Sunday, January 27, 2008

Maslow's Hierachy of Needs

I was thinking about Maslow's Hierachy of Needs the other day and how we can incorporate it our writings.

Characters are basically humans who live in the writer’s head. Yeah, I know, schizophrenic, weird, whatever. But they do. The writer visits them each day, talks to them, gets to know them. She invites them to dinner, interviews them, even cries with them. It’s at this point that they become real to her. This is where the real psychology comes in, and that doesn’t include taking the blue pills.

Abraham Maslow invented the Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs in 1950-1960. It basically lists the things we, as humans, need to survive.

1. Biological and Physiological needs - air, food, drink, shelter, warmth, sex, sleep, etc.
2. Safety needs - protection from elements, security, order, law, limits, stability, etc.
3. Belongingness and Love needs - work group, family, affection, relationships, etc.
4. Esteem needs - self-esteem, achievement, mastery, independence, status, dominance, prestige, managerial responsibility, etc.
5. Self-Actualization needs - realizing personal potential, self-fulfillment, seeking personal growth and peak experiences.

In order to bring that human element over into the character, she must first have her biological needs met. She needs to eat, drink, breath in order to reach the second level of humanity which is safety. If she’s in Freddy Kruger’s house and he’s hunting her, then she might not worry about the belonging and loved level. Instead, she will want to feel and be safe. So until she feels safe, she can’t move onto the next level, being loved.

Before moving on, let’s talk about what everyone loves to either ignore or over do, the fear factor.

Perhaps this is a great time to create conflict and sympathy for the character. She can breath, eat, and drink water, but the bad guy is stalking her through the alley. At this point, she needs to feel protected someway. Protection can come from formal training, a garbage can used as a weapon, a phone to call the police or a hero. But she must feel protected. At this point, the reader must be alerted to that protection for her to believe the character will survive. I.E. The character (Alice) is a martial arts expert. The writer must relay this fact to the reader through foreshadowing. Example: Alice runs a martial arts school or she is the teacher’s best student. Then when the bad guy comes after Alice, she can use those arts on the bad guy.

BUT there is still the question of does Alice feel safe? Probably not. All humans feel fear at one time or another. Fear is simply the fight or flight stage. It tells the body, you are in danger, do something. It is a chain reaction that comes from the brain. The brain releases chemicals into the body. The heart races faster, breathing is quicker and the muscles are energized. This gives us the fight or flight mentality. We can either raise the sword and fight or run like mad, which of course depends on the training or if she decides to try to fight.

Fear is created in the unconscious mind. There are two paths fear must take to reach the human brain. The low road, which is a quick response and the high road, which takes more time and interprets the events.

The low road means, I won’t take a chance. It’s late at night and a shutter bangs against the side of the house. The mind says, mmm . . . It could be the wind or it could be a ghost. It’s better to think it’s a ghost and hide, thus being safe, then it is to think, it could be the wind, when it’s a ghost and the person is now in danger. Thus Alice WILL be afraid because her mind is taking the low road. The human mind will ALWAYS think the worse before it thinks the best. It’s a ghost, not the wind, thus protecting itself from the ghost. Even if Alice is trained in ten martial arts and has never lost a fight, she will automatically think the worse, it’s a ghost at the door, or someone is trying to get in. She will automatically get the fear rush: the beating heart, fast breathing, tensed muscles.

This is why Friday the 13th movies are so popular. There is such deep Character Penetration into the second level of Maslow’s HN that we, the audience, feel the same fear reactions as the character. We feel her fear as seen in the racing heart, fast breathing, tensed muscles. That’s why people scream and jump in their theater seats when Jason pops out of the woods. We are there with the girl as Jason stalks her and we feel what she feels.

The high road, which is going on at the same time that Alice is running for the phone, is the senses relaying the banging shutter to Alice’s brain. The brain sends the information to the sensory cortex where it shuffles through the information, looking for an interpretation. If it determines there could be a second interpretation for the banging shutter, it sends this information to another section of the brain, who asks, have I heard this banging before? Can I match this to another instance? Are there other sounds/sights that might explain the banging on the side of the house? The other senses give this section of the brain other information. It is storming outside. The rain is hitting the side of the house and the wind just pushed the garbage can down the street. Whew!! It’s just the wind and not a ghost, the brain says. It shuts off the flight or fight stimulus. This process takes a bit longer which is why it takes longer to calm down. Problem is now eliminated and Alice is happy. That is until Jason jumps from the shadows and cuts off her head. :)

So it’s impossible to have a character who has no fear whatsoever. There will be something, a beating of the heart, breathlessness, maybe even a bit of confusion at first. Maybe the character will yell, or give orders, seem tense, but alert. Something WILL happen. That’s when the brain kicks in and tells the body, you can handle this, you have the training. Get over it and fight. Or run like a madman.

The traits of fear are

  • heart rate and blood pressure increase
  • pupils dilate to take in as much light as possible
  • veins in skin constrict to send more blood to major muscle groups (responsible for the
  • "chill" sometimes associated with fear -- less blood in the skin to keep it warm)
  • blood-glucose level increases
  • muscles tense up, energized by adrenaline and glucose (responsible for goose bumps --
  • when tiny muscles attached to each hair on surface of skin tense up, the hairs are forced upright, pulling skin with them)
  • smooth muscle relaxes in order to allow more oxygen into the lungs
  • nonessential systems (like digestion and immune system) shut down to allow more energy for emergency functions
  • trouble focusing on small tasks (brain is directed to focus only on big picture in order to determine where threat is coming from)
All of this is instinct. Every animal, from birds to fish to humans, will respond the same way. Fight or flight.

Humans have what is called Anticipation when it comes to being afraid. Alice anticipates that the banging outside is a ghost or Jason. This is caused by conditioning. Alice may have been conditioned from childhood that banging noises mean bad people. She may have heard a scary story from a childhood friend or seen Friday the 13th on TV. Example: I was watching one of those “haunting” stories on TV. A woman and her family lived in a ‘haunted’ house. She claimed to have heard voices and even taped some of the voices on a tape recorder. Then one day, she was vacuuming and the cord popped from the wall. Because of her past experience in the house, she was convinced the ghost unplug the cord. Did it? Doubtful. But her mind is now conditioned to conclude a ghost did unplug the cord. So her mind sent the picture of the cord unplugging, added it to her past experience and concluded the ghost unplugged the cord.

So it’s impossible to have Alice be Zena, Princess Warrior while having no formal fight training. She isn’t going to walk into the enemy’s camp, her eyes gleaming and tapping her sword in the palm of her hand. She isn’t going to calmly say, “Zoric, today you will die.” Yeah, right. More than likely, her heart will increase beating, her palms will sweat and she will have rapid breathing. Her digestive system will shut down, which explains the butterflies in the belly. Her mind will be thinking fight or flight. She might say, Zoric, today you die, but not without the physical side effects. In fact, walking into an enemy camp is not only stupid, it’s unrealistic.

But Zena can push her fear aside as can Zoric, which will allow her to walk into the village and fight. Instinct will kick in, but if controlled, they will survive. So what do Zoric and Zena do? They train each day. They mentally attack their enemy regularly and use the fear in their training. They mentally and physically practice to the point where they are able to use the fear instead of it using them. Both people are still afraid, but have found a way, by training and teachers, to use it for his/her advantage. But this takes practice and normal Alice, who has no practice, will not be able to be as Zoric or Zena. She will freeze, cry, have sweaty palms and run from the fight, while Zoric will be afraid, but will use it in his attack. Again, this must foreshadowed in the story. Make the reader aware that Zoric has the training to fight Zena. Don’t confuse the reader by having him suddenly defend himself from Zena without knowing what he is capable of doing. Readers get a bit testy when things are sprung on them with no explanation.

As for the other levels of Maslow’s ladder, we, as writers, should have no problem bringing Alice to the next level, then the next and finally to self-awareness. It’s fear that we fear. Perhaps it goes back to the old saying, big boys don’t cry. And only babies are afraid. We fear being afraid. It makes Alice and the writer seem weak. Weakness is bad so we must be strong. But again, being afraid is being human, so we must allow our characters to be human if humans are to understand them.

The best example of human fear is seen in the 9/11 attacks. Here is a video of Bob and Bri and their accounts of that day. Notice the fear in Bri’s voice and how she’s afraid for her and her family. Notice the video of people running away. This is fear in it’s rawest form. Here’s another example.
again, listen to the people’s voices. Here’s one more.

Notice when the towers fall, there is no Conaan the Barbarian or Zena, Princess Warrior in the group. All you hear is people screaming in the streets, then they begin to run. The only Conaans and Zenas were the people who were trained, the firemen and cops. This is human nature, this is what you need to achieve in your writing. Humans being humans.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Do they care??

I picked this up from another website.

What if the reader just doesn't care? That's a question that haunts writers from age to age. We strive to bring the reader to the point of tears and concern over the story and the character, fussing over every word, every sentence, every period. But how do we get to that point? How do we make them really give a rat's behind?

My dear Uncle Orson Scott Card showed me how. It's quite simple, to tell you the truth. All you have to do is care about the story yourself, care about the character and why she is doing what she is doing. Grieve over the consequences with her, let her cry on your shoulder.

"That's why, when you really love a book, it makes you think about important ideas and issues and fresh and powerful ways. It isn't because the writer planned it that way. It's because the writer let his unconscious mind have a lot of chances to control elements of the story. It's because the writer got out of the way and let the truth of his heart dominate the opinions in his mind. "

Let your heart rule the story, let your opinions, your dreams, your desires step forward and led the way. Let them be your banner over the story. Don't worry about the rules, the rules will care for themselves; instead be concern over the why in the novel: why it happened, how it happened, how it effects the character. Do you rejoice with her when she gets her man? Do you rejoice with him when he gets the promotion? Do you grieve over their lost child? How important is the lost child to you, the writer? Is this something that means a lot to you or are you doing this just because it seems right? Or worse, it worked to someone else, why not me? Are you really that fascinated about Haunted houses and ghostly things like Stephen King? Do you grieve over slavery like Talita Tademy? Do you really care about a girl named Ruth like Jane Hamilton did? Do you really care about humanity just as Charles Dickenson cared over the homeless in old England? If not, then why write like them? Why write the same themes over and over? The authors listed above wrote things that stood on their hearts like a rock in a river and refused to budge. It grieved them, fascinated them, even scared them. They breathed these things and they became their banner. In the same way, your writing should become your hill, your cause, your trumpet blast, not someone else's.

I read on Orson's BB where someone had a great idea for a story. It struck me, even flamed my own fire:

"I know this response is to an old subject, but I thought I'd mention it, anyway.
JK shared his idea about a priest who is made into a vampire, and the ensuing spiritual turmoil in this man's life. The fact that he drinks another person's blood torments him.

It occurred to me that this torment would be exacerbated by the fact that by the 7th century Christians believed, and the Catholic Church affirmed at the Cousel of Trent(1562–63), that in the Eucharist (Communion) the bread and the wine are "transubstantiated", becoming in fact the actual flesh and blood of Christ.

Can you imagine the conflict raging in this priest's soul while tryng to administer Holy Communion to his flock? When bringing the chalice of Christ's blood (from which only the priest drinks)to his lips?"

Talk about caring!! I can see it in the poster's writing. This is someone who does care about the priest and his dilemma. How heartbreaking to be a shepherd of the flock who believes vampires are of Satan, only to be turned into Satan himself. When he drinks the chalice, he is truly drinking Christ's blood as well as those of His sheep. Now that would be an interesting book. Even now I care about the good father. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the goal of writing. Make the reader care because I, the writer, care. And if I care, then I'll relate the facts or shall I say, lies, to you the reader, thus making you care.

So I guess it all starts in the heart, in our beliefs, our standards, our passions. That's where we begin the care, when we let our passions rule us instead of the rules ruling us.

Happy writing, children!!! :)

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Vunerable Characters

Ok, this is so freaking cool!!! I picked this up by watching Mythbusters and I got an insight on characters.

Humans are an interesting breed. We try so hard to remain strong and courageous, facing danger with not even a blink of an eye. Yet we are like rag dolls, tossed around by circumstances. We build up defenses, protecting our tiny selves from each other, when we are all the same.

I was watching Mythbusters today and the group tested the Chinese Water Torture to see if it was true, that the victim would break with only a few drops of water. So a young girl named Kari underwent the procedure. Her friends strapped her to a rack with her arms tied over her head, then her feet held down by chains. They opened a water valve which allowed drops of water to drip on her forehead. A paramedic and her friends stood beside her, ensuring her safety. After an hour, she broke down and wept, regretting that she agreed to do the stunt. But right away, she composed herself. After another half an hour, the crew untied her shackles, saying she was done. In an interview, she admitted she was ashamed she panicked and cried.

Now for the interesting part. We, as humans, use our own strength as a security blanket. God forbid if we should cry or admit we are afraid. So we bring the same blankey over into our characters. God forbid if Alice Smith, the heroine of our latest work, should cry when she's afraid or when she's angry. We have no problem allowing Alice to throw a temper tantrum or squeal in the fits of sexual passion, but never allow her to cross that almighty line of fear or vulnerability. So we keep her and ourselves far from this cursed chasm, never allowing ourselves or them to step into illicit territory. Even the word itself, say it - VULNERABILITY - makes us cringe. It means exposed, weakness, open, defenselessness, susceptible, helplessness, in a weak position. Everything we fear. The very idea of being helpless and depending on someone else to save us scares the very breath from our lungs. Shiver!! What if they don't show up and save me, what if they laugh at me, what if they think badly of me because I'm not strong enough to bare the load? Too many questions with no answers.

But to see Kari weep as her hands were held over head gave me a sense of pity for her and made her human, someone who needed rescuing. I cared for her. In the same sense when we allow Alice to travel over that border into the Land of Vulnerability, we create a sense of pity that echoes from the pages. Readers care about her, long to see her win and their eyes search the horizon for the knight in shining armor to save the damsel in distress.

Unfortunately, society has taught humans that tears equate weakness and weakness is bad. One must be strong. Kari felt ashamed that she broke down and cried. She snorted in disgust as if she had broke an unwritten law. That law resonates through us and controls our lives as well as our characters' lives. The unwritten rule: Thou shall not weep. So we hold Alice together for if one judges Alice, they judge the writer. Alice is, in a sense, the extension of the writer, a part of her soul.

What we forget is that weeping in the face of fear means we are just like the rest of the people crawling upon the face of this space rock. We are human. We all weep when we are afraid, either in the presence of others or in the safety of our own rooms. That's what brings the character home, makes you feel sorry for her, just as my heart broke for poor Kari. I would do the same thing in the same situation; I understand Kari and can relate to her fears. She has taken a step towards me, creating a sense of intimacy. I feel I know her just a little bit more, she is human just as I am.

How do we get Alice to cross that gorge into intimacy? By giving her permission. Just make sure it fits the scene. Crying over losing her keys might seem over the top, but crying because the lost keys broke the camel's back is appropriate. Example: Alice loses her job, her husband leaves her, the bank is foreclosing the house and then she lost her keys. Perfect time to let her ride the tides of tears. I've read so many books where the heroine is a emotionally and physically strong Zena, who never sheds a tear. She is strong in the face of turmoil even when her family is killed, her house burned to the ground and the enemy tortures her for five days straight. Now come on!! Who would still be strong after those circumstances? No one I know. Even after one hour and a half, her arms and legs released and sitting in a chair with her friends surrounding her and paramedics close at hand, Kari still suffered the effects of her "torture". Her eyes beheld her emotions. When the crew first strapped her to the rack, her eyes were strong, flat, ready. After, her eyes held a fear that she tried to reign in but couldn't. She was clearly shaken. A doctor trained in helping tortured victims sat across from her. I could tell he was concerned for her, his eyes never leaving her face and his body posture was very stiff as if he waited for her words to tumble from her.

Mark Bertrand said it best: "How do you create sympathetic characters? I think it might be as simple as placing the character in a situation of some sort, then giving her a reaction the reader would share. An internal reaction may be enough -- for example, your character sees a panhandler and goes through the familiar "I want to help but what if they use my money to buy drugs?" response. We've all been there, so we can sympathize. Now, if she overrules her natural disinclination and actually helps, that goes a step further. Not only is she reacting as the reader does, but she's doing what the reader wishes she herself would."

So why not bring these same emotions into our characters? Why not tap into those feelings and thoughts of being trapped and alone? Why? Because the thought of Zena weeping as she describes her torture scares us more than the torture itself. The very idea of allowing vulnerability and our true selves exposed to the world is more terrifying that facing Freddy Krueger in a cemetery. But once we allow Alice to reach that point of exposure will also allow the reader to journey with her. The reader now cares for Alice just as I cared for Kari. The reader longs to see Alice saved by the handsome knight, just as I longed to see the brave paramedic lift Kari from the rack. So strap Alice to the rack of emotions, allow her to face her fears and give her the luxury of weeping. You'll see the outcomes, a character everyone cares for instead of a dull and flat Zena.

Be blessed in your writing,


Saturday, January 5, 2008

Sparkling eyes.

This was a very cool experience and I learned so much!!! I love my friends. She asked me to meet her at the book store to talk about writing. Of course I agreed. How can I turn down discussing my, well, second love? We chit chatted a bit about the Christmas play we were in last year and about Christmas, we spoke of receipes and church, just always staying above the surface. That's when the itching over took me and I had to asked the mighty question: What do you want to know about writing? Her eyes lite up and the questions tumbled forth like a waterfall. She asked about Characters, POV's, fiction vs non-fiction. She told me her writing dreams of the future and what God had laid upon her heart. I was looking beyond the Looking Glass and into sacred territory. Her life twinkled in her eyes and her cheeks flushed with both embarrassment and excitement. For some strange reason I felt as if I were the only one to hear these sacred and treasured dreams. I was stepping amounst the daiseys and I had to be careful not to crunch them. They are delicate, these dreams we treasure deep inside. So I told her to go for it, to follow God's directions - Go after this like a pitbull.

That's when I saw it, a miracle blooming before me. The dream began to form and take shape as her words seeped from her. It grew legs and arms, a beating heart and seeing eyes. It peered out at me and smiled softly. Its lips moved and whispered, Thank you for believing in me.

I guess the lesson today is believe in others, don't be jealous or trash their hopes. I pray to God that my friend becomes the writer that lives deep inside her and she surpasses all others. Go for it, dear, like a pitbull dog. :)