The Writer’s Laboratory Blog

Crafting the Perfect Bad Guy (or Girl): The Three Traits Your Villain Must Have

Crafting the Perfect Bad Guy (or Girl): The Three Traits Your Villain Must Have

If you want to craft a story that includes a great villain, chances are that villain is a psychopath. Now, most people rely on the colloquial usage of the term and assume that psychopath = killer, but that’s not necessarily true. Most psychopaths are not murders. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that this fact makes psychopaths harder to spot in a crowd than you might think (hint: he’s usually not the crazy-eyed guy in the black trench coat walking down the abandoned street). Research suggests that 1% of the population meets the criteria for psychopathy. That may not sound like a lot but this means 1 in every 100 people you know is a psychopath. They could be your neighbor, your coworker, your friend, or maybe even your favorite blogger 🙂

With all these psychopaths running around, how do you spot one? Psychologists have been conducting research on just such a question. Information gleaned from such research can greatly benefit writers because it provides us with a clear and accurate portrayal of what psychopaths are truly like. That’s important, because when we think of the word “psychopath,” what usually comes to mind first are commonplace media portrayals of crazed killers. The kind you see in Psycho, Silence of the Lambs, and Texas Chainsaw Massacre. But these depictions are a far cry from what actual psychopaths are like.

So how can you make sure your villain is realistic and authentic, especially when most media depictions of psychopaths are so often not?

The answer is simple. To craft a truly authentic psychopath, the writer needs to know what a psychopath looks like in the real world. Lucky for us, others have already done the heavy lifting for us and published extensively on the subject. So let’s look at what the research says.

Although theories of psychopathy may vary, most researchers tend to agree that real-world psychopaths demonstrate a cluster of three personality characteristics. This cluster is referred to as the “Dark Triad” because people who possess these three traits often exhibit malevolent behaviors (e.g., crime, ethical violations, etc.). That means that your villain should possess these traits too. They should be apparent in your villain’s personality, behavior, and motivations.

  1. Machiavellianism

People high in Machiavellianism are duplicitous, cunning, and manipulative. They place a higher priority than most on power, money and winning. They easily disregard moral and social rules and as a result, lie to others and manipulate them with little to no guilt. Think Gordon Gekko from Wallstreet or Frank and Claire Underwood from House of Cards.

For people high in this trait, manipulating others is an impulse, much like an alcoholic has an impulse to drink. Sometimes this manipulation is done to achieve a personal gain (e.g., to get a promotion) but other times it is just done for fun or because they can’t stop themselves (e.g., internet trolling). Depending on type, these people’s tools of the trade are deception, guilt, bullying, feigned weakness, or flattery. But whichever they choose, they regularly wield these tools in an attempt to twist the emotions and behaviors of those around them.

Because such people are master manipulators, they are often charming and well-liked, at least on a superficial level. They may feign interest and compassion for a short time, but that façade wears off quickly and it becomes clear they only really care about themselves.

A perfect literary example of this trait is Amy Dunne from Gone Girl [SPOILER ALERT for those who haven’t read the book or seen the movie]. Amy Dunne goes to extreme lengths to victimize the men in her life, often because their only sin was not giving her the attention she thought she deserved. Her particular tools of manipulation are sex, lies, guilt, fame, and of course her well-crafted diary. Even we as the readers get duped by Amy’s lies, and it isn’t until midway into the book that we see her for what she really is: a master manipulator.

  1. Psychopathy

You know that little voice in your head that tells you to return a found wallet or treat others as you want to be treated? Well people high in psychopathy don’t have that voice, or if they do its volume is turned down very low. As a result, they lack many of the social emotions that normal people take for granted, including guilt, remorse, sympathy, and pity.

It is this lack of a conscience that enables psychopaths to engage in behaviors that normal people may secretly fantasize about but never actually do. When someone hurts us or makes us mad, we may think, “I just want to punch him!” or “I could kill him!” but we would never actually do it. Psychopaths don’t have that brake pedal. Generally speaking, if they want to do it, they’ll do it.

This also hints at another quality associated with psychopathy—low impulse control. People high in psychopathy are quick to violence and aggression, they have many casual sex partners, and they engage in risky or dangerous behaviors. Their mantra is, “Act first, think later.”

Once again, Gillian Flynn crafted an excellent representation of this trait with Amy Dunne. Amy is cold and calculating and almost reptilian-like in her lack of compassion. She seems absent of any sense of right and wrong or empathy for what she puts others through. Instead, she has a calculating, pragmatic nature, regardless of whether she is lying to the police or getting rid of a human obstacle. Through her actions and lack of emotions, the reader finally sees Amy Dunne as a glacial beauty who lacks even a hint of warmth or humanity underneath.

  1. Narcissism

People high in narcissism are self-centered, vain, and have an inflated sense of their qualities and achievements. They see themselves as perfect. Any flaws they may have they refuse to see in themselves and instead project onto those around them. For example, a narcissist who secretly worries she isn’t smart enough will accuse those around her of being dumb as a way to boost her own ego.

Narcissists love compliments, can’t get enough, and lavishly praise anyone who admires or affirms them. The flip side of this coin means they are extremely sensitive to insults and often respond to criticism with seething rage and retribution. They have what psychologists refer to as “unstable self-esteem.” This means they put themselves up on a very high pedestal, but it doesn’t take much to topple them to the ground. What a normal person would perceive as constructive criticism, narcissists see as a declaration of war.

Because of their self-focus, they don’t get along well with others. They have problems sustaining healthy, satisfying relationships and so they tend to seek positions of authority where they can work over, rather than beside, their colleagues. Such authority also helps because narcissists never blame themselves for their problems. It is ALWAYS someone else’s fault (Notice that this blame is a spark that writers can fan into a strong, burning motive for their villain’s behavior).

There are lots of examples of narcissists in popular literature (and many more in historical literature), but in my opinion, one that holds true to this description in a non-obvious and non-stereotypical way is Annie Wilkes from Misery. Annie doesn’t immediately come off as arrogant or boastful (although her claim to be Paul Sheldon’s “number one fan” is our first hint of her inflated sense of self). But as the book unfolds, we are subjected to her constant complaining of the world and those in it. These rants demonstrate that she does see herself as superior. Everyone else is a “lying ol’ dirty birdy” and anyone who falls into this dreaded category is not worthy of sympathy or even basic human dignity. The character of Annie Wilkes is an excellent example of how to incorporate narcissism (or any of these three traits) in a way that is subtle and unique, but still clearly present.

Now let’s put it all together. Keep in mind that just being high in one of these traits doesn’t automatically mean a person is a psychopath. People can be risk-seekers or arrogant and not necessarily engage in malevolent behavior. In fact, some research suggests that real-world heroes share some, but not all, of these traits (perhaps a good topic for a future post!). What matters is the combination of these three traits. Your villain needs to have all three. The perfect storm of egotism, manipulation, and a lack of conscience.

So when it comes to crafting your villain, try to steer clear of the blatant crazed killer trope. Dig deeper and craft a more interesting and believable bad guy or girl. Make your villain a master liar and manipulator. Make them callous towards others and a risk taker. Make them highly arrogant but easily threatened. Make them interesting but also realistic.

Who is your favorite fictional psychopath and why? Share your answer in your comments.

The Writer’s Laboratory #7: Ask “What if?” To Boost Your Creativity

The Writer’s Laboratory #7: Ask “What if?” To Boost Your Creativity

Each day this week I’m posting simple tips you can use to boost your creativity. Today’s tip focuses on how creativity emerges from combinations.

Successful authors often get their ideas for a new story because they automatically ask, “What if?” throughout their day. On his website, Stephen King states this in regards to the all-important “Where do you get your ideas” question:

“What all of my ideas boil down to is seeing maybe one thing, but in a lot of cases it’s seeing two things and having them come together in some new and interesting way, and then adding the question ‘What if?’ ‘What if’ is always the key question”

To see this “What if?” process in action in King’s work, here are a few examples:

What if a political assassin was psychic and in actuality he was trying to save the world from evil? Hello, The Dead Zone

What if a dog got rabies and terrorized a family? Come join the party, Cujo.

What if a writer was kidnapped by his number one fan? Nice to meet you, Misery.

Why do “what-if” questions work so well? The answer is that, as King noted above, they often combine two ideas or concepts in a unique way. And scientists are in general agreement with this idea that creativity comes from combinations. In fact, such combinations are thought to occur on a neural level, with patterns of neuron activation combining in novel ways. Neuroscientists call this combination “convolution”, but an easier way to think of it is to use the metaphor of braiding (you know from my earlier post that I love me some metaphors!). Braiding takes individual strands and twists them together to produce a single plait, which can then be twisted with other plaits to form even stronger ropes and cables. Similarly, creative thinking involves taking neural activity in the brain related to one concept (the family dog) and twisting it with activity related to another concept (rabies).

The nice thing about thinking of creativity as combinations is that it takes the pressure off. As a writer, you don’t need to come up with a completely new idea. As Mark Twain famously stated:

“There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations. We keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely; but they are the same old pieces of colored glass that have been in use through all the ages.”

So stop pressuring yourself to come up with a totally new story idea. Instead, think about how you can combine already known things in unique and non-obvious ways.

Of course not all combinations are good. Peanut butter and jelly is tasty, but peanut butter and sardines? Not so much. So asking the what-if question doesn’t guarantee the answer will be good every time. Neil Gaimen once joked in an interview about the idea, “Everybody knows that if you get bitten by a werewolf when the moon is full, you will turn into a wolf…There’s that moment when you’re sitting and thinking, ‘So what happens if a werewolf bites a goldfish?’” Chances are, there is a good reason Gaimen has never actually written that story.

In the end, you’ll have to judge which answers make it through the sifter and which deserve to fall through. But the more times you ask “What if”, the more creative ore you’ll have to sort through.

To institute this technique, train yourself to as what-if questions throughout the day. Better yet, consider combing this with the other tips mentioned in my earlier posts this week. Ask “what-if” while you’re outside talking a walk or just before you fall asleep. But keep in mind, when your unconscious mind begins answering this question, it will likely come as a whisper (especially for writing novices). So be ready and listen carefully once your inner mule starts talking.

The Writer’s Laboratory #6: “Get Some Fresh Air” To Boost Your Creativity

The Writer’s Laboratory #6: “Get Some Fresh Air” To Boost Your Creativity

Each day this week I’m posting simple tips you can use to boost your creativity. Today’s tip focuses on the benefits of the great outdoors.

I believe that nature is hands down one of the best cures for the constipated writer. And I’m not the only one. Stephen King, for example, states he walked four miles every day (at least until a freak accident stopped him). And many writers, like Joyce Carol Oates and Malcolm Gladwell, are lifelong outdoor runners. They don’t just run to boost their physical health, they run to boost their writer mind as well:

“The structural problems I set for myself in writing,” Oates says, “in a long, snarled, frustrating, and sometimes despairing morning of work, for instance, I can usually unsnarl by running in the afternoon.”

Gladwell echoes this sentiment: “I free-associate [while running]. I suspect a lot of useful thinking is going on a subconscious level. I do not run with music, so I am completely unencumbered when I run.”

For me, nature is my daily writing room. Rather than writing in an office or a coffee shop, I spend most of the year seated on the back porch with my computer in my lap. When it’s spring, I sit under the eaves, enjoying the sound of the rain or the rustle of the breeze through the budding leaves. When its summer, I drag my chair out into the sunshine. When Autumn comes, I bundle up with a blanket and a mug of hot cocoa. And when winter finally arrives and forces me inside, I pick a spot by the window and listen to nature sounds as I write.

Yes, writing outside has its drawbacks. The fickle weather. The screen glare. The neighbor mowing his lawn. The occasional chatter of noisy squirrels and buzzing of bees. But I find it is far easier to get distracted when I’m inside the house and surrounding by chores and people and technological intrusions that want to lure me away from the world unfolding on the page. I also know that the fresh air and sun and limitless sky above gets my inner mule working overtime.

Of course, writing outside doesn’t work for everyone (but here are some great suggestions on how to do it right). If you just can’t make the move, go for a run after you’ve finished your writing for the day or even just a short walk to combat your writer’s block.

It seems writers like King and Gladwell know something that scientists are just discovering. That exposure to nature greatly improves cognitive functioning and creativity. For example, in one study participants took a walk in a tree-lined arboretum or in a building-lined downtown area. Those who took did the nature walk performed better on a cognitive task than those who did a city walk. Another study found a nature hike boosted creativity by 50%! But what if you can’t get out in nature? Fear not. One study found that just viewing images of nature boosted brain power.

So why is nature so beneficial? One reason is that nature acts like a reboot for the overloaded brain. Modern life is constantly bombarding our mind with information and distractions. This makes it nearly impossible to hear the creative whispers of our inner mule over such mental noise. By removing these distractions, our mind is freed to wander, leading us on exciting new journeys across undiscovered paths.

Another less obvious reason is that being in the open air unconsciously stimulates our mind to think more openly as well. In a fascinating series of studies, researchers Meyers-Levy and Zhu examined how ceiling height influences the way our minds work. In their studies, participants completed tasks in an identical room. The only difference is that for some of them, the false ceiling was lowered to a clearance of 8 ft. For the others, the ceiling was raised as high up to the maximum 10 ft. Their results showed that low ceilings unconsciously activate thoughts of confinement, which causes the brain to think in analytic, concrete ways. Conversely, high ceilings unconsciously activate thoughts of freedom, which causes the brain to think in the abstract and to consider how things are related and integrated. Nature, of course, has no ceiling. So by being out in the open air, it may prime your mind to “think outside of the box” and “shoot for the stars”.

Lastly, keep in mind that nature has benefits that go far beyond just creativity. Research shows that it also reduces stress, increases happiness and vitality, and makes you a more generous and helpful person. So go already! Get outside and take a walk!

Check back tomorrow for another tip on how to generate creative ideas!

The Writer’s Laboratory #5: “Let Your Mind Wander” To Boost Your Creativity

The Writer’s Laboratory #5: “Let Your Mind Wander” To Boost Your Creativity

Each day this week I’m posting simple tips you can use to boost your creativity. Yesterday’s post suggested night dreaming is good for boosting creativity, but so is daydreaming. The more technical term for this childlike experience is “mind wandering,” which refers to times when your mind strays from your current situation in favor of unrelated thoughts. So just like dreaming, mind wandering occurs because your inner rider is relaxing its reigns and letting your inner mule decide your destination.

Mind wandering is incredibly common—one study found it consumed 47% of our waking hours—and happens during nearly every activity (interestingly, sex was the activity least likely to involve mind wandering). Studies on mind wandering mimic that of the sleep research mentioned above. When people are given a problem to solve and then given a break in which their mind could wander, they were more likely to solve the problem creatively. However, these studies suggest that mind wandering doesn’t boost creativity in general, so you need to be thinking about the problem you are trying to solve before the mind wandering occurs.

Given that our mind wanders so often anyway, it may seem that you don’t even need to encourage it. But remember that mind wandering is only beneficial when it occurs during that time when your mind is trying to solve the solution. So its good to learn some mind-wandering techniques so you can use this procedure strategically.

One way to relax your inner rider’s hold on your mind is to generate ideas during your non-optimal time of day. This means that if you are a morning person, consider thinking about ideas in the evening. And if you are a night owl, try mulling your ideas over your morning cup of coffee. This advice seems counterintuitive—we usually think our brain works better during optimal times when it is most alert—but research shows this isn’t always the case. Although analytical thinking (e.g., math problems) may be better during people’s optimal times, research shows creativity is higher during people’s non-optimal times.

Another, perhaps less advisable way, to relax your inner rider is through alcohol. For as long as writers and artists have been around, they’ve been using alcohol (or other mind altering substances) to uncork their muse. From Beethoven and Picasso to Twain, Hemingway and Poe—the list goes on and on (and on). Stephen King admits his drinking got so bad during the 1980’s that he doesn’t even remember writing Cujo. And he admits that his book The Shining may have been his unconscious’ mind telling him he was an alcoholic father long before his conscious mind was willing to admit it (suggesting your inner mule may sometimes act like a real ass, but it often knows more about yourself than you do!). So a word of advice here, it is one thing to use a small amount of alcohol to boost creativity. It is another matter entirely to succumb to alcoholism. So how much is enough? A research study found that a to a blood content level of just .075 was enough to improve people’s creativity (that’s roughly equivalent to two glasses of wine or two beers).

Perhaps the healthiest way to increase mind-wandering is through mindfulness meditation (specifically the type called “open-monitoring meditation”). In mindfulness mediation, you first focus on opening your breath, then opening your mind to allow any thoughts of sensations to occur. The key is that these thoughts are allowed to pass through your mind without judgment, like clouds floating across the sky (for an excellent beginner’s tutorial by Sharon Salzberg, check out this video). A study conducted in the Netherlands found that one 45-minute session of open-monitoring meditation increased the number of creative responses given by 40%, and it increased the originality of those responses by 400%! Plus, meditation has all sorts of other benefits for both your mind and body, so why not kill two birds with one stone?

Check back tomorrow for another tip on how to generate creative ideas!

The Writer’s Laboratory #4: “Sleep On It” To Boost Your Creativity

The Writer’s Laboratory #4: “Sleep On It” To Boost Your Creativity

In the third post for my “The Writer’s Laboratory” series, I suggested that writer’s often get their ideas from their unconscious mind rather than their conscious mind. To illustrate these two mental systems, I used the analogy of a tourist riding a mule down into the Grand Canyon. In that analogy, I referred to the writer’s unconscious mind as their “inner mule” and their conscious mind as their “inner rider”.

In that post, I suggested that writers hate answering the question, “Where do you get your ideas” because in truth they don’t really know. Their ideas often come to them when their inner rider is asleep or bored, allowing their inner mule to speak up.

“You get ideas from daydreaming,” Neil Gaimen once told his seven-year-old daughter’s class when they asked him the infamous question. “You get ideas from being bored. You get ideas all the time. The only difference between writers and other people is we notice when we’re doing it.”

So it’s not that successful writers have more creative ideas than the rest of us. They just do a better job of listening to their inner mule when it starts talking. But what do you do if your inner mule just isn’t cooperating? Each day this week I will post a new tip (based on psychological science research of course!) that should spur your inner mule into action. And keep in mind these tips are not just limited to generating creative writing ideas, they help spur creativity for any kind of endeavor.

Each day this week I’m posting simple tips you can use to boost your creativity. Today’s tip focuses on sleep. It seems counterintuitive but the best way to get your mind working may be to put it to sleep. Lots of scientists have discussed how some of their best ideas came to them either in a dream or upon waking. Thomas Edison, for instance, would nap with steel balls in his hands held over a metal pan so that when he dropped them, presumably because he was dreaming up some juicy solution, he’d awaken with new and creative answers to his problems.

Lots of writers have also mentioned how sleep has helped their creative process. For example, Stephen King tells a great story in On Writing about how he fell asleep on long plane flight from New York to London and had a terrifying dream about a famous writer who is captured and held hostage by a psychotic fan. When he awoke from the dream, he could still hear the crazed fan’s dialogue in his head so he jotted it down on an airline cocktail napkin. That snippet of an idea would go on to be Misery, one of King’s best novels.

Similarly, John Steinbeck wrote in Sweet Thursday, “It is a common experience that a problem difficult at night is resolved in the morning after the committee of sleep has worked on it.”

Lots of research backs up the idea that sleep boosts creativity. For example, in one study by Wagner and colleagues, participants were given a challenging and time-consuming number task. However, what the participants didn’t know was that there was a hidden secret strategy built into the task and if they figured it out, it would greatly speed up their progress. All participants were introduced to the task and them some were allowed eight hours of sleep while others were kept awake. After the eight hours had passed, participants resumed working on the task. The results showed that 60% of the sleep group discovered the hidden strategy compared to only 23% of the wake group.

According to these researchers, sleep allowed the participants’ brains to mentally restructure the information learned, resulting in new and insightful responses. To put it another way, when you learn something new and then immediately sleep on it, what you learned becomes clearer and more creative.

Don’t got time for a solid eight hours of sleep? No problem. Research shows similar creativity benefits occur for mid-day naps too. In fact, this study found a 60-90 minute mid-day nap was more effective in boosting brain performance than 200 mg of caffeine (which is equivalent to 2 shots of espresso)!

I mentioned in my prior post that I write stories in my mind long before I put anything down on paper. Most of my “mind writing” occurs just as I’m trying to fall asleep or just as I’m waking up (and sometimes, like Stephen King, a snippet of the story comes to me in dreams. So if you find yourself stuck on stale ideas or trying to work through some problem in your writing, try to thinking about the problem just before you fall asleep. One study found that when people did this, half of them dreamed about the problem and for 70% of them, their dream included a novel solution to their problem.

Just make sure that if you follow this advice, you keep a notepad or journal by your bed. That way if your inner mule starts chattering in the middle of the night, you can write down your creative ideas and then hopefully go back to sleep!

Check back tomorrow for another tip on how to generate creative ideas!

Psych2Go Interview

Psych2Go Interview

I was recently honored to receive an interview request by Psych2Go to discuss my sexism research in light of the #MeToo campaign and to also outline how my blog merges psychological science with creative writing.

Sexual Harassment, Social Norms and Creative Writing: An Interview with Melissa Burkley, Ph.D.

Melissa Burkley offers her perspective on the #MeToo campaign, the sexual harassment/assault epidemic and how creative writers can use academic theories to their advantage.

Check out the interview here.

The Writer’s Laboratory #3: Where Do Writers Get Their Ideas?

The Writer’s Laboratory #3: Where Do Writers Get Their Ideas?

Where do writers get their ideas?

This is the question writers are asked the most. And it is the one they enjoy answering the least. According to acclaimed author Neil Gaimen, getting asked this question is the primary pitfall of being a writer.

“Doctors, for example, are always being asked for free medical advice, lawyers are asked for legal information, morticians are told how interesting a profession that must be and then people change the subject fast. And writers are asked where we get our ideas from.”

So why do writers hate answering this question? Because the truth is, they don’t have a clue where their ideas come from.

Gaimen admits this outright: “I don’t know myself where the ideas really come from, what makes them come, or whether one day they’ll stop.”

So too does Stephen King, stating in a Q&A, “I can tell you about fifty percent of the time where I got the idea. And the rest of it is totally like getting an idea in a dream and I can’t really remember where they came from.”

But a shrug of the shoulders and a “I don’t know” is the last thing the person doing the questioning wants to hear. So writers learn to make up answers.

“In the beginning,” Gaimen says, “I used to tell people the not very funny answers, the flip ones: ‘From the Idea-of-the-Month Club,’ I’d say, or ‘From a little ideas shop in Bognor Regis,’ ‘From a dusty old book full of ideas in my basement’.”

So how is it that people who make their living from writing can’t tell us where their story ideas truly come from? I think the reason has to do with the fact that the human mind is what psychologists call a “dual-process system.”

Psychologists have long held that the mind has two major systems: controlled (conscious) and automatic (unconscious). Here is an excerpt from my textbook entitled Motivation Science (co-authored with my husband), that describes these two systems:

The controlled system is the part of our mind that we are consciously aware of and is within our control. People generally assume they are aware of everything that happens in their own mind, but in fact, they are really only aware of this controlled aspect. When you are trying to make a conscious decision (e.g., Should I eat the brownie or the apple?) it is your controlled system that weighs the pros and cons and ultimately decides which food item to eat.

The automatic system occurs outside of our conscious awareness and essentially is the part of our mind that handles all the dirty work in order to make our lives easier. It scans all the sounds and sights and smells that constantly bombard your brain, interprets and organizes the information, then decides if it should be discarded or if deeper processing is in order. Without it, our brains would have to process each piece of information one by one. (Note: If you want to learn about the automatic mind in greater detail, see Malcolm Gladwell’s excellent book “Blink”)

One system is not any better than the other. Rather both systems are necessary and they work in tandem. For example, when you are talking to friends at a large gathering, your unconscious brain is processing all the other information in the room (sights, sounds, smells) so that your conscious brain can focus on what your friends are saying. Don’t believe it? Just wait until someone across the room mentions your name. Now how did you hear that if you weren’t actually listening to everyone else’s conversations? It’s because your unconscious mind was doing that for you, hearing and filtering it all out. But when it heard your name, it knocked on your conscious mind’s shoulder and said, “Hey, they said our name. This is important. Better attend to it.” For obvious reasons, psychologists call this interesting phenomenon the “cocktail party effect.”

To get a better sense of how these two minds work together, here is an analogy I used in the textbook:

Every year, nearly 5 million people travel to Arizona to visit the Grand Canyon, and for those who want to make the trip down to the bottom, there are two choices:

1.Do the 24-mile round trip hike on foot. Take it from our personal experience—this choice is rough, especially since it is much easier hiking down the canyon than it is going back up!

2.Take a mule ride down. Although this second option is less strenuous because it requires less footwork on your part, it is not without its dangers. The mules walk the steep, hazardous trek on the outer edge of the trail, their hooves just inches away from the rocky cliffs. Often, just as the mule takes a step, its hoof will slide on a lose rock, threatening to dump the animal and its rider off the treacherously high perch. In those tense moments, riders often try to take control of the animal to steer it away from the edge, but despite their effort, the mule refuses to obey.

People who select the second option often ask why the canyon relies on mules rather than horses. The reason is that a horse generally does what the rider wants to do, but a mule does what it wants to do. The stubborn nature of mules may sound like a negative trait, but miners in the 1800’s quickly learned that mules were better able to navigate the canyon’s treacherous trails because mules were more interested in preserving their own hide than listening to the sometimes poor instructions of their riders.


In this analogy, the stubborn mule is the unconscious mind and the rider is the conscious mind. The fact that most writers are unable to articulate exactly where their ideas come from suggests their ideas come from their unconscious mind. Maybe it was a dream they had or a story they saw on the news or a book they were reading that fired up the engine. Whatever the cause, it sparked a creative idea in their inner mule and suddenly they were off to the races.

For me personally, I do a lot of my writing in my mind so that by the time I sit down to my computer, the heavy lifting is already complete. Most of my “mind writing” occurs during those ten minutes at night while I am lying in bed trying to fall asleep or the ten minutes in the morning where I’m just starting to wake up. (Occasionally a story idea or snippet of dialogue rises up in the middle of the night as I’m rolling over or trudging to the bathroom—that is the worst!). As you can see, my “mind writing” tends to occur at times when my conscious brain is only half awake, allowing me to better hear the quiet voice of my unconscious mind.

Recognizing that ideas don’t just get consciously invented out of thin air is inspiring. Because we all daydream or get bored and find our mind wandering throughout our day. The only difference is that writers have trained themselves to listen to their inner mule rather than ignore it.

This recognition also offers a solution for the dreaded “writer’s block.” I find that when this pestilence strikes, it’s because I’m relying too hard on my conscious mind to twist the story into what I want it to say and my mule-like unconscious is refusing to go along. Which is why if you find yourself struck with writer’s block, it may be best to just hand the reigns off to your unconscious brain. Step away from the task at hand for a moment and try something else to get in touch with your unconscious mind. Go outside for some fresh air. Do a fun writer’s prompt. Start on a new project (preferably a short one, maybe a 500-word micro story) to get the creative juices flowing again. Then, when you’re ready to return to the target project, don’t force it. Relax the reigns and allow your inner mule to dictate where you should proceed. Chances are if you let it, your mule will take you in new and exciting directions.

Of course, once your mule comes up with an idea, your inner rider—or should I say inner “writer” 🙂 —has to step up to get words on the page. My unconscious mind may whisper ideas to me but then it’s up to my conscious mind to translate these ideas and images and voices into coherent sentences and believable dialogue and vivid metaphors.

Hopefully knowing that writers’ ideas often start from unconscious sources will help you tap into your creative side a bit. But what do you do when your mule is just refusing to budge? Are there things you can do to spur your creative mule into action? Yes, and that is exactly what my next blog post will address!

The Writer’s Laboratory #2: Why Metaphors are Important

The Writer’s Laboratory #2: Why Metaphors are Important

The metaphor is one of the most powerful tools in the artist’s toolbox. This is the case regardless of whether you are writing fiction, non-fiction, poetry, or a blog (Notice I couldn’t even get through the first sentence of this post without using one!). Writers love metaphors (and their like-minded cousin, the simile) because they add texture and beauty to an otherwise dry description. (Note that for ease of explication, I will use the term “metaphor” for the rest of this post to refer to both metaphors and similes).

Now, most writers know that metaphors are important. But what is less known is (1) why metaphors are so powerful and (2) what makes a good (or bad) metaphor. Lucky for us, psychological research on metaphors has exploded within the last decade to help us address these points.

So let’s start with the first question: Why are metaphors so powerful? The answer is that metaphors are not just a literary technique; they are a very potent psychological technique.

In their simplest form, metaphors compare two concepts that at first seem unrelated:

All the world’s a stage

Love is a battlefield

Life is like a box of chocolates

              But look closer and you’ll see that each of these takes an abstract, hard to understand idea (the world, love, life) and compares it to a simple, concrete, well-understood idea (the stage, a battlefield, a box of candy). Now not all metaphors do this (e.g., “The basement was a dark cave” simply combines two concrete concepts). But the best ones connect something that is less understood with something that is more understood. As a result, good metaphors help the reader understand something they otherwise might have not.

In On Writing, master storyteller Stephen King notes this ability of metaphors to improve comprehension when he says that they enable people to “see an old thing in a new and vivid way.” For this reason, he says that metaphors are like a kind of miracle that occurs between writer and reader. I tend to agree.

Metaphors are also important because they help writers abide by the all-important “show, don’t tell” rule. For example, in the book Misery, Stephen King’s main character Paul has been rescued after a car accident by a crazy woman named Annie. At one point, she leaves Paul for two days without water, food, or most importantly, pain pills for his broken legs. In this scene, Paul is simultaneously wrestling with crippling pain, thirst and hunger. To communicated this, King uses the metaphor of a horse race, with the horse Pain, Thirst, and Hunger all jockeying for first place. So rather than tell us outright what Paul is going through, King uses a metaphor to show us.

But metaphors go beyond just comprehension and demonstration, they actually change the way we think of a concept on an unconscious level. To demonstrate this, consider a study conducted by Thibodeau and Boroditsky in 2011. In it, half of the participants read about a crime-ridden city where the criminal element was described as a beast preying upon innocent citizens (animal metaphor). A separate group read essentially the same description of the city, only it described the criminal element as a disease that plagued the town (disease metaphor). Later, when asked how to solve the crime issue, those who read the animal metaphor suggested control strategies (increasing police presence, imposing stricter penalties). Those who read the disease metaphor instead suggested diagnostic/treatment strategies (seeking out the primary cause of the crime wave, bolstering the economy).

This study shows that by changing the metaphor actually changed the way readers thought about the crime issue. If it was a beast, it needed to be controlled. If it was a disease, it needed to be treated. Thus, writers can use metaphors to strategically control their readers’ perceptions.

Okay, so you know metaphors are important and hopefully you now have a better understanding of why that is the case. But not all metaphors are equally powerful. We can all think of good metaphors that seemed to soar when we read them. Others hit the ground with a thud.

When it comes to designing metaphors, there is an infinite amount of things you can compare your concept to. So how do you make sure your metaphor is a good one?

In my opinion, the best way to craft a metaphor is to start with your target concept (e.g., sleep) and identify the quality you want to highlight (e.g., sleep can be heavy, peaceful or restless, you can slide into it or collapse). Once you’ve landed on your quality (e.g., slide into), then generate other things that also share this quality (e.g., a baseball player sliding into home plate, a pat of butter sliding down a hot griddle, a sled sliding down an icy hill, a weary body sliding into a warm bath).

Chances are you will come up with more than one comparison, which is fine. So how do you know which one is the best? Follow my five STORI rules below for crafting the best metaphors:

1. Simple. If it takes a long time to explain the connection between two concepts, then you probably need to pick another comparison. Metaphors are designed to make things clearer, not muddy things up even more than before. Along those same lines, don’t mix metaphors. Once you start a metaphor, stick with it. Don’t change it up half-way in (e.g., he was skating on thin ice and finally decided to bite the bullet).

2. Thematic. Metaphors work better when the comparisons selected are consistent with the voice, location, time or theme of your story. For example, a chef falling in love might reflect on his “desire to devour her every word” or reflect that “she added seasoning to his otherwise bland life.” Instead, a tailor might describe the same experience as “fitting like a hand inside a glove” or that “she mended the torn seams of his heart.” And a horticulturist might see their “blossoming relationship” as “a plant that needs to be watered and nurtured.” The point is, you should select metaphors that reinforce other elements of your story.

3. Original. No one wants to read a metaphor they’ve come across a hundred times before, so avoid overused or clichéd comparisons. Stephen King provides these examples: ran like a madman, pretty as a summer day, fought like a tiger. Here are more: When it rains it pours, dressed to kill, at the speed of light, cute as a kitten, and so on. And I’m sure you can think of many other examples.

4. Relevant. When using a metaphor, the writer is agreeing to an implicit promise to the reader that the two concepts are in some way connected. The connection doesn’t have to be immediately obvious—the best ones aren’t. But it should feel like a lightbulb going off in readers’ minds. Suddenly they see the connection where they didn’t before. For instance, Stephen King provides this example of a poorly written metaphor: “He sat stolidly beside the corpse, waiting for the medical examiner as patiently as a man waiting for a turkey sandwich.” The reason this metaphor flops is because there is no seeable connection between waiting for an examiner and waiting for a sandwich.

5. Important. Strunk and White say that “similes coming in rapid fire, one right on top of another, are more distracting than illuminating. Readers need time to catch their breath.” Not everything in your writing needs a comparison. So be strategic about your use of metaphor. Only use it when you want to emphasize a concept or ignite a feeling that is important and central to your story. After all, as Freud reportedly said, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

Women in Horror Annual 2 Now Available!

Women in Horror Annual 2 Now Available!

The second volume of the Women in Horror Annual (WHA) is now available on Amazon! This amazing anthology includes my short fiction “Rumspringa,” alongside so many other great pieces written by female horror writers. I am super excited to be a part of this great collection!

Introduction to “The Writer’s Laboratory” blog

Introduction to “The Writer’s Laboratory” blog

Stephen King is my all-time favorite writer because he is so good at creating stunningly real characters, trapping them in extraordinary situations, and then watching how they claw their way out. So when Stephen King offers good writing advice (and he does so often), I try to listen. But of all the advice he has given over the years, my favorite is from a 2003 award acceptance speech. In it, he suggests that writers shouldn’t strive to be good writers or even great writers. They should be honest writers.

What does it mean to be an honest writer? According to Uncle Stevie, honest writers are ones who have “told the truth about the way real people would behave in a similar situation.” He uses the true account of an airliner crashing and killing everyone on board. Although the story would have more literary flair if the pilot’s final words were a witty phrase or a touching farewell, that’s not what happens in real life. In truth, the pilot’s final words captured on the black box were this: “Son of a bitch.”

Being an honest writer is important because, ironically, writing fiction is inherently the crafting of a lie. You are creating make-believe characters and placing them in make-believe (and often impossible) situations. But to make the reader truly believe your story, you need to drape these lies on a scaffolding built in reality. And that means knowing how to write characters and create plots that reflect how real people act in the real world.

Okay, so hopefully we are all in agreement that an author needs to write about their characters honestly, but how exactly does one accomplish this goal? The answer—you need to know something about human psychology.

This insight is why aspiring writers often take an Intro to Psychology course in college. They hope to learn things about the way people think, feel, and behave that they can weave into their own writing. But what if you didn’t take psych in college? Or what if you did but it was so long ago you don’t remember what you learned? No worries. That is what this blog is for.

As a psychologist, I’ve spent two decades studying what people do and why they do it. I’ve conducted laboratory experiments that explore how people react when placed in unusual or undesirable situations. I’ve read thousands of scientific articles on human behavior. What I’ve learned from all this is that humans are predictable but, depending on the context, they don’t always behave the way you would expect. Human behavior can be logical or irrational, selfish or altruistic, kind or hurtful, consciously controlled or automatic.

So how can we anticipate how a person will actually respond? Often, the deciding factor is something small. The person’s personality, the situation, or any of a whole host of factors. To unpack this Pandora’s box of knowledge, you need to learn the factors and processes that affect people’s behaviors, thoughts, and emotions. And unless you’re well-versed in psychological science, you need a guide. Because the more you know about the discoveries made in psychological science, the more equipped you will be to write honestly.

I designed The Writer’s Laboratory to combine my two passions—psychological science and fiction writing—in a way that teaches others how to become more honest writers (and as a result, better writers). In each post, I will pick a fascinating psychological concept, briefly discuss the research behind it, then offer suggestions on how to use this information to improve your own writing. When possible, I will pull examples of the concept we’re exploring from common works of fiction—novels, movies, TV shows—to vividly demonstrate how other writers have tapped into human psychology for their own work.

I hope you enjoy the blog and find it helpful!