How Getting to Know the Basics of Psychology Can Drastically Improve Your Writing

At a glance, there doesn't seem to be much of a connection between psychology and writing. What could the scientific study of the human mind possibly have to do with your whimsical tale about sentient, shapeshifting dolphins?

In a word ... everything!

One of the basic tenets of a considered writing practice is knowing exactly who you're writing for. Many writers stumble their way through this step purely by being an avid member of their own readership ... but the wise writer knows that there's more to participating in a genre, for example, than packing a fantasy novel full of swords and magic.

In addition to knowing all the tropes, clichés, and staples of the medium you're working with, tailoring your work to a particular audience requires an understanding of its average age range, gender, socioeconomic background, and cultural beliefs. This is something we'll go into depth on another time, but for today, the spotlight is on the one thing your readers are guaranteed to have in common: they're all human!

Before you start looking into a particular subgroup of people, it's best to arm yourself with the knowledge of how people work in general. Everyone is different, to an extent ... but regardless of where we come from or how we were raised, we share a lot more in common than we don't.

Picking up where Writer's Connect newsletter 86 left off, we're going to take a look at what makes us tick.

Psychology books - How Getting to Know the Basics of Psychology Can Drastically Improve Your Writing
Do you know what you are? Welcome to the jungle, punk!

This post brought to you by guest blogger Tyrone Couch.

We Love Drama

No matter how much we might claim otherwise, there are few among us who can truly say they get nothing out of a juicy story. Arguably, it's the main reason we read in the first place: to be held at the edge of our seats as a gripping drama unfolds right before our eyes. As readers, we get to look on at tragedies and comedies alike, experiencing them vicariously through the characters without ever having to suffer through them ourselves.

And, if there's one thing we hate as much as we love drama, it's waiting. Combine the two, and you have a potent cocktail indeed.

Think back to just about every pilot episode or first act of a television show you've ever seen. Something really crazy happens, making you almost desperate to find out what happens next ... and if you're lucky, you might get one or two crumbs on the subject before a big reveal in the season finale. Even then, the reveal only serves to deepen the mystery, leaving you with more questions than answers.

It's maddening ... and we love it!

To illustrate this, consider a show you may not have come across until well after it was finished airing. You pick it up from the beginning, and it immediately has you hooked. A good friend of yours has already seen it, and you're practically frothing at the mouth to find out how everything plays out ... but if they breathe a word of it to you, there'll be hell to pay!

Reading the synopsis of a book trilogy might make you think, 'wow, that's cool', but it'll never compare to being strung along for nine years while you wait for the author to finish writing it. In a way, we're more interested in the process of questioning than we are arriving at the answer. It's interesting, engaging, and addictive. And the moment we have answers, all of that goes away.

In short, as frustrating as it is when a story keeps us guessing, it's also the driving force behind what keeps us reading. Without tension, there is no drama. Without drama, there is no incentive. Understanding that about your audience will help you to tighten your focus when writing, add value to your story, and keep your readers on the hook.

We're Narcissists At Heart

If there's nothing we can relate to in a story, it's probably not going to keep us interested.

That doesn't mean we only gravitate towards characters like us and stories like ours (though these can be powerful draw cards)—in fact, some of us avoid these like the plague.

But to continue with the theme of things that are common to all of us, one of the ways writers can leverage psychology is by writing about universal experiences. To name a few, the concepts of coming of age, unrequited love, loss of a loved one, or familial ties are often made central to a story's plot for their broad appeal.

No matter how abstract the setting or how alien the characters, they are always going to be filtered through ourselves and our own experiences, both as readers and as writers. It's impossible to distance ourselves enough from the human experience to write from the perspective of some extradimensional being with no concept of these things … and even if we could manage it, no one would want to read it!

We instinctively look for ourselves in the media because when we see little pieces of ourselves on the outside, it affirms who we are on the inside. Nothing is more frightening or threatening to our sense of security than the idea that we're alone in our experience, whether figuratively or literally. Thus, reading about someone who resembles us in some way can be of great comfort (even if they're fictional!).

This is one of the main reasons that the bulk of modern media feels a little 'samey'. It deliberately appeals to the broadest audience possible, recycling the same few ideas and tugging on the same heartstrings in order to make itself accessible to everyone (thereby making as much money as possible).

Though I don't necessarily recommend taking the same approach, there's plenty you can learn from it. When you draw inspiration from things you've encountered personally, you almost guarantee that your writing will give someone out there that special sense of recognition and familiarity. It can be as simple as an emotion associated with a particular experience, or as complex as the feeling of growing up with a sentient, shapeshifting dolphin for a babysitter.

It's worth noting that some of the most successful works of our time are the ones that have appealed to the more niche and underrepresented experiences, so don't be afraid to push the envelope!

We're More Than One Thing

Possibly the most important reason to know a little about how the mind works is so that we can write people who actually seem like people. All too often, we write characters that are more like caricatures of a particular personality or ideal than a real person.

Take the 'big bad' for example. In many cases of less-than-ideally-written fiction, the villain seems to exist solely for the sake of giving the good guys somebody to beat up on. He has no real motivation for evil other than evil's sake. Conversely, the main hero might embody everything that is good and righteous and pure, without having a single character flaw.

These are not people, so much as they are cardboard cut-outs!

In fairness, it can be easy to get caught up in the original concept of a character and fail to consider any additional angles for them. You might think, 'this character is roguish, and so they react to everything that happens the way a rogue might'.

But ask yourself: why is this character roguish? How did they end up that way? What else might they be, and what might be hiding behind the roguish veneer?

If you have a central idea for a character's personality, it would behoove you to do a bit of research on that personality trait. Find out what causes it, what other traits that people who exhibit it have, and look to famous examples of people or characters who have it for inspiration.

Like people, characters are the way they are for a reason, and there is (or should be!) much more to them than one particular trait. If there isn't, then readers will fail to connect with them, which is all but a death sentence for even the best story.

And How Does That Make You Feel?

Hopefully this article gives you something of a sense for how psychology can inform your writing practice. The better you know your audience, the better you can appeal to them!

If you'd like some more tips, delivered to your inbox every fortnight, make sure to subscribe to Writer's Connect (at the bottom of the page).

Should you be interested in a more hands-on approach, consider checking out our book coaching & writing programs!

Word of the Day

strident (adj.)

When relating to a sound, strident indicates that it is harsh, grating, and unpleasant. It can also refer more generally to something that is done in a loud and attention-grabbing manner.

The beast let out a strident scream, scattering the villagers in all directions.
 His strident political speeches were becoming tiresome.

Quotidian Quote

"As a writer, you should not judge, you should understand."
~ Ernest Hemingway

Get Competitive!

A selection of current writing competitions YOU can enter!

The Writers College Global Novel Writing Competition

Format: Proposal
Theme: Open
Word Count: max. 6,000
Entry Fee: Nil
Prize: Writing course package
Closes: 31/07/2023

Click here for more details

The Writers College Global Novel Writing Competition - How Getting to Know the Basics of Psychology Can Drastically Improve Your Writing

Universe of Threats Essay Contest

Format: Essay
Theme: Pathogen threat scenario
Word Count: 2,500
Entry Fee: Nil
Prize: $10,000
Closes: 31/07/2023

Click here for more details

Universe of Threats Essay Contest

Seán Ó Faoláin Short Story Competition

Format: Short story
Theme: Open
Word Count: max. 3,000
Entry Fee: €19
Prize: €2,000 plus publication
Closes: 31/07/2023

Click here for more details

Seán Ó Faoláin Short Story Competition

The Washburn Chapbook Prize

Format: Chapbook
Theme: Open
Word Count: See for details
Entry Fee: $10
Prize: $200 plus publication
Closes: 31/07/2023

Click here for more details

The Washburn Chapbook Prize


Look over the fine print to make sure that your submission qualifies and you're happy with the terms of engagement.

The Australian Society of Authors has a highly informative post on their website called 'What to look for in a writing competition's T&Cs' .
To locate the article, click on 'Home', then 'News'.

Photo credit Alicia Christin Gerald, Unsplash

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