The answer to that question depends on what you mean by “realistic fiction.”
If you’re asking whether the book has any science fiction/paranormal/fantasy elements, then the answer is that no, it does not. It’s completely realistic, in that the abilities that the Naturals have are simply at the extreme end of the kinds of abilities we see in the real world.
There is nothing “unrealistic” about what Cassie, Dean, Michael, Lia, and Sloane can do, any more than, say, what Sherlock Holmes does. They’re simply cognitive outliers, who—through a combination of genes and the environments in which they were raised—have some pretty incredible skills. Their abilities are based in real-world psychological research, which you can read more about here:
But if by “realistic,” you mean “requires no suspension of disbelief,” then I think it might be more accurate to call The Naturals “unrealistic realistic fiction,” which is a term my friend Ally Carter invented to describe her books about teenage spies and thieves. The NATURALS books are realistic, in that they’re set in our world and there’s nothing in them that’s even remotely magical, but they still require readers to be be willing to go along with the basic premise—in this case, the idea that the FBI has a unit that uses gifted teenagers to solve cold cases.
My short answer to the question is: no, I don’t check to see if another book has a similar plot. Because chances are very good that another book does. There are, after all, millions of books out there. And television shows. And movies. And honestly, even if there isn’t another book/movie/TV episode out there that is highly similar YET, by the time my book is released, there will, without fail, be at least three other books with freakishly similar set-ups.
At the end of the day, I believe that ideas—be they premises or general ideas about how your plot might progress—are cheap. I think that, when you start writing, there’s a tendency to put this premium on the IDEA. How cool the idea is, how original it is, and so on and so forth.
Value Placed on Idea vs. Execution Early in My Career
Over time, however, I’ve come to do that less and less. And the less emphasis I’ve placed on the ideas behind the book (the premise, the general idea of the characters, the idea of the plot), the less I’ve worried about “being original” and the more I’ve concentrated on the particular alchemy between the premise, the characters, and the plot.
Value Placed on Idea vs. Execution Now
For me as a reader, the important thing is not that a plot feel original, but that it feel organic to the characters and the world of the story I’m reading. I try to take that same position as a writer. Do the characters’ emotions make sense? Do their actions fall out of complex and interesting motivations? Does the conflict I’ve selected give me maximum mileage for exploring who my characters are as people? Is there, inherit in the plot, a large number of highly emotional moments/crises/confrontations? Am I putting my characters through things that will force them to grow and change in interesting ways?
It is my opinion that in the best books, premise, plot, character, and world do not exist as individual elements. Rather, they are integrally interwoven with each other. The world your character grew up in affects who they have become. Who they are affects how they will react in the face of conflict. The conflict and stakes fall out of the characters’ actions, or are designed for maximal effect on those characters. Everything is PERSONAL, and everything is tied together.
In my day job, I study the science of fiction. Philosophers and psychologists have spent a good deal of time debating why it is that some people like to re-read, why it is that some people like spoilers, why it is many of us repeatedly consume fiction within genres even after we know, quite well, the conventions of that genre. Why read at all, some philosophers ask, if you already (on some level) know what happens?
One answer that has been proposed is that story and genre conventions actually help guide readers through the story, as a sort of cognitive puzzle. Another answer is that we like seeing the way that pieces of fiction both conform to AND defy genre expectations—a mix of predictability and the unexpected may actually be more satisfying than a work that is wholly one or the other. And a final answer may be that there are simply many, many reasons to get involved with a story that have nothing to do with finding out what happens.
Perhaps the most prominent psychological theory, currently, about why we like fiction so much—why it’s so pervasive and why we invest so much time and money and emotion in something we know is not real—is that fiction taps into a more general interest, built into the human brain, in PEOPLE. Some scholars suggest that fiction co-opts a preference for gossip. Others think that fiction actually serves to hone our abilities to read social situations and social others. But the thing that is constant across these theories is that fiction is essentially social. It is about characters and their relationships with each other and their emotions and their thoughts and beliefs and desires and personalities.
Viewed from this perspective, I’m not sure it makes sense to really stress about whether or not your plot is original. A better question might be whether it FEELS real. Whether or not someone else has done it before, in my opinion, matters far less than whether or not the plot keeps the book moving and the characters changing. The surprising twist at the end of a book is only as good as the emotional whammy it carries with it.
For my day job (as a psychology professor who studies fiction), I’ve been reading Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture by Henry Jenkins.
It’s a fascinating read so far. This bit, in particular, jumped out at me:
"The fans’ transgression of bourgeois taste and disruption of dominant cultural hierarchies insures that their preferences are seen as abnormal and threatening by those who have a vested interest in the maintenance of these standards" (17).
I would be lying if I said that I did not read this and immediately think of certain recent articles bemoaning the popularity of YA and/or the romance genre.
Jenkins goes on to say that it’s not the surface-level reading of popular texts that threatens the self-proclaimed arbiters of high-culture, but rather, readers applying to these works “reading practices (close scrutiny, elaborate exegesis, repeated and prolonged re-reading, etc.)” that said arbiters typically reserve for Serious Literature (whatever their definition of serious literature may be).
The thing that some people find so scary isn’t the idea that YA or romance or fill-in-the-blank-genre might truly be “mindless” reading; it’s the idea that we might read popular fiction in mindful ways and that the pursuit of deriving meaning from literature might be seen as extending beyond the kinds of works that the self-appointed gatekeepers of high culture deem acceptable, thereby bringing into question the special status of both those works and the arbiters of high culture themselves.
How do you know when an idea for a book is "The One"? The one that can make it all the way to a finished draft, the one you love enough to oursue despite its challenges, the one you can see yourself commiting all your time to, the one you know you won't tire of halfway through?
I have a rule for myself, and that is this: I can play around with as many ideas as I would like, but if I get to 20,000 words on a book, I have to finish it.
I’ve broken this rule a couple of times, but by and large, it works for me, and the reason is this: for me, the middle of a book is ALWAYS a lot of work. It is ALWAYS tiring. Starting a new book will ALWAYS be more appealing for me than doing the actual work of finishing the book I’m working on. Pretty much the only way I ever get books written is that, once I’ve “committed” (around 20,000 words), I don’t allow myself to start a new book until I’ve finished the old one.
All of which goes to say, if you’re having trouble finding “The One,” it might be because there isn’t one. Eventually, no matter how awesome the idea, finishing the book is going to be a lot of work, and it’s highly likely that at some point, you won’t want to do it, because starting a new book would be so much more fun. This is normal—at least for me.
Having said all of that, how do I know which of any number of ideas to pursue? I have a few different litmus tests. First, I look for ideas where I’m really excited not just about the premise of the book, but also about the plot. One of the biggest revelations I ever had as a writer is that premise and plot are not actually the same thing, and it is entirely possible to have an “idea” for a book without having a plot at all.
(For example, when I sat down to write RAISED BY WOLVES, I knew I wanted to write a book about a human girl who had been raised by werewolves. I loved the premise—but that is not, in fact, a plot. I had to actually figure out the conflict and stakes and what the book was about, beyond the idea).
For me, having a plot that I’m excited about is often tied to character. For example, for each of the books in the NATURALS series, I ask myself how I can make the case the team is investigating PERSONAL. How can I make it matter to the characters? How can I make it devastating to them?
For me, the ideas that are most worth pursuing are the ones in which I’m truly excited about the premise, the plot, AND the characters, and where all three interact in potentially interesting ways.
But even then, halfway through the book, I will still feel the siren call of shiny, new projects that are so much easier than finishing the one I am on…
Hi! Just out of curiosity: while writing a sequel, did you ever regret something you wrote in the previous book because it caused problems you struggled to resolve in the next one? (Adeline C.)
Yes. A million times yes!
Over time, I have learned to put only things that NEED to be in book one in book one, because a throwaway line that doesn’t really need to be there, or a random world-building choice that you put in because it “seemed cool” can really come back to bite you later!
For example, in the Raised By Wolves series, it was established in the first book that werewolves can smell lies. That played almost no role in book one, but then I got to book two, which is all about deception and trickery and political maneuvering in the werewolf world… all of which was made a million times harder by the fact that no werewolf could lie in the presence of another werewolf without everyone knowing they were lying. I’m not sure I *regret* the choice, because I like the challenges it made for book two, but I certainly didn’t anticipate them when I made that rule in the first book.
Finding out that you had a PhD inspired me to make that a goal for myself eventually. I guess I just used to think that women don't really get PhDs but I thought it was really cool how you had one, and so I decided that I want to get the highest degree available for whatever career I choose, because PhDs aren't offered for every career but thank you for inspiring me and challenging my beliefs about what women can and can't do.
Thank YOU for this lovely note.
I didn’t go to college planning to get a Ph.D.—I actually thought I would probably end up in law school, but by my sophomore year, I’d fallen in love with research, and the idea of getting to spend five years in grad school designing and running experiments and talking science with smart people was too tempting to turn down!
I was lucky enough to have some wonderful mentors, including the lovely Laurie Santos (my undergraduate advisor and one of my grad school advisors as well), who led by example and made it so that I never questioned whether or not this was something someone like me could do. The most rewarding part of my job as a professor is getting to do for other people what Laurie did for me.
Recently, there’s been a groundswell of discontent over the lack of diversity in children’s literature. The issue is being picked up by news outlets like these two pieces in the NYT, CNN, EW, and many more. But while we individually care about…
Join the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign! Because it’s time for action!
Did you guys see the part about how on May 3rd, we get to go out and BUY BOOKS? I am already making my AWESOME DIVERSE BOOK shopping list. And you?
This week in my Cognitive Science of Fiction class (at the University of Oklahoma), we’re talking about the psychology of writing. Specifically, we’ve been talking a lot about whether writers are more likely to perceive writing as an act of creation or an act of…
Thanks to everyone who’s answered so far! I find diving into other authors’ processes this way so intriguing (and my class will be thrilled to see what you guys have to say!) In that spirit, here’s my own answer to one of the questions:
I never *believe* that my characters have free will, but I sometimes *perceive* them as having free will, in the same way that a person walking across a glass skywalk might *believe* that she’s perfectly safe, but perceive herself as being in danger of falling. (Philosopher Tamar Gendler has coined the term “alief” to describe this kind of subconscious belief-like thing that often contradicts an explicitly held belief).
So I never believe my characters have free will, but sometimes, I “alieve” it. The interesting things to me as a scientist is trying to figure out what factors influence my alief. For example, I think I am more likely to feel like my characters are operating independently of me if:
*I am writing, rather than rewriting
*The scene has more to do with a character’s emotions than a character’s actions
*The character in question is a secondary character
So basically, I perceive myself as having more control over my first-person protagonists than the characters the protagonists interact with, and more control over my characters’ actions than the way the characters feel about what is going on.
If any other authors want to chime in, please do! I’m sharing the answers with my class on Wednesday!
This week in my Cognitive Science of Fiction class (at the University of Oklahoma), we’re talking about the psychology of writing. Specifically, we’ve been talking a lot about whether writers are more likely to perceive writing as an act of creation or an act of discovery.
In the class, we do a lot of experimental design (yay, science!), and the first step of the scientific method is observation. Since I am a writer, this means my students have been probing the way that I think about these things, but I told them I would post their questions to tumblr to see if other writers (published or otherwise!) would like to chime in.
So if you have a few minutes and you’re a writer, I’d love it if you could answer one or more of the following questions:
1. Do you ever perceive your characters as having any free will? Do you feel like you consciously control everything your characters do, or do you sometimes feel like they control their own actions?
2. Do you perceive your characters as having more free will (or more of a “mind of their own”) if they are similar to you or dissimilar to you? Does the point of view you are writing in ever affect this?
3. Do reader/fan reactions ever change your understanding of who a character “really is” (or have you ever discovered something you did not realize was true about one of your characters based on feedback from early readers?)
4. If you’ve ever had a movie made from your book, do you think the movie altered your mental image/concept/understanding of the character in any way?
Hi! Just curious: What are your thoughts on teens who want to get their novels published, and have done their research and an extensive amount of editing? Thank you!
I wrote my first published novel when I was nineteen. It was the seventh novel I’d written. Of those seven, four were written while I was still in high school (or the summer right after I’d graduated). I know what it is like to be a teenager seriously pursuing publication!
Much of my advice for teens pursuing publication is similar to my advice for people of any age pursuing publication: keep writing and revising and getting better with each book; know that many writers do not sell their first book and that this is largely a persistence game; do what you can to defend the joy you take in writing; be professional and act professionally.
As for advice I have especially for teens—advice I might give Teenage Jen, if I could go back in time and talk to her—I would say:
Be extra kind to yourself, Teenage Jen, even though being kind to yourself isn’t necessarily something that being a teenager has prepared you to do. Writing and pursuing publication is not like anything else you’ve done. It is not like getting an A in school, or studying for an exam, or working to make first string on your sports team. It is not like any of those things AT ALL.
Acceptance and rejection are not solely about what you did “right” or “wrong.” And even once you sell your first book, Teenage Jen, even once you’re living your dream, it will often be hard. Because you will be *living* it, and the reality *is* hard, and selling a book is not the end of a journey, but the beginning. Be prepared, Teenage Jen, to essentially be running your own small business, because as a professional author, that is what you will be doing. There are so many things, Teenage Jen, that go along with being a published author, other than just the writing, and if you were to decide you were not ready for that yet, that would be okay. It would not make your writing mean any less.
Do not wish away the moments you have now, Teenage Jen. The nights when you are writing, the way it makes you feel, the joy you find in telling a story, how excited you get just to get a hand-written note on the bottom of a rejection letter. Enjoy being exactly where you are, Teenage Jen, because you will eventually come to the conclusion that NONE of this is about reaching some end-point or achieving some specific thing. There is no end-point! There is only the journey.
I have so much respect for teens pursuing publication. It is wonderful to work toward a dream! But I think it’s especially important for teen writers not to put too much pressure on themselves, and especially not to give themselves arbitrary deadlines. “I want to be published by the time I’m 16!” “I want to be published before I graduate college!” “I want to be the youngest person to X!”
Because honestly, guys, IT DOES NOT MATTER. You don’t get a prize for publishing young. If you are in this career for the long haul, if it is your dream to be an author, then it really doesn’t matter how old you are when you sell your first book. Because, if all goes well, there will eventually be a second book and a third. And you may find yourself reinventing your career many times over, and by and large, PEOPLE WILL NOT CARE how old you were when you published your first book. It will, in all likelihood, be pretty much irrelevant to your career as a whole. It is much more important for your first book to be the book best suited to launching your career than it is for it to be a book that you wrote when you were however-many years old.
The last piece of advice I have for teen writers is related to something that I am very grateful that Teenage Jen did (and that Teenage Jen largely has her parents to thank for, so THANKS, MOM AND DAD), and that is this: if you are pursuing publication as a teenager, that means that you will be entering an adult professional world at a young age. There can be tons of obligations that come along with that, and I am so grateful, looking back, that I made an active effort to not let writing (or publishing) stop me from having the experiences my same-age peers were having while I was starting my career.
I had a rule in college that I couldn’t write until everyone else had gone to bed. I didn’t *always* follow it, but the reason for the rule was that I did not want to miss out on other things—experiences that I could only have at that stage in my life—because I was shut in my room writing. I had to make an active effort to say yes when people asked me to do things, to get involved in activities, to explore majors, to DO THINGS that had nothing to do with writing. As an adult, there are many times when I have made sacrifices to write. I am very, very grateful that I didn’t let myself make those same kinds of sacrifices when I was in high school and college.
After hours of revision, my eyes are fuzzy, so I was poking around my “incomplete_or_old” files. I ended up in one of the usual distractions: a 50,000 word children’s novel that I start revising every so often for fun. I have a version of it re-started as a YA, one where it’s modern, one where…
Melissa’s list of unfinished pieces sounds so reasonable! Mine include (I kid you not):
*A book about a group of teen models who, due to a mystical mishap during a fashion show, end up stranded on an eighteenth century pirate ship. (Seriously. I wrote 25,000 words on this before I realized it was CRAZY).
*A book about a girl who gets vision of the future, but only when she’s dancing. (She’s not a dancer! She’s a danseer! As in a seer!)
*A book that my good friend Sarah Cross used to refer to as the Magic Swordfish book. (I actually finished this one, but was never quite happy with it and so did nothing with it. It involved immortals and grim reapers. And a swordfish, obviously).
*A dystopian about a post-nuclear world in which a puritanical cult of vampires lives in the ruins of what used to be Yale.
All of these, I might add, were written well after the publication of my first book… We will not speak of the bits and sundries written PRIOR to that…
Hi, I saw your post about parasocial relationships, and I was wondering if you could talk a little bit more about what you do for your day job? All of this new research is fascinating to me, and I would love to know how you got involved!
I’m an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Oklahoma. There are two basic components to my job—teaching and research. I teach four classes each year: two are psychology classes, one is a professional writing class (Writing Young Adult Fiction), and one is an honors seminar called The Cognitive Science of Fiction, which brings together research and discourse from a variety of different disciplines to ask big questions about the science of fiction and why we like it. We read a lot of philosophy in that class (Aristotle and Hume, they had lots of thoughts on fiction!), plus psychology, media studies, literary criticism, and more. In general, the class challenges students to think about how we can use the scientific method to design studies that ask big questions about why people like fiction, how we interact with it, and what kinds of effects engaging with fiction might subsequently have on the way we view the world and our real-world biases, beliefs, and cognitive abilities.
The reason I chose to teach a class on the Cognitive Science of Fiction, when the university told me that I could teach any class I wanted for my honors seminar, is that it is my area of research (and also a huge passion!). As a psychology professor, in addition to teaching, I actually conduct research experiments. The way this usually works is that I will develop a question—based on prior research, or my own observations, or questions people are raising in the publishing industry—and then I brainstorm different answers to that question and design a method that will allow me to distinguish between those different answers. And then once I get the answers, I often discover that my gut instinct was wrong, and I revise my theory, and use the new theory to generate a question, and test it all over again!
So, for example, in my lab currently we’re doing a ton of different experiments. Some of them are online (some of you may have even participated in them, if you follow me on twitter), while others take place in my lab. One of the lab studies we’re doing right now is on what they call the “paradox of tragedy,” which is basically says (1) people avoid negative emotions like sadness, (2) tragic fictional stories make people feel sad, and (3) people seek out tragic fictional stories. To get out of the paradox, you presumably have to deny one of the three premises. But which one do you deny?
Philosophers have argued about this for a very long time (hello, Aristotle! Hello, Hume!), but in my lab, we’re exploring one class of answers to this question, which depends on meta-emotions, or how you feel about how you feel. Basically, we’re looking at whether people feel good about themselves for feeling sad, and whether you can push around liking for tragedy by making people feel guilty beforehand.
My lab also does a variety of other research on topics like: what is the cognitive profile of the professional fiction writer and how do they differ from non-writers and from voracious readers; how do we become attached to fictional characters and how intense are these attachments; what can fanfiction tell us about the cognitive science of fiction and why people like stories; how does fictional morality differ from real-world morality; how does reading fiction versus nonfiction differentially affect our abilities to read social and nonsocial situations? And MORE.
Basically, I have the freedom to research whatever I find interesting, and I find the way we interact with fictional worlds to be fascinating. The awesome thing about being involved in psychological research is that there is a psychology of EVERYTHING. If there are people involved, there is psychology involved. So I have been able to combine my passion for fiction and my experiences as a YA writer with my academic research.
As for how I got started, I first got into psychology research as an undergraduate. Freshman year, a friend talked me into going to work in the “monkey lab,” which studied how monkey cognition was similar to and different from human cognition. Mostly, I wanted to play with monkeys. And spend summers on Monkey Island, off the coast of puerto rico. But I got addicted to what I consider the very core of scientific research to be: asking questions and systematically testing answers. I am constantly surprised by the way research turns out, but that is why research is so important! Because some of the things we assume are true are not true, and research helps us find answers and—above all—use those answers to create even MORE QUESTIONS.
So, long story short, I got involved with designing experiments and also started volunteering in other research labs, too. I took a class on the Cognitive Science of Fiction, taught by Paul Bloom, who later became my PhD advisor, and got super interested in the topic. Then after I graduated (with a degree in cognitive science), I went and did a one-year research-based masters at Cambridge, where I did autism research. My advisor there was super supportive and suggested I do something on fiction and autism. So I did. And then I did some more researchon that topic. And then I came back to the states and did a Ph.D. in developmental psychology. My dissertation was on how kids’ story preferences and adults’ story preferences are affected by the social content in the stories, among other things.
So basically, I lucked into finding a field I love because I was blessed to work with some very passionate professors when I was an undergraduate. And now I am a very passionate professor who works with undergraduate and graduate students to do research on fiction and stories and storytelling.
Jen--Can you post the references to the studies you mentioned? I would like to read them in comparison to the work JL Derrick has done on low self-esteem and addiction.DG
Several of the studies mentioned are in fact by JL Derrick!
References (if you follow the links in the prior entry, they will take you to either abstracts or pdfs of the articles):
Gardner, W. L., & Knowles, M. L. (2008). Love makes you real: Favorite television characters are perceived as “real” in a social facilitation paradigm. Social Cognition, 26(2), 156-168.
Derrick, J. L., Gabriel, S., & Tippin, B. (2008). Parasocial relationships and self‐discrepancies: Faux relationships have benefits for low self‐esteem individuals. Personal relationships, 15(2), 261-280.
Derrick, J. L., Gabriel, S., & Hugenberg, K. (2009). Social surrogacy: How favored television programs provide the experience of belonging. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45(2), 352-362.
Eyal, K., & Cohen, J. (2006). When good friends say goodbye: A parasocial breakup study. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 50(3), 502-523.
Kidd, D. C., & Castano, E. (2013). Reading literary fiction improves theory of mind. Science, 342(6156), 377-380.
Fong, K., Mullin, J. B., & Mar, R. A. (2013). What you read matters: The role of fiction genre in predicting interpersonal sensitivity. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 7(4), 370.
Gabriel, S., & Young, A. F. (2011). Becoming a Vampire Without Being Bitten The Narrative Collective-Assimilation Hypothesis. Psychological science,22(8), 990-994.
Derrick, J. L. (2013). Energized by Television Familiar Fictional Worlds Restore Self-Control. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 4(3), 299-307.
Zunshine, L. (2006). Why we read fiction: Theory of mind and the novel. Ohio State University Press.
Zunshine, L. (2008). Theory of mind and fictions of embodied transparency.Narrative, 16(1), 65-92.
Mar, R. A., & Oatley, K. (2008). The function of fiction is the abstraction and simulation of social experience. Perspectives on psychological science, 3(3), 173-192.
Johnson, D. R. (2012). Transportation into a story increases empathy, prosocial behavior, and perceptual bias toward fearful expressions. Personality and Individual Differences, 52(2), 150-155.
Sestir, M., & Green, M. C. (2010). You are who you watch: Identification and transportation effects on temporary self-concept. Social Influence, 5(4), 272-288.
De Backer, C. J. (2012). Blinded by the starlight: An evolutionary framework for studying celebrity culture and fandom. Review of General Psychology, 16(2), 144.
Young, A. F., Gabriel, S., & Hollar, J. L. (2013). Batman to the rescue! The protective effects of parasocial relationships with muscular superheroes on men’s body image. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 49(1), 173-177.
On fandom, parasocial relationships, and what we don't know
Sarah Rees Brennan has a new post up about her experiences (some of them heart-breaking) as a now-published author who used to write fanfiction. It’s well worth a read, especially for the way it highlights the role that gender may play in these issues.
What this post made me think about is the parallel between the way we view and understand fictional characters and the way we view and understand real people that we do not actually know. There’s a long tradition of research in media studies on what they call “parasocial relationships,” which are one-sided relationships formed with (for example) TV personalities, fictional characters, or celebrities. The basic idea is that it’s easy to fool our brains into thinking we know someone. If you see someone a lot—on television, in magazines, or even just on your twitter feed—of course you start to feel like you know that person. In the course of our evolutionary history, if you saw or heard someone that often, you almost certainly did know them.
But that’s not the case in the modern world. And that’s where you get parasocial relationships, which are, by definition, one-sided. Spend enough time reading interviews with Jennifer Lawrence or read enough celebrity gossip about Taylor Swift, and you start to feel like you really know them. It’s one-sided because they do not know you.
Long story short, there is a ton of super interesting research that documents a tendency to view fictional characters and real people we don’t know (like celebrities) much like we view real people who we actually know. This can be wonderful! Oh, the fictional friends I have made! But this tendency also has the potential to come with a variety of side-effects, because while fiction is often purposefully written to make certain we know tons of stuff about the personalities, backgrounds, inner workings, flaws, strengths, moral status, and emotional cores of the characters on the page, this is not true of parasocial interactions with real people. When your brain tricks you into thinking that you really know a fictional character, there are many ways in which that is true. But when real people are involved?
It’s not true. It’s not true at all.
In my day job, I study the science of fiction and why we like stories and what the cognitive effects of engaging with fictional characters and fictional worlds might be. In this field, we’re starting to see evidence that reading fiction might improve (or otherwise be related to) the ability to get inside other people’s heads: to read their emotions, and understand what they think and believe so forth. People like Lisa Zunshine and Raymond Mar and Keith Oatley have all kinds of wonderful papers (and books!) on this relationship between spending time with fictional characters and being able to read real people.
How does this work? It’s early days, still, so we don’t really know. But what does seem to be true is that fiction often gives us a front row seat to people’s emotions and relationships and thoughts and beliefs and desires in a way that reality usually does not. In the real world, you might infer, based on the fact that someone bolts in the middle of their father’s funeral, that they are upset or overwhelmed. You might even feel like you know that. But in fiction, you often do know it—you see the before and the after and the moment when the character lets him/herself break down because there is no one there to see it.
But in reality? We don’t have this kind of access. In life, there is no author or director making sure we have the information we need to have in order to understand the “characters.” As a result, in the real world, we only perceive ourselves as knowing what other people are thinking and feeling. We make inferences based on behavioral cues, but we have no direct access to their minds. Oftentimes, we can guess and guess well, but it’s always that… a guess.
What does all of this have to do with Sarah’s post?
I think that a lot of the negative experiences that Sarah talks about female authors (specifically those who used to write fanfic) having are the result of people feeling like they know things that they could not possibly know. Like what an author was thinking when they wrote XYZ character, or what the author’s intention was when they did/said that one thing, or why Author X is friends with Author Y.
In fiction, you frequently (though not always) have the access you need to make conclusions about characters’ mental states and motivations with a high level of certainty. Most of the time in reality, you do not—especially if the people you’re attributing mental states and intentions and dispositions to are people you do not actually know, people you are watching from afar.
Reading Sarah’s post made me wonder if those of us who engage with fiction frequently and passionately and, yes, through fandom, writing stories and daydreaming about characters and diagnosing their motivations—I wonder if that level of engagement could potentially have very real cognitive effects on us, beyond what has already been studied. On the one hand, that kind of engagement might actually make us better at understanding people. But at the same time, I think it quite possibly increases our perceptions of how good we are at doing that, beyond what is actually possible. Regular engagement with fiction—particularly active engagement through fandom—might fool us into thinking, even more than people who are less engaged with fiction, that we really, truly know what other people are thinking or intending and who they are deep down.
Might we get into the habit of telling ourselves stories about real people’s motivations, the same way that fandom thinks about and expands on the inner lives of the characters in the books and television shows we love? And might this trick us, in real-world settings, into forgetting that these stories, in our minds, about these people who are REAL—are not real themselves?
The stories we tell ourselves are just that—stories. They are, at best, guesses, and often, they’re not very good ones. We do not have special access to another person’s thoughts or emotions, no matter how much we’ve read about them. We do not “really know” them better than the people they are close to in real life. It is not in any way rational to think that, based on your familiarity with someone’s writing or twitter feed or something you were peripherally involved with ten years ago, you have superior knowledge of that person’s current mental states, emotions, personality, and moral proclivities than do people who currently hang out with that person on a daily basis.
And yet, this happens. It happens all the time. We judge people not just on their actions, but on the stories we tell ourselves about those actions, not just on their work, but on the stories we tell ourselves about how we think that work came to be. And there are very real reasons to think that the people who might be most prone to this feeling—that we really know someone, that we understand their intentions and emotions and motivations and inspirations—are those of us who spend the most time in fictional worlds, with fictional characters, telling ourselves stories about them.
This is what I was thinking when I read Sarah’s blog entry. I was thinking about parasocial relationships and the way we perceive mental states and how fiction can fool you into thinking those perceptions are more than guesses. I was thinking about the way that gender almost certainly plays a role in what those guesses end up being. And I was thinking that it would probably do a world of good if we made more of an active effort to remind ourselves of all the things we don’t know.
In my inboxes I see so many questions that start with a phrase meant to apologize for asking the question in the message. They start with some version of “sorry to bother you” or “This is probably a silly question” etc. I’d say that almost 100% of those are from girls & women.
In daily life I…
“Please don’t apologize for being inquisitive or for having opinions. Be proud that you’re curious and clever. It’s good to have thoughts & questions.”
Yes, yes, a million times yes.
Im such a nobody. And theres nothing I can even do about it. I realky relate to Nix and Claire.
When I sign copies of NOBODY, the inscription I write on the inside always reads: “YOU ARE SEEN.”
So. You, dear reader, are seen.
In high school, I held a secret, but very firm belief that I was somehow inherently unlikable and annoying—that no matter how hard I tried or how nice I was or what I did, I would never be someone that other people would want around. Whatever evidence I received to the contrary, from friends outside of my high school or from my family, I attributed to their awesomeness, not my own. I genuinely believed that, by and large, the most I could hope for was to be tolerated, and that people who tolerated me were doing me a favor (and that it wasn’t their fault if they were sometimes cruel, because I just brought that out in people).
It couldn’t be everyone else, I told myself. It had to be me.
But as it turned out… it really was not me. I went on to college and found a place where I felt like I belonged. I slowly became more comfortable in my own skin. I found more and more people I loved who loved me back, not in spite of who I was, but because of who I was.
So to all of you out there who feel like no one sees you, or like there’s something wrong with you, or like you’ll never find your place, I send you hugs and love and the promise that when my mother told me it would get better, I never believed her.
These titles appear on both the 2014 Best Fiction for Young Adults and Quick Picks for Reluctant Readers lists.
Barnes, Jennifer Lynn. The Naturals. Disney, 2013; 9781423168232; $17.99.
The FBI wants Cassie to join a secret team of profilers and a serial killer wants her as his next victim.
I find these overlapping titles to be fascinating. These are the books I always want to make sure I have in my library since they’re excellent books and have strong appeal for your eager and less-than-eager readers.
I am so ecstatic that THE NATURALS made both the Best Fiction for Young Adults list and the Quick Picks for Reluctant Readers list. I’ve now put all of these other books on my To Read list! (Except, of course, for the ones I’ve already read!)
If you follow me on twitter, you may have noticed that for the past several months, I’ve been making reference to my SECRET PROJECT. It’s been a year in the making—a year of writing and working and submitting and not saying a word about it, but now I can tell you, happily, that my secret project is a YA political thriller in the vein of SCANDAL. See below:
From Publisher’s Marketplace
Jennifer Lynn Barnes’s THE FIXER, a political thriller set against the backdrop of an elite Washington D.C. private school, pitched as part Veronica Mars, part Scandal, the younger sister of a powerful political fixer finds herself embroiled in high stakes and intrigue at her new school, to Catherine Onder at Bloomsbury Children’s, in a two-book deal, by Elizabeth Harding at Curtis Brown.
The first book is due out in Spring 2015. I’ve already finished a draft. There are state dinners and political conspiracies and family drama and SISTERS!
Several years ago, some writing friends and I rented a castle in Ireland! On the way home from Writing Castle, I got stranded in the Atlanta airport overnight. I was very sleepy, but also afraid that my stuff would get stolen, so I zipped my purse and my laptop under my jacket and tied my bag to my legs and fell asleep in an airport chair.
If you could be a disney princess which one would you be?
If I were a Disney Princess, I suspect I would be Belle from Beauty and the Beast—mostly due to the “always reading a book (often while multi-tasking)” thing.
But! I also related a lot to both of the main characters in FROZEN (which I loved!). So my alternative answer is “part Anna, part Elsa.” I’d say I’m an odd, fifty-fifty split of these two sisters who seem to have very little in common.
So I guess that leaves me with Belle + Elsa + Anna = Bellelsanna. But you can call me Jen.
Is there a specific place you go to get all of these details about the psychology behind The Naturals's character's thoughts? Did you learn it from taking classes in psychology or did you use the internet? This is confusing, sorry, what I'm trying to ask is, you, as the writer, would have to have deep insight on the things that the characters had specialized gifts in, in order to write the novel. so is there a website a reader like me could learn some things like that as well? thanks <3
A lot of the psychology in THE NATURALS is just stuff I’ve picked up over the past decade, since I spend most of my non-writing time doing psychology-related things.
(I am a psychology professor, so I have a whole slew of degrees in psychology/psychiatry/cognitive science… and my job consists of (1) teaching psychology classes and (2) doing psychology research).
So to a certain extent, THE NATURALS was a “write what you know” kind of thing, rather than something I decided to write and then researched.
And the most frequently asked question in my inbox right now is…
And the answer is…
Yes! There is a second book in the NATURALS series. It is due out in November. We have a title for book 2. I have seen a mock-up of the cover. And I am signing off on the official book description right now. I should be able to share those things with you guys in the coming months. I can’t wait!
Also: thank you to all of you who have written to tell me you read the first book! It always makes my day to hear from you, and I cannot WAIT for you guys to get a sneak peek at book two…
Are the statistics in The Naturals accurate? I just finished it and it was amazing!
Sloane’s statistics in THE NATURALS were derived in one of two ways. Some of them are actual, verified statistics (such as, for instance, the fact that red-haired individuals require more anesthesia and are more likely to wake up on the table). Others are guesstimates I calculated myself (such as Sloane’s commentary while watching television). These two methods of deriving statistics actually match the way Sloane’s brain works: she remembers all of the statistics she reads, but her brain also continually calculates statistics and probabilities based on her own experiences.