Tag Archives: psychological writing series

Psychological Writing Series: Honesty and Truth

I know, I know.  You’re learning way too much about moi through this series, but please bear with me.  And promise not to hold any of my childhood naughtiness against me, as I have learned some restraint in the intervening years.

Honesty.  Or rather the lack of it–as my story goes.

I was the world’s biggest liar as a kid. 

“Did you lose your earring?”  Nope.  Really, that’s not it in the heater vent where I dropped it two days ago.  Even if it looks exactly the same as the one in my ear right now.  Even if I spent hours trying to fish it out before you noticed it was missing.

I lied my way into and out of things.  I also lied myself into the corner more often than I could count.  Seriously.  I might as well have had my name on the living room corner for all the time I spent with my nose in it.

According to Merriam-Webster, honesty is “adherence to the facts: sincerity.”  I could argue this point, as I was very sincere in every one of my lies.  But if I don’t try to twist the definition, it really comes down to this: honesty equals the truth. 

 Or does it?

I’ve worked as a child advocate for many years and the most eye-opening thing I’ve learned is this: there is no such thing as absolute truth.  Instead, we all bring our experiences to the table when we interpret and remember the facts of an incident. 

Example: ask five witnesses to a crime the same exact question and you will get five variations of the “facts.”  Sometimes these factual accounts can differ so tremendously as to ring false.  Yet each witness is providing the absolute truth–according to them.

Confused yet?

I’ll simplify.  Remember back to the last disagreement you had with your significant other, parent or friend.  Now, what happened?  That’s right, really think about what happened.  Try to remember the exact words that were used. Where you were standing.  How you crossed your arms over your chest or tapped your foot. 

Now what does that look like from your adversary’s perspective?  Will s/he remember the exact same words, the places you both stood, how you looked and what you did?  Maybe they didn’t watch your toe tap, but noticed the ear tug and scrunching eyebrows.

Did someone see or hear this conflict?  I bet s/he remembers something else as well.

And yet when recounting the incident, you will all swear your version is true because that’s what you remember. For realsies, people cannot recount the absolute truth.  Our personalities, past experiences, moods and focus all affect how we see and feel things at any given time.  I call this personal truth.

Conflicting personal truths can make navigating relationships extremely difficult both in real life and in fiction.  Especially when each party is sincere in his/her version of the truth.

Often, however, confused is what we want our characters to feel.  In romance novels, it benefits us to have our characters misinterpret intentions.  In thrillers, we need to plant seeds of doubt in our MC’s mind about what is happening and how it happened.  This confusion creates conflict.

As writers, it is our job to know the facts of our tale.  Only then can we effectively allow our characters to bend the truth to fit their life experiences and personalities.  When each character is sincere and honest in their version of events, our stories retain natural conflict just like in real life.  And this, my fellow scribes, is the absolute truth.

Does recounting a personal truth make someone a liar?  How do we, as writers, learn to see all the variations one truth has to offer?  How do we reconcile this for our characters and, in real life, for ourselves?  Can the ability to understand the inherent falsity of truth make us more honest?

Curious minds want to know.

PS: my spellchecker isn’t working at the moment, so please forgive any typos!

Personality Post on From the Write Angle

Please join me on From the Write Angle for a post on Nature and Nuture as I continue discussing the psychology of creating characters.

Thanks so much and see you back here tomorrow with another post  on my Psychological Writing Series.

hugs~

Psychological Writing Series: Integrity

My absolute favorite quote comes from William Backus.  In TELLING EACH OTHER THE TRUTH, he writes:

“The concept behind personal integrity is wholeness. When a person is the same without as within, when what others know about him is the same truth he knows about himself, he has integrity.”
 
I love the poetry of these words and the very clear message they send.  Personal integrity is acting out what you believe and believing what you do.  It is honesty at its finest.
 
As a child, I distinctly remember The Summer.  The one where I got caught snarking behind someone’s back.  My sister and I were visiting rellies.  Our aunt and uncle took us to visit extended family on the other side of the relations. 
 
We’d done it before and I loved the experience.  Okay, I loved the bologna sandwiches my uncle’s dad made.  He put lettuce in them and it rocked my socks off.  What I didn’t love was my uncle’s little sister.  For the life of me, I can’t remember why.  Likely it was me being a booger and not through any fault of her own. 
 
Yet, this didn’t stop me from complaining about her to my sister–in private.  I guess I didn’t realize that hiding behind a camper in the dark wasn’t private, because my aunt over-heard and I got my rear end chewed.
 
I learned a valuable lesson that day.  If you don’t have the guts to say something to the person’s face, you have no business saying it at all.  Apparently I hadn’t taken Thumper’s mom seriously and needed to learn this through my own embarrassment and humiliation.
 
Integrity.  Who am I and does the inside match the outside?
 
Lack of integrity is probably the easiest conflict we can give our characters.  Learning it through the events of a story can help our characters change and grow.  Losing it can create more conflict than we have imaginations to capture on paper.
 
INTEGRITY QUESTIONS TO PONDER
  • Can a person have integrity and still be villainous, or does integrity always mean being good?
  • Do you agree with Mr. Backus and his definition of integrity?  If not, how would you change it?
  • Can you compromise your integrity and still have it?
  • What if you are better on the inside than you show the world?  If these two don’t match, can you still be considered as having integrity?  What if the opposite is true?
  • And does it really matter if you truly have integrity or just fake it?

I like the idea of wholeness in the characters I write.  It gives me boundaries to work with so I know how they will react much of the time.  For example: my current chapter book MC only believes in the facts.  Whimsy has no place in her life.  Therefore, when she’s asked a question, her answer is always the unadulterated truth.   Makes it easy for me as a writer…not so easy for her to live with the consequences.

In my young adult novel, my MC had ideals about who she was.  They didn’t match with what she showed the real world.  Striving to reach this place in her life drove her to seek painful answers.  Her desire for integrity (and self-preservation) motivated her. 

Likewise, the antagonist in my YA exuded a smooth exterior, yet was hideous on the inside.  To make his nasty deeds ring true, I had to show small fissures in his exterior all the way through.  The hints were subtle, but there.  In this way, readers are more willing to accept the outcome.

Good, bad or indifferent, writers must maintain consistency in their characters’ behavior.  By keeping in mind the wholeness that comes along with integrity, we can create strong characters with depth.  Also, when we challenge their personal integrity, we can ramp up the conflict within our stories on an internal level that rivals any external difficulties our characters may face.

How do you use integrity to create physical conflict for your characters?  How do you challenge your character’s inner sense of integrity?  What literary examples do you have of characters with strong integrity? 

Lastly, can a good character lack integrity?

Curious minds want to know.

Psychological Writing Series: Honor

Once upon a time, I provided child care as my day job.  It allowed to me to stay home and raise my family in the way I wanted to.  After all, I had a lifetime ahead of me to work.

When my oldest kids were about four and two, I had taken my little crew of daycare children on a field trip to the store.  After purchasing our items, we prepared to leave.  Just before we walked out, the dismal sky opened up in a torrential downpour.  While I debated whether to wait it out or drag six kids into the rain, the tornado sirens went off.

We hustled back inside and gathered with the other patrons in the home goods’ section.  We cuddled pillows and prepared to pull sleeping bags over our heads to protect us from the impending disaster.

The news reported the path of the tornado over the loudspeakers. 

“…sighting four miles from town…”

“…touched down…”

“…two miles and moving fast…”

All the while, I sat on the floor with six kids in the circle of my outstretched legs.  On the outside, I talked with them, sang to them and laughed with them.  But inside, I wrestled with the greatest question of my life.

If the tornado hit the store, which children would I hold onto the tightest?  Would I hug my two babies to my chest and pray that the other four wouldn’t get swept away?  Or, would I cling to the four children in my care who didn’t have their own parents to protect them and ask God to save my own when I didn’t have the ability to do it myself?

And where is the honor in any of those answers?

Honor = integrity, respect and adherence to ethical standards.

Honor can be a huge motivator for the characters we love.  And yet, it often feels stilted, as if the writer tried too hard to make his character too noble, too good, too perfect. 

Readers often scream, “No way.  She’d never do that.” 

What we really mean is, “No way.  I’d never do that.”

You see, people are inherently flawed.  We are selfish and proprietary where our wants and needs are concerned.  It is very hard for us to set aside what we desire to do something honorable.  It’s counter-intuitive to be a loving parent and hold onto someone else’s children.  Yet, it’s unethical to vow to protect another’s child and fail to do the absolute most you can when danger swoops down from the sky.

But people do make hard choices in life and honor often leads the way.  We have firemen who walk into burning buildings.  We have police officers who take a bullet and we have everyday citizens who step forward to rescue others at grave danger to themselves. 

Honor is making a name for yourself and adhering to the standard you set out to achieve.  Sometimes we do this unintentionally and don’t even realize that living up to that name is nearly impossible.  Whose children do we hold onto, indeed?

The more integrity a character has, the more she has to lose.  This makes for great conflict in a novel.  Likewise, the realization that a seemingly average character has honor can drive a novel forward and create a satisfying climax…but only if done well.

I think too often, we have honorable characters without other flaws.  Nobody loves a goody-two-shoes in real life, and having a perfect MC will do nothing but incite a riot in our readers.  On the other hand, suddenly allowing our MCs to jump through burning hoops and plow through blizzards in a t-shirt without laying the groundwork will ring false and have readers tossing our novels in disgust.   

Readers: who is the most honorable character you’ve ever read and why do you think so?  Is it possible to have a fabulous novel with an outstanding and lovable Main Character who is not honorable?

Writers: what tips do you have for balancing a character’s personality to include a strong sense of honor?  How can we create believable honor in an unexpected hero?

All: Whose children would have gotten the tightest grip from you?  (You don’t really need to answer this.)  Is honor even possible in a situation where no matter what you choose the consequences will lead to heartache?

Curious minds want to know.