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Transcript for Episode 9.48

Writing Excuses 9.48: Neurobolics Of Characters


Key Points: Why do we get emotionally kicks from reading about imaginary people? A theory: we construct models, and empathy comes from our experience of those models. Our brains don’t distinguish between imaginary and real people. So, when a writer creates a character, at first they are contrived, but then the model in your brain starts to flesh out. Now your subconscious handles this model, just like any other person you know. Soon, they have a “ring of truth” if you imagine them doing things that are consistent with your model. Fanfic, similarly, lets the models that the writer has brought to life in your brain go on. “The job of a writer … is to take a model from her head and put it in your head.”

Stereotypes, prejudice, and cliches are due to lazy or incomplete models. Beware confirmation bias when fleshing out your models, only adding things that fit the expectations. Cautionary tales need the ability to empathize with imaginary characters. “…what we are doing with fiction is that we are tweaking a survival trait for jollies.” Maximizing brain rewards. We are making a bargain with our audience to believe that a character is real. Consider also the uncanny valley, the theory that as pictures, etc. become more real and believable, there is a point where they become creepy. Also, is our empathy with characters dealing with problems a kind of playacting, because we learn without the risk?

[Mary] Season Nine, Episode 48.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Neurobolics of Characters.
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Dan] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Brandon] And we have special guest star Cory Doctorow.
[Cory] Howdy.
[Dan] Yay.

[Brandon] Cory is one of my favorite people in science fiction and fantasy. He is all around awesome, and he knows brilliant things. So this was a concept he pitched for our podcast this time about why we care about characters when they don’t really exist. You want to give us a…
[Cory] Sure. So it’s a… It’s kind of an interesting question when you think about it, “Why are books entertaining?” Because nothing that happens in a book is real. And yet we get emotionally invested in things that we know aren’t real. We read stories about imaginary people to whom terrible things happen and we have these kind of limbic responses to them, where we cry and we laugh and our heart races and so on. When you think about it, the most tragic moment in the most melodramatic narrative, Romeo and Juliet kicking off, had less consequence than the death of the yogurt you ate for breakfast this morning. Because the yogurt was actually alive at one point and now it’s dead. Romeo and Juliet never lived.

I have a theory about kind of where this all comes from. I have a theory that the way that we understand other people is by trying to model them. I think that’s pretty orthodox, that we construct models of other people, and that those models are how we experience empathy. We imagine, not directly what someone is feeling, but we take our model of that person and we imagine what they would say or do or experience if something that matched up with what we can see out in the world. You fall and trip your leg… I imagine your model of you falling and breaking your leg and that’s where my empathy comes from.

I think that our brains don’t readily distinguish between imaginary people and real people. I think there’s probably good reasons for that. You want to be able, for example, to model people who you’re not sure are real. I think I saw some people up there, they look like rough customers, you might want to stay clear of them is a thing that you probably want to model in your daily life. You also want to be able to model people who aren’t there any more. You want to be able to model people who are missing. What would so-and-so do if she were here? You want to be able to model what people would say even though they’re dead. What would Gran say if she could see me now?

All of those things mean that we don’t have hard distinctions between real people and fake people in our brains. But what’s interesting to me is how the… What this implies about writing. Because what I’ve found is when you write characters… When you start writing, it feels like a game you’re playing with yourself. It feels like you’re playing with dolls with yourself. Like, “Hi, how are you?” “Well, I’m just fine.” “I’m fine, too.” Right? It feels like…
[Howard] That’s actually how my process works.
[Cory] It feels very contrived at the beginning.
[Brandon] You haven’t seen Howard’s dolls. He’s…
[Cory] Well. I mean… You really are, at the start of it, you really are just making up these people from whole cloth. But what I think happens is that as you write the character, the model in the back of your head starts to flesh itself out. So you get to know the character better. Then you get a kind of weird free space optical link between parts of your brain that don’t normally directly talk to each other. You write words on the screen or on the page, and your eyes see those words, and they push it back into your subconscious as data about people. The part of your brain that builds models of people adds that data to the model, and then when you query your subconscious for what would this person do, your subconscious kind of does a combination of asking the model and also doing that artificial, “Hi, how are you?” “I’m just fine, how are you?”

That experience becomes more and more realized as you work through the prose, and you eventually get to this point, or I do when I write, where it feels like the engine’s caught, and where… This is why I think… I used to think it was very precious when writers would say, “Oh, I tried to get my character to do this, but they wouldn’t.” What I think that really actually means is, “I tried to access that sense of the engine going while I was writing, and make the characters do this,” and when they did, the engine started to choke. It started to feel again like a contrivance. It didn’t have that ring of truth that you get when you imagine people doing things that are consistent with your model of them.

So if you try to imagine your gruff old grandpa doing the dance of the sugarplum fairies, it doesn’t feel real the way it may feel when you imagine him extolling the virtues of Smuckers jam.
[Cory] So I knew a guy… I went to summer camp with a guy who was severely brain damaged. He’d had epilepsy since he was very small, and it had continued to spread. About the time he was 14, not long before he died, they as a kind of last-ditch attempt, they split his corpus callosum so that the left half and the right half of his brains were electrically isolated from one another. He had this weird thing where if he covered one eye, he could tell you what something was, but not what it was called. If he covered the other eye, he could tell you what it was called, but not what it was. But when he enunciated what it was, the half of his brain that wasn’t electrically connected to the part that knew what it was could hear it. So he could… By externalizing his monologue, his internal monologue, he could reconnect the halves of his brains that were electrically isolated through an acoustic free space link.

I think that when you write, you have an electrical link between the parts of your brain that’s light mediated. Where you read the words that you’re writing and parts of your brain talk to each other. So that’s my half-assed theory about it.

Where it gets really interesting is with fanfic. Because what I think happens with fanfic is that just because… In the same way that just because grandpa is dead or someone is not in the room anymore, you can still access your model of them. When you close the pages of the book, if the book has done its job, those characters continue to live on in your head. So it’s totally natural to want to explore what their subsequent adventures would be. It’s the same reason that the author…
[Howard] With you.
[Cory] With you. Right, right. Well, with you or in your… Or to your specification. You are able… The job of a writer in some important way is to take a model from her head and put it in your head.
[Brandon] See, this is really interesting to me as someone who… Whose career was dominated by doing official fanfic. Basically. When I sat down to write these characters, like, people ask, “Was it hard?” I would say the main characters that I’d been reading about for years, no, it wasn’t hard. It was like, I always describe it as my high school buddies, sitting down and saying, “How would my high school buddies act?” These characters… A number of them, it was like, Bam, nailed them right off. Straight up. No problem at all writing these characters. Others, some of the other characters were harder. They were newer characters, they were very different. I hadn’t read their books a dozen times like I had read the first characters’. But that’s a really interesting… Just looking at how my experience was. It’s like dead on how my experience was writing the Wheel of Time books.

[Howard] What’s weird is that… Cory, when you first pitched this idea to me yesterday morning, one of the examples you gave is the example of you tell somebody about a person who is imaginary or whatever. And the example was, “Hey, I saw a guy in a checkered shirt up ahead with a machete, and he looks kind of dangerous.” I saw a guy in my head with a checkered shirt and a machete, and for just a moment, chills ran up my spine. I realized that you are a jerk.
[Howard] Because you’re poking my metabolism with your words.
[Cory] Sure. And that’s what… I mean, that’s what it is. It’s this manipulative process. I think that like this way of thinking about how we experience other people explains a lot about stereotyping and racial prejudice and so on. You have these incomplete models and you query them in a kind of lazy way without acknowledging their incompleteness. You say, “Well, what do I know? What hearsay do I have that has put flesh on the bones of this imaginary person?” Without being critical about what your subconscious returns when you try to predict their actions. You come back with these very stereotyped or clichéd ways of thinking about people. It’s only when you interrogate those models and you say, “Well, what are the exceptions?” And “How exceptional are they?” And “To what extent do I have confirmation bias when I put flesh on the bones of someone who I know very little about, so I only notice those things that fit within the stereotype,” and so on, that you actually get past that kind of reflexive and not very thoughtful way of thinking about other people.
[Howard] I’m going to have to listen to this episode…
[Howard] For like a dozen times. Because, I mean, just in that last sentence, and this is just sort of a process aside for you, dear listener. Just in that last sentence, you skirted across four disciplines in which there’s two hours of reading in order to make sure that you understand what Mr. Doctorow really said.
[Cory] Oh, come on.
[Howard] No, seriously. You touched on confirmation bias.
[Cory] Sure.
[Howard] Oh, there’s…
[Cory] Yeah, that whole like… But…
[Howard] I’m not saying we need to open the can of worms…
[Cory] The way that your brain fools you is intimately related to why you care about fiction.
[Mary] See, one of the things that you were saying makes me think that actually that this is a survival trait. Because if you cannot empathize with an imaginary character, a cautionary tale is going to be much less effective. Because one of the things that… We talk about this in children’s theater a lot, that people dumb down fairytales and that this is doing children a great disservice because they were originally cautionary tales. And that… It makes me think that actually what we’re doing with fiction is that we are tweaking a survival trait for jollies.
[Cory] Uh-huh. Oh, yeah. Like, in the same way that a cat releasing the mouse over and over again is exploiting a bug in its cognition. Right? It gets a brain reward every time it catches the mouse. How do you maximize your brain rewards? Let the mouse go and catch it again. Right? It is masturbation in the non-pejorative sense, right. It’s like there’s a thing that gives me a brain reward because it has some context in which it’s pro-survival. When it’s not counter-survival, I’ll just do it over and over again, even if it’s not actively pro-survival.

[Brandon] I’m going to stop us here for our book of the week, which actually, Cory’s going to tell us about one of his books and where people can get it.
[Cory] Yeah. So I… For the Humble E-Book Bundle, I commissioned an audiobook adaptation of my novel Homeland. That’s the sequel to my novel Little Brother. I had Wil Wheaton read it because he appears as a character in it.
[Cory] So that was pretty fun. The book has got some after matter and some fore matter that I’m really proud of. Aaron Swartz, who’s one of the founders of Reddit and one of the creators of RSS which is one of the core technologies of the Internet and who killed himself just before the book came out because he was facing 35 years in prison for taking too many books out of the library at MIT, for downloading automatically scientific articles at MIT. He wrote one of the afterwords to it. In fact, he helped me write the book. I got to the point where I wanted to describe a next-generation political campaign, election campaign, and I wrote to all these people I knew who really got technology and election campaigns, people who worked on the Obama campaign and on the Dean campaign. All I got back was really sort of inside-the-Beltway, inside-the-box thinking. I wrote to Aaron, kind of a last-ditch attempt because I knew he’d thought about this somewhat. A day later, he sent me back not just some thoughts but an actual like shovel ready copy that went right into the book. So on that basis, I asked him to write me an afterword. He wrote me this wonderful afterword about SOPA and PIPA and the fights we’ve had about Internet freedom. As I say, he died not long before the book came out. But his brother, Noah, went into a studio and read his afterword for the book as well. So you’ve got Wil’s reading and you’ve got Noah’s reading. Then, also, Jacob Appelbaum who’s one of the core WikiLeaks volunteers and who lives in exile in Berlin went into the studio run by the guy who founded Atari Teenager Riot who was his engineer and recorded his afterword as well. So it’s quite a kind of… It’s got a lot of interesting stuff in it. There’s five minutes of Wil reading pi which is pretty exciting. He skipped… There’s a… He reads 100 digits of pi, which is one thing, but there’s a later bit where there’s 1000 digits of pi. I did upload the outtake where he goes, “Oh, Jesus, Cory!”
[Cory] Then he just… He and the director kind of go back and forth a bit, and he says… I think he changed it to “imagine a long string of random sounding numbers,” which I guess is okay.
[Cory] The reading is hands-down the best reading I’ve ever gotten. I’ve been read by some very good readers, including Mary has read some of my work, but boy, Wil just hit it out of the park.
[Brandon] I really like Wil’s reading of books. Something about it just works for me. His Redshirts I just loved.
[Howard] Where can we get that one?
[Cory] So you can get it as a DRM-free MP3 download on my website at for $15.
[Howard] Okay.
[Brandon] It’s not on audible because…
[Howard] It’s not available on audible.
[Brandon] Cory does not like DRM.
[Cory] No. And they won’t carry my books.
[Brandon] So you have to… You can go and get it from Cory. Cory, on your website, they can also download e-books…
[Cory] That’s right.
[Brandon] Of your books.
[Cory] Gratis. Yes. Under Creative Commons Licenses. That’s correct.
[Brandon] Yup. So you can read any of Cory’s books. They are fantastic, and you can get them for free.
[Cory] There’s a whole bunch of other audiobooks that you can get as MP3 downloads. I actually tricked Amazon into carrying the audiobooks, if you prefer to buy it that way. It’s not in their audible catalog, but I put it up through CDbaby as a spoken word album, and they snuck it into iTunes and into Amazon. I don’t know how long it’s going to last there, because they do have this thing where they’ll only… So audible is the only supplier of audiobooks to iTunes, and they will only carry them if they have DRM. So I have a 15 hour spoken word album on iTunes.
[Cory] That you can download that has no DRM on it.
[Howard] Is there a content warning? Have the songs been bleeped?
[Cory] Well, there is a content warning, because there’s some dirty words in the books.
[Howard] Well, and there’s like 1000 numbers.
[Cory] There’s 1000 numbers. Depending on your encoding scheme, that might be some really dirty words.
[Cory] Like that old joke about the prisoners. 35!
[Mary] Oh, you know how to tell a joke.

[Brandon] Let’s move this back towards storytelling. I’m actually going to point at Mary, because in this sounds a lot like some of the things you talk about with puppetry. With your job being to make us care about a sock. You make us care about it, like…
[Howard] A napkin. She’s done it with a napkin at dinner.
[Brandon] She’s done it with a napkin, she’s done it with two little balls. She can make us care about that.
[Mary] Yeah, this is one of the things we talk about in puppetry a lot. That part of what is going on with puppetry is that you are making a bargain with the audience to believe that your character is real. An actor walks on stage, they are obviously believing… I mean, obviously living. So the buy-in that the audience has to make is not whether or not the character is living, but just are they that character. With puppetry, you have to go one step further. You have to believe that they are alive. Because of that, you invest part of yourself in the character. The death of a puppet on stage is significantly more profound. It has a tendency to affect an audience to a much greater degree because they’ve invested more of themselves in the character, and when it stops being animated, it is literally dead. Whereas an actor, you know that they’re going to get up and take a curtain call.
[Brandon] Right. That’s fascinating.

[Howard] I just had a thought as you were talking about this. I was imagining a little bobbily eye… The two eyepieces of the puppet that you made. I’m a cartoonist. The uncanny valley where pictures get more and more real and more and more believable, we identify with them more and more, and then all of a sudden, it falls off because it becomes creepy. It occurs to me that in this theory of Cory’s what has happened is we’ve tried to make it so real, but it’s still failing. The portion of the brain that wanted to imagine it has shut off and the portion of the brain that wants to accept it as real has rejected it. It’s now in this no-man’s-land where we’re now afraid of it.
[Mary] Well, there’s also… Actually, with that specifically, with the uncanny valley, one of the things… It’s another survival trait. What you’re seeing there is that you’re recognizing… You are having the camouflage reaction. That this is… Again, we get this with puppets a lot. Your brain tries to interpret it as real and alive, and if it is not sufficiently real and alive, then you think this must be a predator in camouflage. You’re designed specifically to look for the discrepancies.
[Cory] That sounds plausible.
[Howard] That is why Polar Express is so horrifying.
[Brandon] Yeah, it’s full of predators.
[Howard] Those elves are going to eat me.
[Brandon] Full of monsters.
[Cory] You know how to make Polar Express better? Watch it on a phone screen. Because all of the… It’s only because you see it in HD that Polar Express is so freaky. If you watch it on a screen that’s 3 inches or smaller, it’s pretty credible.
[Brandon] Well, I can totally beat a predator that’s 3 inches tall.

[Brandon] This is really interesting to me because for a long time, the empathy we have for characters I’ve heard described to me as… We… It is this sort of… We watch characters that go through hard things, that makes us more capable of dealing with hard things on our own, because we’re kind of playacting. But I think that what you’re saying here actually has a different side to it, and maybe even more depth to it. I like what Mary said, that we can care more about an imaginary character than a real person because we… Because of this investment. Then I don’t think it is simply this catharsis of “Oh, they go through pain, I’m now better at dealing with pain.” There’s something else twigging there.
[Cory] I think that’s why dramatic tension works. I think that… It’s like the best way to learn how to stay out of trouble is to watch somebody else getting into trouble. Because you get all the benefit of experience without any of the downsides, right? So kind of the core of dramatic tension is a person trying to solve a problem plausibly, failing, and things getting worse. So we will rubberneck someone else getting into trouble all day long because there is a huge advantage to us to kind of watch other people screw up.

[Brandon] I’m going to have to call the podcast here, even though this is one of the most fascinating ones we’ve done in a long time. I really appreciate Cory being on it. Everyone go download his books and give them a listen or a read. I’m going to give our writing prompt, because I think that the whole person with the brain… Two halves of the brain disconnected from one another is a fascinating idea. I think you readers… Or you listeners can write something really interesting with someone who’s brain sides do not talk to each other until the ears hear what they say. So that’s your writing prompt. Take that, and you’re out of excuses, now go write.