I once had a friend who decided he was going to change careers. He dreamed of abandoning his spreadsheets to become a psychiatrist. He couldn’t see anything more worthwhile in life than discovering the inner workings of humans. I agreed. But gee, it takes around 11 years to get qualified. Sounds like a long time, doesn’t it? Crazy decision (pun intended).
That was around 15 years ago and I had already been writing a good ten years before we had that conversation. He’s been happily treating patients for about 4 years now. Yet only now do I feel confident that the actions and thoughts of my characters reflect the behaviours and emotions of real people. I guess the joke’s on me!
While my friend was up to his armpits in biology, hospital rotations and Freud, I was tapping away at my keyboard and reading about human behaviour and psychology in a much more digestible form.
I couldn’t tell you what brain chemicals might activate when my heroine sets eyes on her hero for the first time. But I make sure you understand from her clenched teeth and sharp tone it’s going to be a rocky road for them. And later down the track you’ll find out exactly what happened to her in the past to cause that reaction. You can bet your ass it’ll be realistic.
My point is, learning the statistics and evidence behind human behaviour while we then observe the people around us is the best possible way to understand human behaviour. (And when I say people, not just friends and acquaintances, but criminals and people in the spotlight). We need to become psychoanalysts if our work is to reflect reality.
If you’re wondering where to start, some of the earliest books I read were the self-help classics: Influence by Robert Cialdini and How To Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. Then I moved onto what I like to think of my examination-of-the-toilet-of-humanity phase, reading books like The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker and 101 Lies Men Tell Women and Why Women Believe Them by Dory Hollander. In amongst there was some philosophy and ethics. Then I moved onto transcripts of criminal court cases and a little bit of family court and elder abuse. I also studied economic history to learn why the state of the economy is mostly influenced by peoples expectations.
If that sounds like hard work, maybe it helps to know you’ll learn how to be a better person in the process. Why, for example, is it realistic for your protagonist to be sweating up a storm, stumbling over his words and wearing his t-shirt back to front, but his love interest doesn’t notice? Psychologist Thomas Gilovich’s research at Cornell University tells us so. Next time you’re stressing about how you look, rest assured no one will notice.