their true identity and achievements is a conscious part of their life.

In your stories, then, consider how the dynamics of history, class, and race/ethnicity intersect. The past impacts the present, sociological forces impact individuals’ stories, and consumption matters.

What stories have you read that have thoughtfully and carefully portrayed issues of identity and consumption? How might you incorporate these issues into your works?

Savvy Saturday – The Power of Psychology

As authors, we want to have our characters be real to life as much as possible. This means that we not only have to tell a good story, but we have to understand how and why people behave the way they do. Sometimes this is easy – sometimes people behave logically and in ways that make sense. Other times, however, people’s behaviors are driven by psychological realities that aren’t obvious on their surface. The more we understand the sociology and psychology of human behavior as authors, the more nuanced and realistic the characters we can write. Today’s blog post, then, gives an introduction to two psychological effects that can impact our characters: mere exposure effect, and the effect of cognitive dissonance.

Mere Exposure Effect

First identified by Zajonc in 1963, the mere exposure effect identifies the strange fact that as humans, we prefer things we are familiar with to things we are unfamiliar with. His original psychological experiments found that people liked nonsense words or pseudo-Chinese symbols that they had heard before in the lab better than nonsense words or pseudo-Chinese symbols they had not heard before. The same has been found to hold true for sounds, images of faces, tastes, and so forth.

What does this finding mean for novelists? Well, first, perhaps that people tend to “rather bear those ills we have, Than fly to others that we know not of,” to quote Hamlet. The man enslaved to the evil king may resist freedom simply because he knows he can bear the life he has now, as miserable as it is, and does not know what freedom will hold. Similarly, if a character is thrown together “randomly” with a stranger several times, the character will tend to like and trust that stranger more than he/she will trust a “real” stranger, no matter how actually trustworthy either of those individuals might be. Characters that see their friends trying and eating a particular foreign dish, even if it seems strange at first, will probably find that particular dish less strange after a while than they would a different unfamiliar dish, even if they are equivalent in terms of objective foreignness. Of course, this effect can also lead to xenophobia: what we know is good, and what we don’t know is bad. Characters raised in metropolitan areas where they have been exposed to a large number of cultures and practices are likely to be more tolerant and accepting than characters raised in a single, limited cultural context. This also means that the more than a character is exposed to a behavior or belief – even if there is never an argument made for it and even if it is never actually brought up in conversation – the more the character will come to accept it implicitly.

Cognitive Dissonance

We all know that attitudes and beliefs drive behavior. But can behavior drive attitudes and beliefs? People who haven’t studied social psychology tend to say no. Surely our minds control our actions, and we don’t do things that we don’t agree with, right? Actually, science shows us that far more often than we’d think, our attitudes and beliefs are shaped by the things that we do. One of the things that humans are hard-wired to hate is hypocrisy – when people (and especially ourselves) say or believe one thing and do another. If we find ourselves doing something that conflicts with our beliefs, we tend to find ourselves justifying our actions, explaining them away, and actually changing what we feel and believe to make our actions make sense to ourselves. In other words, when a character helps someone, that helping behavior actually causes the character to like the helped person more, and conversely, if a character acts toward someone in a way that is not helpful, that action also tends to drive beliefs that the victim deserved what they got.

Dictators know very well the power of cognitive dissonance. Convince people that it’s okay in one particular instance to do something that conflicts with their belief system – for instance, bow to a statue just once, or on one particular day attend a rally that “everyone” is going to be at – and people’s wills will start to crumble. “It must be okay to bow to a statue at least sometimes,” people will think to themselves, “because I did it, and I wouldn’t do something that I don’t think is okay.” The next time the dictator orders them to do something similar, or even more extreme, the action doesn’t present as big as a threat to the individual’s self-image. “Just showing up to a rally” becomes “just saying the pledge of loyalty once” becomes “just putting one’s name on the roll of the loyalist party.” And if you’ve actually joined the loyalist party, then surely you must agree with at least some of what they believe in – mustn’t you? Psychologists tell us yes.

How might you use the mere exposure or cognitive dissonance effects in your stories? What stories have you seen with use them well to explain character motivations? Leave a comment below!

Savvy Saturday – Building Relationships

Some of the most memorable parts of books come from the relationships that are explored in them. For writers like me who love the worldbuilding aspects of fantasy, writing good character relationships is a conscious process rather than a natural outflowing of story. Even when it’s work, though, it is definitely worth the time and effort invested to create and develop characters who not only are real to readers, but who realistically interact with other characters and grow and change (or are a force for growth and change) as a result of those interactions. There are multiple types of character relationships that can be developed in a story, and different stories lend themselves more naturally to some than to others. Here are three types that you might choose from:


Mentor/apprentice relationships

We all know the story: the “chosen one” grudgingly comes to accept his destiny and grows from sulky farmboy into heroic knight through the wise tutelage of the old, retired sage who imparts to the lad his wisdom and skill, teaching him life lessons even as he teaches him the ways of the sword. Clichéd though it might be, mentor/apprentice relationships in stories can be very useful for growing a character into the person you as an author want them to be. In real life, we seek out people who know more than we do when we want to learn something, so why wouldn’t it work the same way in fiction? The main difference is that many storytellers choose to combine the mentor who teaches necessary technical skills (or magical skills, or whatnot) with a much-needed father figure, using practical tutelage as an excuse to sit Our Hero down and tell him the much more useful, but less obvious, things he needs to know to succeed as a person as well as a swordsman (or magician, or whatnot).

Some authors turn the cliché around, having Our Hero teach the mentor life lessons (e.g. renew his hope, restore his optimism or faith, bring him long-lost joy) even as he or she learns the technical skills that the mentor is supposed to be imparting. This trope provides a nice sense of balance, with both parties receiving solutions to their problems even when they were unlooked for by one of the characters. The trick with this relationship, as with any fictional relationship, is to both have it make sense, but also keep readers guessing. Readers expect that an old master with skills and a young talented person with destiny will come together in a story. They don’t expect the intricacies or complexities provided by third party characters who exert influence over one or both characters, or large-scale events that throw off the mentor’s (or apprentice’s) plans, or other plot or character happenings that an author can use to veer a story off in an unanticipated direction. Take advantage of your ability as an author to not limit yourself to just the dyad of the mentor/apprentice, and your relationships will be free to flourish (or potentially flounder) in new ways that keep readers turning pages.


Sibling (or other equal kinship) relationships

Siblings who are devoted to each other, siblings who hate each other, siblings who love each other but are constantly in competition – family of origin relationships provide a wealth of material for emotional and deep character development, as well as complex, dynamic interactions between characters. Siblings might seem to speak on the same wavelength, finishing each other’s sentences and working smoothly as a team, or might annoy each other with every word, pushing each other’s buttons and knowing precisely how to get under the other’s skin. They might have grown up together and have years of shared experience that they can draw on, or have been raised apart and have to discover what it is that they have in common. Loyalty to and love of family, though, is an ancient and powerful theme that resonates through some of the best stories. As an author, consider telling a story about main characters who have family that they love and care about rather than main characters who are loners. Not only do they give the main character a “foil” to be set off against, they also show similarities of character between the main character and their siblings, and give an opportunity for the main character to reflect on who he or she is and what he or she cares about.


Romantic relationships

In contrast to mentor relationships, where a junior character seeks instruction from a senior, or family relationships, where people are naturally forced into relationships with each other that they can’t escape from, romantic relationships are ones that characters choose and have to deal with the fallout of those choices. Two characters who are in love, or who fall in love despite themselves, are going to have difficult decisions to make, be confused, and, yes, make irrational (and potentially idiotic) choices because of their feelings for one another. These can lead to no end of fun with plot twists and also character development as they sacrifice for and rescue one another – or, alternatively, get themselves in trouble and need to be rescued. When writing romantic relationships, however, authors should be careful not to make a common mistake based on modern culture’s fairy tales. No matter what pop culture says, falling in love is not something that just happens apart from a character’s choice. As easy of a plot device as it is to say that a character “fell in love at first sight,” real actions of love will ring far more true if love develops over time. That’s not to say that characters can’t be attracted to each other. Certainly, as authors, we hope they will be if we want them to end up with each other by the end of the book! But just as in real life, infatuation is very different from real love, relationships in books should reflect the time and work it takes to build a relationship that causes one person to want to devote themselves to the other person’s wellbeing, or to take a bullet for the other, or even just to give up an annoying habit that the other doesn’t like. Shallow relationships are easy to write – but quickly lose readers’ interest. Deep relationships are harder – they take more conflict, more thought, and more creative work to show rather than tell – but in the end, they are also more satisfying.

What examples of good relationships between characters have you seen in books that you enjoy? What type of relationship are they? What makes them so satisfying to read?