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!