How to Write People: One Socially Inept Writer's Hopeless and Sisyphean Struggle to Capture the Complexities of Human Social Behavior in Prose
We’ve all met them, the people who are people people. They have an intuitiveunderstanding of their fellow human beings which allows them to give touching gifts, make funny jokes, and avoid awkward silences even with people they don’t know. Were these people to write, they would write realistic characters who’d pop off of the page like a celebrity foldout book.
But what if we’re not people people? Well for us, there’s cognitive psychology.
Now, mind you, I’d never recommend that you seek psychological help in the traditional sense; after all, I like you just the way you are—particularly that silly little way you have of trying to pass off your personal brand of insanity as being “eclectic.” No really! It gives you character. And you’re a writer, too, so I expect you to be comprehensively kooky. But cognitive psychologists have discovered some gems that have raised my character development to the next level, and I bet they can do the same for you. So let’s look at the Principle of Reciprocity and how combining this with indirect speech is a better way to make your characters appear to be real than the more traditional method of asking your readers to experiment with hallucinogens.
Now you’ve certainly noticed that there are differing levels of expectation for different relationships. We experience reciprocity in communal(family), exchange(friends), and dominance(your superiors or subordinates) on a day today basis.
For instance, if I invite you to my house and communally offer you some sweet tea, I’d be miffed if you tried to pay for it. Whenever there is a break in reciprocity expectation there is often serious tension.
So let’s see this in fiction!
In Conan the Barbarian, Conan, having become a jewel thief, gets drunk with his accomplice, the warrior/babe Valeria. She tries to steal a ruby from him, breaking their reciprocal relationship. Rather than react negatively, Conan unexpectedly gives her the jewel as a gift. He not only forgives her transgression, he offers a communal brand of reciprocity while doing so. This interaction makes their affection suddenly believable.
If I need my feminist protagonist to have a working relationship, I might have her alternate paying for dinner with her date. This mimics a communal reciprocity. If I want her relationship to be on the rocks, I can automatically lower the reader’s expectation of their intimacy by having her split the check at every meal—which doesn’t even mimic reciprocity at all. While these transactions are only a hint towards their relationship’s health, such hints can develop a resonance with the rest of the clues the author drops.
Playing with levels of reciprocity between your characters gives your fictional relationships a level of legitimacy that separates them from the ho-hum interactions in your competition's stories. Imagine a girl flirting with her waiter. Imagine a boy with a crush on a girl in an elementary school playground. Imagine a person assigned to torture a prisoner of war. How can these people show that they want to change their levels of reciprocity?
But does this technique alone give your fictional relationships the much needed veneer of legitimacy which will separate your prose from pack? No. Using Indirect Speech in conjunction with a touch of body language and the Principle of Reciprocity, however, will make your characters come alive.
Well, what’s Indirect Speech, you might ask? What body language is the most effective in accentuating the interpersonal dynamic of our protagonists? What do Joe Bastianich, Steve Buscemi, and Steven Pinker have to do with all of this?
Find answers to these questions and more in: How to Write People: One Socially Inept Writer’s Hopeless and Sisyphean Struggle to Capturethe Complexities of Human Social Behavior in Prose, Part II! (coming soon).