The Soft Sciences

I would argue that to be a good writer, you need only to understand the human psyche. To be a great writer, you must delve more deeply into the interactions of humans, social and otherwise, than most people think possible. Not, necessarily, to psychoanalyze people – I have issues with psychology as a science, hence the title – but to truly understand what makes them tick, and to be able to predict what they will do faced with a given situation. Only that reaction isn’t going to be the same from person to person. One will freeze and be unable to react when the sound of gunfire rings out. Others will run toward it, knowing lives are at stake and even if they must lay down their life, they must respond in times of crisis. As a writer, one of these is the hero, the other the forlorn sidekick – not the antagonist. The antagonist is not a yellow-bellied white-feathered coward, and it would be a mistake to write him so.

I’ve been listening to a lot of true crime podcasts recently (along with a lot of history ones, and you can find a partial listening recommendation list here) and it’s struck me that the most evil of men are often convinced that either they are going about things in a somehow just way, by their very warped views, or they simply do not care about others. Other human beings are not human to them. This arrogance is often also their downfall. The society around them notices how cold they are, and start looking askance at them, and finally someone says something, and the dots begin to be connected and it all falls down on the villain. If you’re writing mysteries, it’s fascinating to study actual crimes, and to see how they worked, didn’t work, and how much was gotten away with. Which brings me to the chilling part – there are an awful lot of unsolved mysteries out there. A lot of people who were killed or taken, and we don’t know by whom, or why. Some of the podcasts I listen to spin off into crazy conspiracies (although the minute one says ‘Aliens!’ unironically I’m unsubscribing), which again are interesting plot threads a writer can gather up into their fiction.

We all bring our biases to our writing, and it shows. Take, for instance, Diederik Stapel, who didn’t start out to write fiction, but wound up doing so. Which wouldn’t be so bad, except that he was passing off the fiction as fact – worse, as science with what purported to be carefully gathered data. He made assumptions about how people would react in certain situations – that they would behave badly when surrounded by a trashy setting, for instance, and then when they didn’t react the way he wanted them to, he made up the data. “He insisted that he loved social psychology but had been frustrated by the messiness of experimental data, which rarely led to clear conclusions. His lifelong obsession with elegance and order, he said, led him to concoct sexy results that journals found attractive.” In other words, he knew what the journals and editors and his peers wanted to see about human behavior, and he gave it to them. Even though it was untrue. Even though it sometimes flew in the face of real human behaviours. His fellows wanted to see people as racist, as greedy, as unkind, so that’s what the science said. Only it wasn’t actually the science, and reality is rarely neat and tidy when you are talking about human beings.

Which is why I’m not suggesting that as students of human interactions, we writers ought to turn to scientific papers to deepen our understanding and make us better writers. Instead, I’ll advocate for things like the true crime podcasts, or the talk radio style shows I enjoy (the encouraging ones, not the ones with “Aliens!” in them). Don’t listen to the news, turn to other sources like sitting in the park people watching, or observing the fellow humans at work with you (if you have a day job. If you don’t, consider spending some time volunteering, perhaps in a nursing home where stories more amazing than any inside a magazine’s covers can be had). Be wary of autobiographies and even biographies, but read those, too. Read about the weird and mysterious and pay attention to the side characters, because in those you will often find the human behavior that the central characters lack, having been caricatured into something more than human. I can recommend Dead Mountain: The Untold True Story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident as a good example of what I mean.

Read outside of your own culture, too, especially for those of us who write fantasy and science fiction. I read Peter Grant’s daily blog, and something that he got jumped on for writing struck me: he was relating that African culture is different than American (well, duh) and got nasty comments for it. Don’t be like the commentators who got up in his face for simply reporting truth. “The same goes for our dealings with other races, societies, cultures and nations. They don’t see things as we do, and probably never will. That’s not to say we, or they, are right or wrong. It’s just the way it is.” As writers of strange and exotic cultures, it’s our job to make those cultures unique and internally consistent. Not to simply transport the culture we grew up in out into space (or back in time to the medieval setting of so many fantasy novels). That’s not how real societies work. They change, and evolve, and a hundred years from now the concerns of today will be outdated and quaint (or considered patently harmful).

I’ve been house-hunting, along with the ever-patient First Reader, for over a month now. One thing I’ve learned? Even in the greater Dayton area, what one person thinks is a perfectly sane and adequate living space arrangement is another person’s horror show. I mean, we’re not even talking about the house with the rat poo in the master bedroom, the overpowering smell of cat wee, and the wiring strung along the floor joists under the leaky kitchen sink. Any sane woman would run screaming from that house. No, I’m talking about the one with the massive stone planter in the living room, the closet located halfway up the stairs with no landing, and the shotgun bedrooms. Don’t even get me started on the shotgun bathrooms (plural. Yes, I have been in more than one house where you had to reach a bedroom by passing through the bathroom, and furthermore, that was the only bathroom in the house).

People are amazing strange. As a writer, capturing that without being too close to reality for fiction is key to making our work just a little bit more than pedestrian. The best way to learn about people? Go poke around in their closets. Watch them when they think no-one is listening. Read weird crime stories. And then? Go write!

37 thoughts on “The Soft Sciences

  1. Good advice. Worked a service industry job for years. Different shifts, different locations, different jobs actually. Seeing fellow human beings at there best and more often worst gives you many resources for writing people. Worst case is sometimes how you react to the jobs eventually will also give you an idea of how to write protagonists. Good example is the slow fall from idealism to pragmatism to “f*ck them”.

    1. Any kind of client-facing job is great for learning more than you wanted to know about people. I worked in a department store, and later, a convenience store, for a few years in my distant youth. And yet, I still like (most) people.

  2. You have seen some truly strange homes. The ones I viewed before buying this one were more pedestrian. Of course, there was the home I did not buy that had a bathtub in the kitchen…directly in front of a plate glass picture window.

    1. Big windows in the bathroom was The In Thing for a few years in the 1990s-early 2000s. I have no idea why, nor do I ever want one, although I did encounter something similar in an art-hotel in Dresden.

      1. I would actually like to have big windows around the bathtub on three sides — but outside the windows would be a small garden with a tall solid fence. Or maybe a greenhouse full of plants. If we lived in a tropical climate, I’d have a bathtub outdoors with a plant screen around it. I like lots of light and I like lots of plants….

        1. Or have the big window stop at waist level (assuming you don’t have a showerhead. I prefer the shower separate anyway.).

  3. Aliens. Terrestrial humans with alien culture. We catch some of the serial killers because they are sick, dysfunctional people with screws loose. Some of the Native American cultures had elements that somewhat overlapped with some of the stuff serial killers come up with.

    I’ve wondered a few times if one of the extant Indian tribes could be containing a small conspiracy that is extremely carefully causing and concealing unexplained disappearances.

    1. If the coincidences of how often known serial killers crossed paths isn’t fodder for good conspiracy theories, then nothing is.

      Unfortunately, no conspiracy theory is necessary for disappearances. People just don’t want to know. When I left the Twin Falls/Burley area, over half a dozen girls had gone missing over the period of about a year. They were all of a type, meaning they resembled each other more closely than most sisters. Hispanic, pretty, hair just past shoulders, between 5’4″-5’6″, 130-160 lbs, 16-18 years.
      The official response was “isolated incident”, “no evidence of foul play”. Over, and over, and over.
      The local media didn’t even cover that much. (I guess we should have been glad that they didn’t actively try to cover it up, like they did with the refugee kids sexually assaulting a neighborhood girl.)

      1. I was attending college in Spokane, Washington when a serial killer was operating. The victims were all prostitutes; the official line was to ignore it. The families put up a billboard (the recent Oscar nominee was based on another such incident, but it wasn’t a unique one.) Eventually the police got on it and tracked the guy down—and at that point, I was working at a radio station where one of the news anchors was working on a book about the case with Mark Fuhrman. Y’know, the cop of OJ infamy. (I ran the board for his show once. It was weird.)

        So… I heard details that never made it onto the public airwaves. Like how they got the DNA evidence, and that he’d evidently dug up the corpses. (And that’s already TMI, and I heard more. Ew ew ew.)

        I think in a lot of disappearances, if it’s not out of the way, it’s because of lack of resources or allocation of resources. But it doesn’t take much to be “out of the way.” I can think of a dozen places within a 30-minute drive that would be sufficiently isolated to make finding someone hard unless someone happened to be lucky—and I’m living in an urban situation. It wouldn’t even have to be malicious; a major health incident at the wrong time & place and you could have a mystery.

  4. “I would argue that to be a good writer, you need only to understand the human psyche.”

    Well, I’m screwed.

    1. I’ll contest the inclusion of Jung. He did some good work about the stories we tell ourselves.

      1. Agreed. That his followers sailed off the rails (Thank you Bruno Bettelheim for ruining fairy tales for me) isn’t entirely Jung’s fault.

    2. Although when the Stargate (SG-1) crew did tie-dyed shirts with their favorite headshrinkers’ portraits on them, everyone wanted to do Freud or Skinner, except for Teal’c…

      Because only Goa’uld dye Jung.

  5. I was a bit worried after the first paragraph that this was going to be advocating for psychology classes to understand the human psyche. Having read too many stories from too many people who have that kind of understanding (while having a poor understanding of actual people) I have a rather jaundiced eye about it. Not that it can’t be interesting, or even true, more that the same points get regurgitated in the same way by different writers that it becomes clear they’re reading the same text books. Worst yet, most often those psychology inserts are out of place in terms of language and time (I’ve read medieval fantasy that has one character talk about comorbidity with another one, that one stood out. But more often you see the modern concepts expressed in ye olden timey language).

    Much appreciated that you went in a different direction and gave actual advice that can actually work and actually be applied.

    Perhaps I’m jaded from reading too many other writing sites on line.

    As to houses, we’re looking for a home in terms of future plans and there is something that is so ubiquitous and yet makes absolutely no sense to me. Homes that are less than ten years old have the living room essentially in the kitchen. I see this, I frown, and I wonder how someone else can watch TV in peace while I’m cooking. Do pots and pans not still bang? Do people not mind noise coming from behind their head? Or do people just not cook much anymore?

    Apparently that layout is good for entertaining and I’ve been told many people are looking for that setup specifically but I have to wonder if they regret it all the rest of the time. One person told me essentially she agreed but the only time they used that room was for entertaining and the rest of the time they retreated to the family room. Which is fine if you have both (many homes don’t), and if you don’t mind under-utilized space (I do. Very much). A spare living room not meant to be lived in? That reminds me of old front parlors in old homes that had the nice furniture and was only ever used when company that you didn’t like but wanted to impress was visiting. Grew up making fun of those people and home builders stopped building those front parlors but now we do the same thing but with a larger space?

    Sorry about the rant, just been triggered by disqualifying nice homes in our price range because of that personal preference. And I could be wrong and that set up works well for most people. But just not for me and I’d be the one having to live with it.


    1. We have that setup, and personally, I like it – but then, in prior homes I found that friends tend to migrate to the kitchen when they’re over, so it made sense. And when no one’s over and I’m in the kitchen, either Peter is with me, or he’s in his office… so we don’t end up with unused space.

    2. My grandpop was a chef, and the kitchen counter was basically his “nest”. So, the “kitchen/ livingroom combined” makes a whole lot of sense to me. The person in the kitchen is still a “part” of what’s going on in the living room.

        1. REALLY big living area that’s open to the kitchen and whatever dining area they have. Most of the ones I’ve seen have vaulted ceilings.

        2. A “great room” is what they call a combo living room/dining room/kitchen (dining room not necessary but often part of the setup.) Technically, our little 1500 square foot house has a “great room”, even though it’s maybe 18′ x 30′ overall.

          1. Duh. Of course. For some reason I was reading ‘great’ as an adjective there and not thinking about the greatroom which I did know. And I like, although I might be weird 😀

            1. I don’t mind the concept (though my particular house could be improved by a better flow), but since he doesn’t like it, it’s good for him to avoid.

    3. I’m positive that setup can work, and work well, for other people. My only rant is the astonishing ubiquitousness of that setup. I think it’s because of the price point and the way builders like to showcase their homes. We’re looking at medium sized houses and if the living room was separate from the kitchen/dining room it would give the house a feeling of smallness. So, I get it, I actually think it looks nice but then I think back to when I was a kid and my mom’s friends would come over and I shudder. I’m glad my mom had friends. I’m glad they came over for coffee. I’m glad they felt welcome.

      I’m even more glad I could go into the next room and watch TV and not have to listen to them talk for three or four hours. Number one, I wasn’t interested, number two, their business was not my business, and number three there were shows I wanted to watch. But in those small homes (where there is only that one living room), the only option for my kids to avoid that is to retreat to their rooms or carry on in such a way it makes our guests feel uncomfortable. Though to be fair to my kids, I might be the one carrying on if my wife had friends over with a long conversation literally ten feet from me as I tried to pay attention to what I was doing. Getting essentially kicked out of my own living room for hours would be irritating. Maybe this is just me but I have a hard time shutting out different sounds and only focusing on what I want to focus on.

      Again, I can see why it would work for others, but I know myself well enough to know how badly it would work for me. Not saying anyone else is wrong, it’s right for them and that’s great, but it’s wrong for me.

      B.Durbin. Up here the descriptor they use for that setup is open concept. And I do disqualify but it very much limits your choices. The odd part is seeing how popular it is and knowing that I’m the weird one for disliking it (though newer homes seem to be easing away from it so it might be a style thing that was hugely in vogue ten years ago in these parts and is just starting to fade). Since ten years old is roughly the age range of the houses we’re looking at price-wise, location-wise, and quality-wise, it makes the search kind of difficult.


  6. People fabricate things in the hard sciences, too. Some folks swear by computer models that predict future warming when fed a random table of numbers.

    1. Thing is, sufficiently complex models probably should no longer count as hard science, no matter the nominal discipline. Hard science earned that relative reputation from using, among other things, models simple enough that they could be matched to empirical data. And being able to run a bunch of experiments of both sufficient complexity to really validate the model and acceptable measurement quality.

      Economics has huge issues with experimental design. Psychology has huge measurement issues, on top of complexity and a great deal of room to debate the legitimacy of alleged simplifying assumptions.

  7. I recently finished reading (well, listening to) The Lost City of the Monkey God. Fantastic book–but what’s stuck with me more than anything else is the sheer, appalling pettiness of academia. Using a new technology to scan jungles/other impassable terrain to see if there’s archaeological sites there (LIDAR)? My first thought was “Wow, that’s fantastic–and it would make it soooo much easier for an archaeologist to get subsequent funding for an actual expedition/excavation, because they can point to the LIDAR results and say ‘See? There’s something there, and it’s definitely manmade!'” What was the general response of academia to it? “That’s not REAL archaeology, that’s bad, and it’s non-scholars doing it, so it sucks.”

    Then, when an actual expedition was mounted (thanks to the LIDAR results showing not one, but THREE large sites in one of the nastiest, thickest jungles in the world), and they found unprecedented–and undisturbed–artifact caches and so on, what was academia’s response? A ginormous hissy fit about commercialization, violating the rights of ‘indigenous peoples’ (even though all the local tribes had was the vague legends of the “White City” that had been around for centuries), accusations of making stuff up, and general “We hate you and we’re going to destroy you.” Why? Jealousy, I’m sure, but what it really boiled down to was…all the screaming academics had been supporters of the former Honduran president–a socialist who refused to leave office when his term was up and attempted to make himself dictator for life. The military forcibly removed him, and then turned elections over to the Honduran civilians. (As fine an example of a military coup done right as I’ve ever seen.) But the (American, mostly) academics who had supported the former would-be dictator didn’t LIKE the new guy, and they didn’t like who he’d appointed, and so…they tried their darndest to undermine and destroy one of the greatest archaeological finds of the 21st (and even the 20th) century.

    Human nature is messy, and frequently makes no sense.

    (Also, Cedar: Yay, a fellow True Crime Garage fan! I love that show.)

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