March 2, 2014

WRITING ADVICE: Julie Czerneda’s Writing Workshop! #10 Part 2 – Creating Characters via Neuroscience…


In 2005, whilst perusing the shelves at the Hennepin County Public Library, I stumbled across CHANGING VISION by Julie Czerneda (say it: chur-nay-dah), an author I'd never heard of, and was intrigued by the aliens on the cover by artist Luis Royo. It didn’t matter that the book was the second in a series, the cover entranced me and so I read. The book was spectacular, I read others, and fell entirely in love with another series of hers called SPECIES IMPERATIVE for its fascinating aliens and superior characterization. A teacher deeply at heart, Julie Czerneda shares ideas and methodology wherever she goes. On her website, she shares ideas for writers. I want to share what kind of impact her ideas have had on my own writing.  They are used with the author’s permission.

I need to come back to this because I may have stumbled across a methodology for creating characters.

I need to look at “real people” first. Then I need to do some research into HOW a real Human brain creates an imaginary world. So here’s the FIRST stage…

I was a science teacher for 29 years touching on the entire spectrum of the subject – from astronomy to zoology, I always say – and so was an inveterate reader, keeping up on my “subject”.

Four years ago, I became a school counselor following a five year course of study that involved weekly drives to a somewhat distant college where one of the things we studied was adolescent brain science as well as general neurobiology…at least I studied the neurobiology. That was my area of interest. As a result, I was introduced to the fast-changing world of neuroscience. My wife got her BA in psychology not long after, and last spring, my daughter got her own BA in psychology with an intense interest in biopsychology after working with a professor studying the possibility of using saccade and anti-saccade as a predictor for schizophrenia...

At any rate, it occurred to me recently that perhaps I could learn more about character building by looking at how the BRAIN works.

Seems there’s been quite a bit of study about how the brain reacts when it reads words:

If someone read a sentence like, ‘the shortstop threw the ball to first base,’ parts of the brain dedicated to vision and movement would light up, Bergen says...when you encounter words describing a particular action, your brain simulates the experience, Bergen says.

Cool beans! I can totally see that and now that I know this is true, I can apply it to my writing for young adults as well as to the few historical pieces I do.

But how does a brain response like that apply to something like this: “Mac was several paces into the Chamber of the Progenitors before she appreciated that what she thought was the ceiling was a shoulder, that what she thought a floor was a hand…She wrenched her eyes from a vista of hills and valleys cloaked in dark blue skin, mottled with ponds of shining black liquid, and stared at what else lived here. He first impression was of rather silly-looking pufferfish, her mind was fighting for equivalents. Her second was that the creatures looked nothing like fish at all.” (SPECIES IMPERATIVE: SURVIVAL, chapter 21)?

How can I imagine something I’ve never seen – or something I can’t even imagine? It brings to mind the old adage, “The universe is not only stranger than we imagine, it’s stranger than we CAN imagine.” (Arthur Stanley Eddington)

So what does the brain do in such a situation? “A flying pig has meaning to us because our brain is using things we have seen — pigs and birds — to create something we've never seen. And Bergen says we also draw on personal experience when we use language to convey abstract ideas — like truth, or justice, or even the word ‘meaning.’

In addition, “The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life; in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated. Keith Oatley, an emeritus professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto (and a published novelist), has proposed that reading produces a vivid simulation of reality, one that ‘runs on minds of readers just as computer simulations run on computers.’ Fiction — with its redolent details, imaginative metaphors and attentive descriptions of people and their actions — offers an especially rich replica. Indeed, in one respect novels go beyond simulating reality to give readers an experience unavailable off the page: the opportunity to enter fully into other people’s thoughts and feelings.”

So THIS is why certain characters seem alive.

The question is: What am I sometimes doing wrong? Why does Mackenzie Connor seem real, but Emerald Marcillon elicits nothing but the statement: “I actually found the language you used to be rather dense and information-heavy, which didn't make for particularly easy reading. I would suggest revisiting it with a thought to simplifying it a little for more ease of comprehension. This editor didn’t even NOTICE the character.

Why? I need to learn MORE!

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