Writing Excuses 9.48: Neurobolics of Characters

As authors we spend a lot of time trying to make our readers care about the characters we create. We have a wide variety of techniques at our disposal to accomplish this. But do we ever ask ourselves why any of this is possible in the first place? What is it about our brains that makes us care about fictional characters?

Enter Cory Doctorow, who posed this question to us at Westercon 67. If you like the episodes where a guest comes in and blows our minds (and they’re some of our favorites) you need to put this one on the list.

Audiobook Pick of the Week: Homeland, by Cory Doctorow, narrated by Wil Wheaton, with Noah Swartz and Jacob Applebaum. (Note:  Cory Doctorow’s titles aren’t carried by Audible, but you can find all of them here and buy them DRM-free directly from Cory.)


Along the lines of the anecdote Cory shared, sever a character’s corpus callosum so that they have to say things out loud in order to fully comprehend what they’re seeing.

22 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 9.48: Neurobolics of Characters”

  1. This was super fascinating and I think, like Howard, I’m going to need to give it several listens to digest all the meat, but I suspect it’ll be worth it. Though when you think about it, how many forms of entertainment do we tap into some deeper emotional place? Sports? Yeah watching sports can set off chemical reactions if our team does well or poorly. Fiction the same (as discussed here). Movies same. Even music is built around generating an emotional (and therefor chemical) response.


  2. The idea of the ‘predator in camouflage’ is absolutely fascinating to me, but I am not really certain I understand the practical applications. Survival mechanisms only evolve if there is a need for them, and I can’t really think of any predators who resemble humans. Now, there are obviously different species of predators that use general camouflage to attack, like the way tigers and lions blend in with the grass–and that’s creepy, but they don’t look like humans and we don’t get the ‘uncanny valley’ creeped-out feeling when looking at prey animals that are camouflaged. So while it’s definitely a creepy idea that there could be a monster that looked like humans, I can’t see that being the cause of that fear. My guess would be more to do with the way dead bodies look after decay sets in. Dead bodies can carry disease, and they can also call out to predators through scent. If we weren’t creeped out by the way a loved one started to look after they began to decay, we might insist on staying by the corpse’s side. However, once the person’s face is distorted and the ability to recognize them is compromised, we find the body disturbing and will leave it behind. If we did not, we’d waste time and resources (and risk death) empathizing with a being who is no longer there and can no longer contribute to our survival.

  3. @ Alyssa
    “The idea of the ‘predator in camouflage’ is absolutely fascinating to me, but I am not really certain I understand the practical applications. Survival mechanisms only evolve if there is a need for them, and I can’t really think of any predators who resemble humans. ”

    Well, clearly one of us needs to write a story where scientists studying the Uncanny Valley realize that we evolved it to warn us about monsters that can disguise themselves as people, then start to wonder why we’d need such a defense…

    I actually think the real reason for the Uncanny Valley might be to make us avoid dead bodies, which are disease vectors.

  4. I think I’m not smart enough for Mr. Doctorow. But I like to be challenged, so thanks for such a great episode. Will there be more episodes with Cory Doctorow?

  5. Gah… the holiday threw off my schedule, so I’m just getting this today (Tuesday). Looking forward to listening to it later.

    One note, since I’ve tripped over the spelling a lot myself… it’s Wil (single “L”, not double) Wheaton.

    Thank for all the WE Team does!

  6. This reminds me of Scott McCloud’s discussion of why people empathize with and humanize cartoons in his book “Understanding Comics.” I’d love to see if that sort of thing could be adapted to writing prose stories similar to the way Mary adapted her puppetry principles.

  7. I’ve had characters argue with me. I rarely win. Now I have an idea why.

    For me it’s always an interesting thought experiment to figure out what personal archetype of mine that energizes a character. Coming from a pen-and-paper RPG background, where I literally speak and act as that character for several hours, they often have characteristic ways of speaking or common metaphors that identify them.

    The one issue here is too much analysis reduces an archetype to a stereotype for a while.

  8. Excellent! Perhaps this is why movie adaptations of our favorite books are so often jarring. Maybe it’s not just that they cannot put every plot point into the movie. I mean, that is irritating enough. But perhaps what is really disturbing us is that we have a model in our head of the main character, and the movie presents us with another model of that main character, and those two models do not agree. That experience may just put us in the uncanny valley. (By the way, I spent an hour and a half reading about the uncanny valley after this episode, so thanks for ruining my work day!) :-)

  9. I thought this was another interesting episode and I’ll be reviewing part of it again tonight.

    I was considering Ward from the Agents of SHIELD TV series and I wonder if this doesn’t also help explain why villains can be more interesting than heroes, and perhaps offer clues as to how to make heroes more so.

    For example a troll running at you, with a club, while yelling ‘I’ll eat your bones!’ offers a very easy to understand threat. But the threat mechanism is in essence and analytical system. When you have a danger that is harder to define I would guess more ‘sensors’ – and perhaps even different ‘tests’ are brought to bear to help determine the potential threat (and maybe works the same more mysterious benefits?). With more data, stimulating more areas of our brain, the impact could make for a more powerful experience.

    I would imagine then, that flawed heroes – the good guy who you aren’t certain won’t cross the line and kill the bad guy for example- might be more interesting because of your brain running this ‘predictive analysis’. However I guess you have to be sure there is a core people can understand and relate to.

    In Agents of SHIELD I also wondered if this ‘complexity of character’ might be applied to the group – so the good guys are interesting individually, but we’ll assume slightly less interesting than a victim. We get the added complexity and depth from them by first having them in a complex group, with dynamics that make the whole collectively as interesting as the villains. The other thing is that the more interesting ‘bad guys’ have less screen time, so we bond more with the good guys as the foreground characters.

    Hope this makes sense (fired off on my way to work and a bit under the weather).

  10. Oops, couldn’t edit. Clarification …

    ‘and maybe works the same more mysterious benefits?)’ meant works the same as when analyzing unknown but potentially beneficial objects.

    “…slightly less interesting than a victim”
    than a villain – duh.

  11. >Uncanny Valley

    I imagine this as more of as a 1950’s era robot “This does not compute…does not compute…does not BOOM!” moment.

    In fact I’ll go so far as to guess that to some degree this explains people’s reaction to certain individuals – like those with more severe Asperger Syndrome or Autism where they are confused my the non-typical behavior. I speak from some level of personal experience as I often get reactions from people that baffle me and don’t seem justified by anything I said or did.

  12. “…I can’t really think of any predators who resemble humans. ”

    Other humans. I don’t say this facetiously, but there are frequently tribal markers in clothing, hair, which tell if someone is safe or not.

    More currently, I’ve had the unsettling experience of being the first white person some children in a very rural part of India had ever seen. I triggered the Uncanny Valley for them because with my outlandish red hair, giant stature, and putty colored skin, I looked completely wrong.

    And waaaay back when a lot of things got wired in, homo sapiens co-existed with other early humans.

  13. Just wondering if you folks have ever considered making the show longer than 15 min? Sometimes, especially lately, it seems like the discussion just gets going and BAM! It’s time to end the show. Love the show, keep it up, have helped me tremendously in writing and learning about writing.

  14. Mary Robinette Kowal,

    How do you know you triggered the Uncanny Valley in those Indian children rather than just being strange and fascinating to them? I’ve heard stories about people seeing other races for the first time and their reaction is usually something like, “Woah! How strange!” Rather than, “Oh wow, that’s really creepy. There’s something seriously wrong with that.”

    As for facepaints and costumes, that could definitely take advantage of the Uncanny Valley fear. Smearing yourself with mud would certainly make you look human-but-not-quite. However, most cultural human behaviors follow evolution, not create them. Facepaints were used because they were scary–they didn’t become scary because they were used. Most human emotions and gut responses evolved long, long before we were even in modern human form.

    Perhaps we did evolve it as a way to avoid other non-human hominids (I certainly find some monkeys to be rather disturbingly close to humans in appearance). Many of our ancestors were stronger than we were (we may have lost physical strength to compensate for the energy requirements of a larger brain), and primates love eating other primates, so they’d certainly be predators. It could also play a role in speciation and reproduction–reducing the interbreeding of humans with our non-human relatives (more than likely to prevent the birthing of sterile offspring. Obviously this wasn’t enough of the case to keep us from gettin’ seriously jiggy with the Neanderthals about 40,000 years ago, but as you hinted, Uncanny Valley may only exist from lack of experience with certain facial characteristics and our close proximity with Neanderthals may have eliminated that feeling in some people).

    There’s also a lot of diseases and disorders that cause people to have unusual facial characteristics, some of which are genetic in origin, some of which lead to unpredictable, dangerous adults regardless of origin. However, I am not sure how frequently individuals with these problems would make it to adulthood in a pre-civilization era. It would be useful to know if other animals (especially primates) placed as much value on facial qualities as humans, and if so, if they have any examples of “unusual” looking faces that they’d never been exposed to and how they generally react.

    But you know, there doesn’t just have to be one explanation either. In fact, there rarely is. Maybe it’s a combination of all of these things, and other stuff that hasn’t been considered yet.

Comments are closed.