Monday, November 16, 2009

Meaty Monday: SiWC 2009; Psych 101 For Fiction, Eileen Cook

On Oct 23-25, 2009, I attended The Surrey International Writers Conference, which is one of the best conferences in North America for improving your writing skills and learning about the publishing industry. The conference is extremely well-run, focuses on craft, and includes (for free!) one ten-minute agent/editor pitch and one ten-minute author/editor "Blue Pencil" clinic.

I'm going to summarize the useful information from my workshop notes here on the blog, but I'm going to have to break it up over several weeks' worth of Meaty Mondays, because there's LOTS to cover.

These summaries will be in point form, because my notes aren't much more than that, plus doodles.
This week:

Pysch 101 for Fiction, by Eileen Cook

This workshop focuses on Emotional Intelligence (EI). Studies find the smartest people are not necessarily the most successful. We all know smart people who make poor decisions. Emotional intelligence is the non-cognitive abilities that allow a person to adapt, cope and function, and while IQ is static (other than the fact it does decline with age), EI improves with time.

In fact, on EI tests, children rate as psychopaths. They just haven't learned the world isn't all about them yet.

The following scales rate different areas of EI.

We'll discuss each, and I'll offer a few ways you might use this to flesh out your novel's characters. One fruitful tactic is to think in terms of your character having a weakness in one of the following areas, and their growth arc consisting of them learning to do better in that regard. Remember, EI is not static; it tends to improve. Therapy is one way to improve it, but life experience can accomplish the same.

* Emotional self-awareness: You know what you feel and you know what caused that feeling.

Examples of poor emotional self-awareness:

1) A child is injured, and their parent is yelling at the doctor. The parent isn't really angry, although they think they are--they're terrified. This is poor emotional self-awareness because they don't know what they are feeling.

2) After a lousy day at work, you shriek at your spouse/child/room-mate over a small infraction. This is poor emotional self-awareness because you're not accurately identifying what caused your anger. It wasn't the infraction; it was the bad day prior to that.

You can use poor emotional self-awareness to create conflict. The victim of the emotional outburst probably knows the reaction is misplaced and thus will feel persecuted.

* Assertiveness: The ability to non-confrontationally stand up for yourself.

With respect to your characters, consider: At what point would they finally stand up? And would they stand up for someone else but not for themself?

* Self-regard: Generally liking yourself.

Note part of this involves having insight into both sides of yourself. You recognise both your strengths and weaknesses. It is possible to have too much self-regard, and too little.

Consider what your character is ashamed of--their dirtiest secret. If they have too much self-regard, they will try to hide and deny it, even to themselves. If they have too little self-regard, they will try to hide it but will also berate themselves over it.

* Self-actualization: Realising your potential and pursuing what gives your life meaning.

Do your characters know what gives their life meaning? Are they pursuing it?


1) Scarlett O'Hara thinks she loves Ashley and must have him. She pursues him. In fact, he's a stand-in for what Scarlett really wants: to be like her mother--the classic Southern Belle that Scarlett idealizes. This is poor self-actualization.

2) Scarlett O'Hara will do anything to keep her home. This gives her life meaning, she knows it, and she is willing to do quite distasteful things to keep it. This is good self-actualization.

It is possible for a person to be good at this in one area of their life and poor in another.

* Independence: Being self-directed in one's life without being insensible to external wisdom.

Examples of poor independence:

1) Someone who has to ask fifteen different people for advice before they manage to make a decision.

2) Someone who not just ignores advice, but fails to comprehend its worth in the first place.

Note that women tend to score better overall than men on EI tests, but independence is one area where they tend to score poorer. Women are more likely to distrust their own judgement.

* Empathy: The ability to understand what triggers emotion, and the ability to recognise emotion.

Examples of poor empathy skills:

1) Person A is being passive-aggressively angry. They slam cupboard doors and stomp around. Person B asks, "Are you okay?" Person A says sarcastically, "Yes. Fine." If Person B believes that statement, then Person B has poor empathy skills. They don't recognise emotions.

2) Person A says something blunt to person B, who then takes offence. Person A cannot understand why, since it's not something that would upset them if the situation were reversed. Person A thus has poor empathy skills; they don't understand the ways their actions can provoke emotion in others.

* Interpersonal relationships: You can establish and maintain mutually-satisfying relationships (note this involves more than just romantic relationships.)

If your character makes bad relationship decisions, try to come up with the reason for why she can't see that fact.

* Social responsibility: You're willing to do something that doesn't benefit yourself.

Are there causes your character cares about? Something that matters to them? Something they'll sacrifice for?

* Problem solving: Ability to identify problems and implement effective solutions.

How does your character cope with problems? Do they know what their problem is, or do they mistake it for something else?

Examples of poor problem solving:

1) A woman thinks she needs her ex-boyfriend back, but what she really needs is to get over her anxiety about doing things on her own. This is an example of not knowing what your problem is.

2) A man wants his ex-girlfriend back, so he tells lies about her to scare off other men. This is an ineffective solution; he doesn't comprehend how this is counter-productive to making his girlfriend want him back.

* Reality testing: What you experience is not necessarily reality. "Reality testing" refers to how much you let your inner beliefs/insecurities/mood colour what you believe to be true about the world.

Ellis outlined the following to describe the relevant mental process:
A = Activating event
B = Belief about that event
C = Consequences

Person 1 and Person 2 like each other but are shy and insecure. Person 1 bribes his friends to--while they are standing in front of Person 2--act excited over a party Person 1 is throwing. This is so Person 1 can oh-so-casually (and without risking rejection) invite Person 2 to the party.

Person 2 assumes Person 1 is just being polite because she happened to be there when his friends mentioned the party. She doesn't believe Person 1 could really like her, so she doesn't attend the party.

A = Person 2 is invited to a party. This is fact.
B = Person 2 interprets that invitation incorrectly. This is belief.
C = Person 2 reacts to her belief, not the fact, and this affects reality.

Another manifestation of reality testing is that people look for things that reinforce their own beliefs. For example, you can predict what news stories will stick out in a person's mind after they read a newspaper if you already know what their political beliefs are. (JJ's Note: I noticed this about myself while at the conference. When a presenter mentioned something I already believe to be true, I really sat up and noticed that.)

As an interesting aside, brain scans show that if someone says something you disagree with, you will stop listening to the rest of what they say and begin thinking about your rebuttal instead.

Poor reality testing is useful for creating misunderstandings in novels. Something happens, a character interprets it incorrectly, then acts on that understanding, which leads to consequences that affect reality.

* Flexibility: You can adjust emotions/thoughts/actions to suit changing situations.

How important is security to your character? Do they melt down over an unexpected flat tire, or whirl into competent crisis-management mode?

Note a person can be flexible in certain areas of their life and not in others.

* Stress tolerance: Just what it sounds like.

How do your characters cope with stress? How does stress manifest itself in them? People sometimes don't realize they are under stress until they notice physical symptoms of it, such as headaches due to hunching their shoulders.

You can give the reader indicators of stress that allow them to sense the character's emotional state even before the character has done so.

(JJ's Note: Stress reveals a person's inner character, too. You find out if someone is nasty, whiny, or valiant when you put them in crisis. During Bob Mayer's talk (yet to be posted), he mentioned part of the training for the special forces is to be put into lose-lose situations repeatedly--not to torture the soldiers, but to see their inner character revealed. Do they have what it takes to be in the Green Berets? Their opinion isn't relevant; you need to see their inner mettle by putting them in crisis-mode.)

* Impulse control: Choosing your actions based on what you predict the consequences of your actions might be.

The frontal lobe may not fully develop until 25 years of age. Thus, teens who are convinced the whole world saw their latest embarrassment, or that their life is over because their crush is dating someone else, or who simply show poor impulse control and don't know why they do the stupid things they do, may be manifesting the fact their brain hasn't grown into the EI skills of a mature adult yet.

* Happiness: Contentment and the ability to have fun.

What does your character like? What's fun to them? What makes them happy?

Would others describe your character as happy?

* Optimism: You believe, in general and even after set-backs, that things will work out or even get better.

Note THIS is one of the biggest predictors of a person's success! Optimists tend to keep going, because they believe set-backs are not permanent, and this persistence is what gets them to their goal. (JJ's Note: Bob Mayer also stressed that "grit" can trump talent and intelligence when it comes to reaching your goals.)

In closing, people ALWAYS do things for a reason, even if that reasoning seems insane to other people. Examine your character's EI, and try to find the reason behind them acting the way they do.

Extra note:
WANT versus NEED:

WANT is the engine that drives the story. It's your character's goal. NEED provides the underlying emotional issues. The reader doesn't care about your character getting what they WANT; the reader cares about the character getting what they NEED.

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

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