by Lazarus Black
I was an advertising creative director. That experience gives me an advantage in writing characters, but anyone can learn what I know, if you are willing to change.
Psychology is the study of how the individual humans think and behave. Sociology is the study of humans in groups, how they influence group thinking and behavior. Advertising uses those methods to deliberately influence thinking and behavior.
How does this relate to writing? Well, unless one is writing technical manuals, writing is primarily about people. An author designs and develops characters with specific traits and triggers, then introduces them to events they must react to. Whether these events are outside of their control or the consequences of their actions, every character will react differently.
For example, if a human walks into a dimly lit garage in the middle of the night, they are going to think and behave completely differently based upon their mentality, emotional state, biology, ethnicity, cultural expectations, level of education, etc.
Authors either design their characters after people they know or people they imagine. The latter is the challenge, and risks prejudice and stereotypes. It takes great care and consideration of real-life human beings to imagine a character who can authentically interact with the story. My career in advertising gives me an advantage over many authors, in that I know how to study people to understand how they think and behave, and I've proven my research with results (meaning inspiring them to buy my millions of client's products).
One of my idols is a marketer named Clotaire Rapaille. Clotaire started out as a psychologist studying non-verbal children. He eventually applied his skills to market research across language and cultural barriers. His first assignment was to figure out how to sell coffee in Japan. The problems were multi-tiered: Japan had a tradition of drinking tea, the company introducing coffee didn't understand the Japanese language or culture, and the Japanese were resistant to teaching their language and culture to foreigners. Through a thorough process similar to Active Listening combined with behavioral research bypassing spoken language, Clotaire successfully introduced coffee products to Japan. He not only figured out the Japanese way of thinking and behaving, he understood it so well that he could manipulate it.
How? This is the bit that bothers people. No one likes to believe they can be "figured out". And in part, that's true. Every individual is a complex collection of traits and triggers unique to themselves. However, each of the hundreds of traits and triggers are still shared by a segment of the population. Maybe as a whole, each person in unique, but everyone who shares a trait thinks the same way and everyone who shares a trigger reacts the same way.
"Everyone lies." —Clotaire Rapaille
To learn about someone, study their behavior — not their words. People will always say what will benefit them best, truth or not. And even if they speak the truth, it's only the truth as they understand it. The deeper truth is that few people truly understand themselves. Clotaire calls it a person's "Lizard Brain". It's a primeval decision-maker inside a person that shapes one's consciousness and makes it incredibly difficult to change. He gives the example that millions of people said they wanted smaller, more fuel-efficient cars, and then went out and bought the biggest SUVs they could, finding every possible justification for it besides the Truth deep inside them. Unravelling the Truth behind a person's Lizard Brain is a long and arduous process, and it's very easy for one's own ego to override the evidence. But it can and has been done, with proofs to the tune of trillions of dollars worth of commerce.
I won't claim to be as good as Mr. Rapaille, however his techniques aren't a secret or hard to do - they just require years of dedication to the craft, and a constant flexibility to change one's understanding as research changes. Because people change — I change.
To create authentic 'other' character one must learn how others think, intimately, until they are no longer the 'other'. Easier said than done, because it requires more than simply reading or listening, it requires changing your own perspective to appreciate another's. And that change could be permanent. After learning how to think like someone else, one must apply that knowledge and behave like them.
When designing characters different from myself, I internalize their ways of thinking and behaving that may contradict my own. The best way to do that is to find connections between my own traits/triggers and theirs.
My character Baizhen is a woman assigned-male-at-birth (the preferred terminology at the time of blogging this). There were many challenges to represent her as authentically as possible. But according to October Santerelli, a professional sensitivity reader for Transgender issues, I succeeded.
Baizhen's story is too complicated to explain in depth, but here is one of the many techniques I used to inhabit her: Being assigned-male-at-birth comes with a conflict about one's physical body that expresses in confusion and frustration that can lead towards negative emotions like depression and self-hatred if not managed with care. This is commonly called Body Dysmorphia, but many people suffer from it for different reasons. Body Dysmorphia suffered by CIS people can lead to eating disorders and self-harm, for instance. Well, it just so happened that I have had a history with Body Dysmorphia myself. To a much smaller degree than Baizhen, but it still existed. I had those days as a teenager where I cried myself to sleep, begging to heal or have a different condition. I couldn't bear to be in public. For several years, my personality changed from gregarious to melancholy and sarcastic. My social life suffered, but whether from my mood or my obvious medical condition is anybody's guess. It's not like I had any friends to support me during that time. Eventually, my condition subsided (or rather, hid from the public) and I returned to my earlier happy self... With one exception. I never forgot that feeling and I forever feel great sympathy for others who have ever suffered it at any level. In this case, Baizhen's condition was much more serious, with more complications, and much much less easy to resolve. It wouldn't just go away. So, like a method actor, whenever writing her, I infused that experience and sensitivity into me. Oh! But most importantly, I had to remember that not every single moment of my life was obsessed with that condition. I had some friends and played sports and did okay at school and played games. It wasn't a tragic longing every moment of my existence, and I couldn't imagine it being that way for her. She woke up every day as herself with things that mattered to her outside of her Body Dysmorphia. It was only in certain moments, when one memories of the difference between who you want to be and who you really are flare to the surface and the hammer falls heavy on your heart. She has friends and relationships. She has a job to do and people to take care of. She has hobbies and passions that shape her as much — if not more — than the pain. And that's where the authenticity comes from. She is more complicated than a single trait and her thoughts are more full than desperation. All of that affected her actions and reactions.
Ultimately, I'm not telling someone else's story at all. Or her story. I'm telling our story.Because in those moments she is thinking, I'm the one thinking. When she is feeling, I'm the one feeling. And when she doing, I am the one doing.
This is how I write every character I imagine, no matter how close or far they may be to me.
So, when people ask me "what makes you qualified" or "why are you the right person" to write these stories, there is no quip for that, no sound-bite answer that doesn't sound trite. And no one would believe it, anyway.
Am I perfect? Nobody is perfect. But I have trained and tried for longer than most.
Which is why this entire process is the of my novel: Bell of the True Dragon.