Narrative Space in the Real World

In an earlier post I described how the term “narrative space” refers to the breadth and depth of the subject matter from which you will develop a story.  Like a cloud, the subject matter is just the raw material – a nebulous realm in which many story structures might be found.  Think of a story structure as a construct of tinker-toys about the size of a basketball.  And think of a narrative space as your bathtub.  With a tub full of subject matter, you can drop your tinker ball anywhere in it and encircle a different batch of water.  Without changing the structure at all, you can move it just an inch and still change the nature of the particular subject matter you’ll use in making your point.

Now look at it another way.  You have this tub full of subject matter than intrigues you.  You’d love to cram it all into the same story.  But, your ball just isn’t that big.  In other words, you’d need a book the size of an encyclopedia to cover it all, or perhaps a movie 8 days long.  Could it be done, of course!  But should it?  Not if you expect anybody to read it or go see it.

So, you assess your tub.  You’d really like the rubber duck in your story so you put the ball around that.  But, you’d also like that particular lump of suds – it just intrigues you.  You gently push that little bubbly heap into your ball as well.  In fact, you go all over your basin and pull all the water and floating things you’d specifically like into your ball.  Eventually, you can’t get anything new into the ball without pushing something else out.  That is the story equivalent of the speed of light constant.  I call it the size of mind constant, because it describes the maximum size a story can be and still be held at one time in the mind of your reader or audience.

Of course you can always plop another ball into the same tub to gather in a different collection of subject matter.  Thus, by writing a series of books, penning a television series, or hammering out a bunch of movie sequels, you might be able to get almost all the subject matter that interests you covered in one story or another – just not all in the same story!

(Naturally, you could create an over-arcing story structure in which each of the smaller stories becomes just an element in a bigger structure, but then the read or audience won’t be able to see the subject matter detail in the smaller stories at the same time that they appreciate the subject matter in the over-arcing story – just too many degrees of separation or magnitude from the biggest to the smallest to capture in a single glimpse.)

Some of your tinker balls might actually overlap in the tub, like galaxies colliding, in which they each share some elements of story structure.  Others may carve out sections that are completely separated.  And, some may nudge up against each other just close enough to have a topical point of connection.  In the end, though, you need to decide for any given story what subject matter you will include and what you will exclude.  Or, put inversely, you need to determine where in the tub to drop your ball.

Finally, to the point of this particular posting – narrative space in the real world.  By this I do not mean the practical application of story structure in fiction, but the projection of story structure concepts into the actual, physical world of living, breathing people.  Quite a departure, I know.  But recall that Dramatica is a theory of the story mind.  It holds that every story structure is a model of the mind’s problem-solving processes.  Even more, it goes so far as to contend that story structure represents the underlying structure and dynamics of our own minds upon which our unique experiences fashion our singular personalities.

Hey – too talky…  Let me try that a little more conversationally…  What works in story structure works in understanding everyday life as well.  The story mind is the same as our own minds.  It is a fully functional model of how we think – how we organize things in our own heads.  So it should not come as much of a surprise that the way we organize our stories is all the way we organize our lives.

Everything we do in life is represented in stories, at a structural level.  I’m not talking about whether you like red or blue or whether you play football or go bowling – that’s all just subject matter.  (And when I say “just” subject matter, yes I know that is where the passion lies.  We only care intellectually about structure.  In short, our heads are into structure but our hearts are into the subject matter.  Still, we’re talking about the relationship between structure and subject matter here, so I suppose it doesn’t really matter much anyhow.)

Now one person will organize his life in many story structures.  Your life is your tube and you’ll have lots of balls in it – some bigger (up to the size of mind constant, at times) but mostly smaller structures of various sizes.  You’ll have a structure for your parents and one for your kids.  You’ll have a structure for your job and, within that, one for your boss.  You’ll have a structure for your future, one for each hobby, and one for the concept of hobbies in which each smaller structure is an element in the overall concept.

We don’t think about structure, we think in topics and organize in structure.

So, one person will have many nested and isolated structures all bouncing around in his or her head all the time, shifting around the the subject matter of our lives, driven by the passions of our personalities.  But underneath it all, logistically, organizationally, there is sense in the midst of the chaos when you recognize the structures of your life and don’t try to create a “life story” but more like a “life pageant” of the ongoing progression, collision and evolution of all the little stories that make up your pitiful existence.  Oops…  got a little carried away there with the rhetoric….

Point is, one person has many stories.  And within themselves, they can see all the characters you find in stories – the Reason character who represents our intellect, the Emotional archetype who stands for our passion, the Protagonist who is our initiative, the Antagonist (our reticence), the Sidekick (our confidence) the Skeptic (doubt), the Guardian (conscience), and the Contagonist (temptation).

But here’s the fun part – when we get together in groups, us humans take on the role of characters in the group story.  In short, we organize ourselves as part of a a larger group-story because story structure is how we organize.  Sounds recursive, but when you consider that the whole point of stories is to show us how to deal with situations that reflect (at some tiny or grandiose level) our own lives, add to that the notion that story structure evolved because it represents the way we think, and add to that the fact that of course we try to organize our world they way our heads are organized – well then maybe it isn’t so much recursive as it is fractal.  In fact, when I first thought of this concept, I called it “fractal psychology” – that’s my name for it and I’m sticking to it!  (Check out my videos on fractal psychology on YouTube.)

Every time you join a club, participate in a class, get involved in a political party or show up to work, you are taking a role in a bigger story than yourself, but completely like the way your own mind is organized.  So, one of us will be the voice of Reason, another the Emotional (passionate) perspective.  By each taking a role, we cover all the ways we can possibly think about the issues the group faces, we create a “big giant head” a la the old television show Mork and Mindy and populate its roles.

Now if you join an already existing organization, there might not be the position open to which you are best suited.  And, because of seniority (or lack thereof) you have to take a role that isn’t all that natural to you.  But if you don’t, you won’t have a place at the table.  So, you cram yourself into that position as best you can in the hopes that if somebody else leaves or dies or gets kicked out or whatever, when the musical chairs of reorganization occurs you may be able to snag yourself a better seat.

Though these things are always to some degree in flux (like molecules, heated, agitating and vibrating to one extent or another), there is a general inertia to each story system that holds the group together.  In time, like a person, a group may grow old and die, lose its vibrancy, or simply go to pieces.  And then, the pieces will gather together or be sopped up by other groups (again like solar systems forming from the remnants of a super nova) and the process will begin all over.

Now the last notion I’ll lay upon you (hallelujah!) is that even groups gather together in groups.  Cities become States become Nations.  Factions become Movements become Parties.  All of humanity is arranged as nested or separated groups, vibrating and evolving and overlapping as they pass through one another in the great subject matter tub of life.  Seems largely like a mess (if you watch the evening news or try to find a job) but beneath it all, very sound, stable, predictable and consistent patterns are a work, all fractally related to that little bitty brain stuffed into each of our puny heads.  A world within and a world without.

Finally, just to poke the bear one more time, go ahead and write your fictions, shoot your movies, and tell your tales.  But wouldn’t it be interesting to try and apply these same Dramatica principals not only to the realms of your creation but to all creation?  What’s the story with your spouse?  Your job?  Your future?  Which of those countries is the Skeptic in this particular international melee?  How does what happens in my town fit in with what happens in my county, and how does it mesh with the next burg over?

You want to think about it.  You know you do.  (That’s just me falling into the role of Contagonist….)

Narrative Analysis – American Student Released by DPRK (North Korea)

American student released from DPRK (North Korea) – What’s the narrative?

Salient narrative facts:

1. The student is in a coma since March due to botulism, according to DPRK sources.

2. The DPRK has launched 16 missiles in the last few weeks, garnering international concerns.

3. The DPRK recently threatened a first strike nuclear attack against the United States to “protect itself.”

4. The student has been in custody for 17 months and his condition was not known.

Narrative assessment:

The release of the American student, especially in a coma from a cause that creates suspicion of foul play or at least lack of expected protections, is not an olive branch but a further provocation designed to additionally fan the flames of American sentiment against the DPRK.

Clearly, the DPRK is trying to provoke some sort of preemptive action on the part of the United States beyond merely tightening sanctions.

Narrative question:

What is the motivation of the DRPK in attempting to provoke preemptive action against it by the United States, and what are their likely reactions to alternative potential actions?

In previous work we have done for the CIA, NSA, NRO and Joint Chiefs of Staff, this would be the starting point for full-scale narrative analysis of potential scenarios including the creation of a motivation map of the DRPK and specifically of KIm Jong-un, as well as a narrative projection of future behavior , leading to a recommendation of the most effective action plans for United States policy officials.

Most of our analyses, ranging from our presence in Afghanistan to psychological deterrents against Chinese cyber incursions, are largely based on open source material, which holds a wealth of narrative data, hidden within the subject matter, invisible to those untrained in the science and methods of narrative analysis and narrative creation.

Contact us for information about narrative analysis and creation services at narrative@storymind.com

Narrative in the Real World and the Mobius Doughnut

In the early 1990s we developed a new theory of narrative called Dramatica.  Since it touched on the psychology of story structure, we believed that it might also be applied to the psychologies of real people as well as fictional ones.

As background for this hypothesis, Dramatica theory holds that every story has a mind of its own. This Story Mind is made up of a personality created by the storytelling style and an underlying psychology represented by the story’s structure.

This one concept alone, if projected onto real people might help us understand an individual, be it a friend, stranger, or perhaps ourselves. But Dramatica also contends that fictional characters are not only personalities in their own rights, but also must play a second role as a facet or aspect of the overall Story Mind. In essence, each character is a complete mental system, but collectively they join together to form a larger mental system that is not unlike a fractal of the dynamics of each individual character.

From this notion, we developed the concept of fractal storyforms, meaning that not only would characters create a Story Mind when they came together, but a group of story structures coming together would create an even larger Story Mind in which each individual story functioned as a character.

In the real world, we hypothesized, when people come together in groups, they automatically slip into roles that represent different attributes we all possess. For example, one person might become the voice of reason in a group, assuming the role of the group’s intellect, just as there is a Reason Archetype in a fictional story. Another character might adopt the position of the group’s passion, speaking up whenever human feelings are the issue, essentially fulfilling the same character function as the Emotion Archetype.

What’s more, if a number of groups band together in a larger organization, automatically they will begin to adopt roles within the larger organization as if they were characters in a mind, thereby extending the phenomenon up one more fractal dimension. In the real world we call this “fractal psychology.”

Naturally it follows that if Story Minds exist in the real world as well as the fictional world, then might we not best understand their elements and mechanisms by applying the same Dramatica model that has proven itself in the analysis of fictional stories?

Recently, an opportunity has emerged for us to explore the application of our methods for analysis of storyforms to actual situations and organizations. At first, the task seemed simple – just analyze the situations as if they were stories. But it quickly became evident that there are substantial differences in the two endeavors.

Most notably, while the narrative space of a story is a closed system, i.e. a book, a movie or a stage play, in the real world the narrative space is open, limitless. So unlike analyses of fiction, in the real world one must first find the storyform before one can analyze it.

Alas, this brings forth another difficulty. There is usually only one story in a fiction narrative space. Sometimes there can be a sub-story hinged to the main story that is almost wholly independent, yet touches at one point, such as a character who appears in both stories.

In such a case, the character is driven most strongly by its own story, yet still plays a function in the larger story. An example is the original Star Wars movie (Episode IV) in which Han Solo’s debt story with Jabba is hinged (but not part of) the main story about the empire and the rebels.

In this example, Han’s character would never allow him to march into the detention area to rescue the princess EXCEPT that his need for money for his sub-story provides enough sideways motivation for him to act out of character and do something that puts him at more risk. A useful tool for writers, but a complication for analysts of real-world situations.

Further, some fiction narrative spaces can contain more than one complete story, like raisins in rice pudding. For example, in Woody Alan’s movie, “Crimes and Misdemeanors” there is a crime story and a misdemeanor story, each with complete and different structures and different characters that do not affect or interact with the other story. The movie is designed to force the audience to compare the two stories side by side and arrive at a more conundrum.

In the real world, this means that any number of independent stories may co-exist in the same narrative space. One may even conjecture that some real world stories may be sub-sets of others, or perhaps even overlap each other containing some unique and some shared story points.

In short, single storyforms in fiction are idealizations in which there is a single central problem. The unfolding of the story is an argument about the best way to try and solve such a problem. But in real minds and real situations, many problems are constantly emerging, playing themselves out, and passing through each other, like stars in galaxies in collision. Add to this the fractal nature of nested storyforms and you end up with a veritable mess.

And so, the task of identifying and separating a single storyform in the real world, much less the one best suited to answer the questions at hand becomes a daunting proposition.

Decades ago, when we were first trying to model Dramatica’s conceptual structure in some tangible form, we experimented with several physical constructs to represent the elements and their attendant dynamics.

Nowadays, we are all familiar with the recognizable four-tower model representing the four Classes of stories and looking like an odd blending of a three-dimensional chess set and a Rubik’s cube. But how many are actually aware of why Dramatica ended up being presented in this form?

The real story, as it were is that in the very beginning, we began with lists of elements that we observed in story. Then we realized some were higher-level appreciations and others lower-level, like members of a family that all share the same higher-level family name as well as their own. Or, like families of chemical elements in which Fluorine and Chlorine are different elements but have properties similar enough to be in the same chemical family.

But how to build a model of that which satisfied all of the mechanisms that “chemically” connected the elements?

One of the first attempts I made was to get a toroid (a doughnut-shaped piece of Styrofoam about a foot across) and then to wrap a thin metallic foil tape around it in a helix. The foil wrapped around the circumference four times by the time it passed through all four quadrants and returned to the point of origin. This represented one of the four classes.

Three more foil tapes of different colors were added, spaced so that they also wrapped around the toroid in a four-loop spiral without overlapping the others. Each was slightly staggered, so that the beginning of the next color was at the ending of the last color, creating a continuously wrapping “quad-helix” around the toroid until the end of thye very last of the four colored foils connected back to the beginning of the very first, creating, essentially and endless loop.

This was useful because you could see the relationships among elements of different classes when written equally spaced along each of the four colors. But, it was hardly practical to ship a Dramatica Steering Wheel with each software box, it who could use the thing anyway? Besides, this was just an approximation. In fact, to be wholly correct, the toroid would have had to have been wrapped by a mobius strip to include the progressive shift of dynamics in a structure which we came to refer to (in verbal shorthand) as an “inverse with a twist.” Hence, the need for a mobius doughnut.

After that, we shifted to a much more doable visualization of the very same elements and mechanics as a pyramid for each Class of story (for each of the four towers you see today).

To illustrate that each pyramid represented a point of view that the peak that fanned out into a perspective of the “Truth” at the base, we decided to put two pyramids together at the base so they formed a crystal – real new age visualization, that!

This worked much better, but we came to realize that because both points of view were looking not at different sides of the same coin but at the same side from different places, then we ran into problems because the common base that was the interface between them couldn’t be itself and also its mirror image at the same time. And besides, there were four classes, so how could they all share the same interface in a three dimensional model?

We were pretty frustrated. So, we took a clue from Crick and Watson when they were trying to be the first to discover the molecular structure of DNA. At first, they were using X-ray micrographs of DNA to try and see the structure. From that method, DNA appears to be a crystal, just as our model could. And, as we all now know, DNA is a double-helix, while our temporal component is a quad-helix.

We figured with that kind of correlation we were probably on the right track. But, since all that was still too complex for writers, we ended up simply making four towers, sub-divided into smaller and smaller components to illustrate all the familial relationships among the story points. And when we flattened it down to a two-dimensional grid, we presented this alternative view as the Dramatica Table of Story Elements that tens of thousands of writers use today.

And here we were now, twenty years later, looking at an open-system narrative space in the real world, once more trying to visualize a storyform. But not the same as in the closed system of fiction – an inverse version of that. But worse. Because the in fiction, analysis is a closed set and creation is an open set, but in the real world analysis AND creation are BOTH open sets. So, it wasn’t just an inverse, but an inverse with a twist AGAIN! Durn concept keeps coming ‘round to haunt us.

Okay, let’s take that toroid again and stick it in the middle of the real-world narrative space. We have to make it a mobius doughnut in our minds because this doughnut is a very special doughnut because to see the storyform inside, you have to turn the doughnut inside out.

And here, then, is the real problem. You can see the data inside until you turn it inside out, but you can’t turn it inside out because it is genus one with no opening on the surface. You see, if you take an inner tube and take off the valve, you can actually (or at least theoretically) pull the entire inner tube through the valve hole until the inside is on the outside and vice versa. But without a hole, in a true doughnut, there’s no loose thread, no handle, no place to get a grip or begin the process of inversion.

The mobius strip aspect indicates that it would only lay flat upon the toroid if we had one more dimension than three in which to build such a visualization. But, we don’t – not for practical purposes.

And so, we bashed our heads against the wall for some time until after many days of conjecture, we realized that the key was not in finding the best storyform in the real-world narrative space by objective standards, but the best storyform by subjective standards.

In a world of infinite overlapping structures, none is more important than any other until you impose importance upon it. Essentially, as the singer/composer Don MacLean said, “The more you pay, the more its worth.”

As an analog, consider the story creation process in fiction. It is an open system for the subject matter of interest to the author has no limits. Theoretically, this makes it impossible to pick the best story structure because it cannot be objectively determined.

But in practice, who the hell is objective? Rather, authors come to the story creation process because of their subjective interest in the subject matter. Many years ago I used to teach authors that we all get excited by the subject matter, but in truth, all of those bits of information can’t possibly live together in peaceful coexistence in the same story structure. The job of the structuring author is to pick the most important subject matter first, boil it down to story points in the structure and then continuing picking until you hit the point where something you want won’t fit into the structure. This is when the Dramatica Story Engine in the software is doing its job by telling the author, “if you include that extra piece, you’re weakening your own structure – working against yourself.”

So, when Dramatica doesn’t match what you want to do at the lower levels, its not broken. In fact, that what it was designed to do – save you from yourself (save your subjective self from making a big objective mistake!)

Now if we apply that same principal to the open-system real world narrative space, then (using the inverse with a twist) analysis should work the same way. And durned if it doesn’t.

You can’t find a story form in the real world, you have to impose one, just like an author does in creating a fiction. Essentially, what is it you want to know? What question do you want to answer, what process do you want to explore?

In practice, you simply look at the narrative space and decide what you want to know first. Then you turn a data point into a story point that will explore that for you. Then you pick the next piece and the next. You continue picking pieces until you’ve fully populated a storyform.

Of course, in the real world, you’ll never get to a complete storyform before you run out of visible data points. But thanks to the Story Engine, by the time you’ve run out of data that belongs in your subjectively defined story structure, Dramatica will suggest the kinds of data that “should” be out there in the gaps.

If you are writing a fictional story about real events, these gaps will be filled by your own creation. But in an analysis of real world data, these gaps are already filled – you just haven’t observed that data yet, but its out there somewhere, hiding for now.

Therefore, Dramatica is able to tell you more about the real world than you can see for yourself.

In summary then, in both fiction and the real world, no storyform is better than any other until you have a preference for one. In either case, you need to look to the subject matter and build a storyform that best represents the subject matter you’d like to explore.

In short, when building storyforms in the real world, forget all the pyramids and towers and mobius doughnuts – all you have to do is make the one you want.

And in conclusion, it took us weeks of work and took me six pages to describe find and describe logically something every writer worth his or her salt knows intuitively:

Build the story you want to tell.

And Dramatica? It just keeps you honest when your own preference for the subject matter gets the better of making sense.

Melanie Anne Phillips

Originally published in 2011

Learn more about Narrative Science

Pink Blues

One of my compositions:

Can you tell me, father, why you act like you’re so wise?

Can you tell me, mother, why the tears are in your eyes?

Can you tell me, brother, why you cannot hear my cries?

Can you tell me, sister, how to live with all the lies?

This one is a lament of the questions women are asking even in our “enlightened” culture

al Awlaki, the “Uncanny Valley” and Writing Empathetic Characters

Here’s an article about real world narrative I published shortly after al Awlaki, an American recruiter for terrorism, was killed in a raid:

Recently, al Awlaki (the infamous “American” Al Qaeda) was killed by American forces. He was viewed as a great threat because of his ability to speak to the domestic population of the United States in their own language and culture and to inspire terrorist acts by those susceptible to his message of jihad.

While these allegations are certainly true, they alone do not explain the intensity with which Awlaki was both feared and despised. In fact, there is another quality he possessed that amplified the trepidation and derision he precipitated: he fell into the “Uncanny Valley.”

“Uncanny Valley” is a term generally used to define any non-human entity whose attributes are just human enough to be disturbing. For example psychological test have been run that chart an empathy line against robots whose features range from fully mechanical to completely human in appearance. At first, the results were predictable: the more human the robot appeared, the more empathetic people were to it.

But, as the human qualities reached a point where they became “almost human” there was a sudden drop-off in empathy as steep as a cliff. In fact, the reaction to such an entity reached a point where it plummeted below zero empathy into the realm of negative empathy, documented as “revulsion.”

The same test was also run using stuffed animals and the results were essentially the same – our empathy increases as human likeness increases until a sharp break point is reached where additional increases quickly reverse the trend. Once the line hits bottom and as human similarity continue to increase, eventually empathy rises again into the positive, and ultimately reaches maximum when the non-human entity appears absolutely identical to a human, even though one knows it really is not.

Now this aspect of human psychology has tremendous implication for writers, especially in the creation and development of characters. While it has been explored directly in such works as the I, Robot novels by Asimov (and especially well handled in the movie, Bicentennial Man starring Robin Williams) it is always at work in the relationship between an audience and the fictional entities that populate the stories it reads and watches.

Let me propose that the Uncanny Valley not only pertains to the visual qualities of non-human entities, but to how we intuitively sense their humanity, almost as if we were automatically and subconsciously performing a Turing Test on every person we meet.

I believe we are. I believe we are prepared to accept something totally alien as a risk of unknown potential, while any creature we can identify as of human essence is a known quantity and, therefore, a predictable risk at worst. But some one or some thing that is just off-kilter enough is loose-canon when it comes to threat. We might find ourselves lulled into complacency only to be set-upon when our guard is down.

For example, we are afraid of an earthquake or tornado because it is random and chaotic. We are afraid of bears in a different way because they share our emotions and we understand what they might do. But a Terminator or a demonic spirit is far more terrifying for while we are able to frame it as an entity in our minds, we are unable to fathom its motivations or to predict its behavior, which are often contrary to humanity.

In contrast, consider animated cartoons in which cars, cattle, or cantaloupes may all engender empathy from an audience because they are carefully (albeit intuitively) crafted to fall far enough from human-looking to avoid the Uncanny Valley on one side, and close enough to human in spirit to avoid the Uncanny Valley on the other.

Many of the disfigured humans of fiction are often drawn to revolt us in appearance while connecting to us in their humanity. And, of course, many characters are written to illustrate that even the most beautiful can have revolting souls.

Now for the sake of a mental exercise, consider how this holds true in real life. For example, most of us find the Elephant Man uncomfortable to look at, yet empathize deeply with his heart. But what of those in our own live who have been badly burned or born with physical defects? What must that life be like when you are constantly reminded, subliminally, that others shun you as non-human? There are lessons here for our spiritual growth and stories to be told.

Let’s shift gears, for a moment, and go to the opposite extreme – the science of mind, the neurology of psychology. If you go to Wikipedia and look up Uncanny Valley you’ll find graph that shows the sudden dip and re-rise of the empathy line.

I was immediately struck by how similar that line is to the “action potential” of a neuron in the brain. After a neuron fires, it is chemically inhibited from firing again immediately. Rather, the “action potential” goes from maximum, down a steep cliff during the actual firing to a negative action potential until the forces that lead to the ability to fire recharge.

I’m going to make a leap here and share with you an aspect of the psychology behind Dramatica – a theory we call Mental Relativity. As part of the theory we propose (because of what we have observed in our model of story structure) that dynamics in the electro-chemical operations of the brain are reflected, almost as fractals, in the high-level dynamics of psychological processes. Simply put, psychology exhibits sympathetic vibrations of the patterns of physical brain function.

Now, I realize there are no studies (to my knowledge) that explore this, but is absolutely is a prediction of the Mental Relativity theory. But why would this be? Consider one potential explanation…

It is one of our most essential survival tools to be able to recognize objects, patterns, edges, what is part of something and what is not. The same curve we see in neurons or in the Uncanny Valley actually is just a reflection of our ability to define the limit of things.

We use this to see a rock in our path or to determine if figure coming through the mist is a friend or foe. It is what allows us to describe the nature of an object or a person and the scope of an argument or a story.

And so, with an aspect of our minds that is so foundational and all pervasive, a wise author would give it heed when building characters to be attractive or off-putting, a wise person would think twice about from whom they turn away (and why), and as for al Awlaki, well, he was American enough to connect with those who felt isolated, but just a little bit too non-American to avoid our ire.

Melanie Anne Phillips

Characters and Gender

Perhaps the most fundamental error made by authors, whether novice or experienced, is that all their characters, male and female, tend to reflect the gender of the author. This is hardly surprising, since recent research indicates that men and women use their brains in different ways. So how can an author overcome this gap to write characters of the opposite sex that are both accurate and believable to their own gender?

In this article, we’ll explore the nature of male and female minds and provide techniques for crafting characters that are true to their gender.

At first, it might seem that being male or female is an easily definable thing, and therefore easy to convey in one’s writing. But as we all know, the differences between the sexes have historically been a mysterious quality, easily felt, but in fact quite hard to define. This is because what makes a mind male or female is not just one thing, but also several.

First, let’s consider that gender has four principal components:

Anatomical Sex

Sexual Preference

Gender Identity

Mental Sex

Anatomical sex describes the physicality of a character – male or female. Now, we all know that people actually fall in a range – more or less hairy, wider or narrower hips, deeper or higher voice, and so on. So although there is a fairly clear dividing line between male and female anatomically, secondary sexual characteristics actually create a range of physicality between the two. Intentionally choosing these attributes for your characters can make them far less stereotypical as men and women.

Sexual Preferences may be for the same sex, the opposite sex, both, or neither (or self). Although people usually define themselves as being straight, gay, bi, or celibate, this is also not a fixed quality. Statistics shows, for example, that 1/3 of all men have a homosexual encounter at least once in their lives.

Although it often stirs up controversy to say so, in truth most people have passing attractions to the same sex, be it a very pretty boy or a “butch” woman.

Consider the sexual preference of your characters not as a fixed choice of one thing or another, but as a fluid quality that may shift over time or in a particular exceptional context.

Gender Identity describes where one falls on the scale between masculine and feminine. This, of course, is also context dependent. For example, when one is in the woods, at home with one’s family, or being chewed out by the boss.

Gender Identity is not just how one feels or things of oneself, but also how one act’s, how one uses one’s voice, and how one wishes to be treated. Often, a male character may have gentle feelings but cover them up by overly masculine mannerisms. Or, a female character may be “all-business” in the workplace out of necessity, but wishes someone would treat her with softness and kindness.

Actually, Gender Identity is made up of how one acts or wishes to act, and how one is treated or wishes to be treated. How many times have we seen a character who is forced by others to play a role that is in conflict with his or her internal gender self-image? Gender Identity is where one can explore the greatest nuance in creating non-stereotypical characters.

Finally, Mental Sex describes where one falls on the scale from practical, binary, linear, logistic, goal-oriented thinking to passionate, flexible, emotional, process-oriented thinking. In fact, every human being engages in ALL of these approaches to life, just at different times and in different ways.

Now, in creating characters, consider that each of the four categories we just explored is not a simple choice between one thing or another, but a sliding scale (like Anatomical Sex) or a conglomerate of individual traits (like Gender Identity). Then, visualize that wherever a character falls in any one of those four categories places absolutely no limits on where he or she may fall in the other categories.

For example, you might have a character extremely toward male anatomical sex, bi-sexual (but leaning toward a straight relationship at the moment), whose gender identity is rough and tumble (but yearns to be accepted for his secret sensitivity toward impressionistic paintings) who is practical all the time (except when it comes to sports cars).

Any combination goes. But when it comes to Mental Sex itself, there are four sub-categories within that area alone which tend to define the different personality types we encounter:Memory relies on our training to organize our considerations in a give situation toward components or processes. And every character always has a Conscious choice to focus on the components or processes at any given moment. In other words, in a given situation, at each level of Mental Sex does a character center on the way things are or the way things are going? At each level is the character more interested in getting his or her ducks in a row or in a pond?

Subconscious

Memory

Conscious

Preconscious

In brief, each of these “levels” or “attributes” of the mind can lean toward seeing the world in definable or experiential terms. Pre-conscious is a tendency to perceive the world in components or as processes that is determined before birth. It is the foundation of leaning toward the tradition “male” or “female” personality traits. Subconscious determines the tendencies we have to be attracted or repelled from component or process rewards.

Finally, beyond all of these considerations is the cultural indoctrination we all receive that leads us to respond within social expectations appropriately to the role associated with our anatomical sex. These roles are fairly rigid and include what is proper to wear, who speaks first, who opens the door or order the wine, who has to pretend to be inept where and skilled where else (regardless of real ability or lack there of in that area), the form of grammar one uses in constructing sentences, the words one is expected to use (“I’ll take a hamburger,” vs. “I’d like a salad”), and the demeanor allowable in social interaction with the same and the opposite sex, among many other qualities.

In the end, writing characters of the opposite sex requires a commitment to understand the difference between those qualities, which are inherent and those, which are learned, and to accept that we are all made of the same clay, and merely sculpt it in different ways.

Melanie Anne Phillips

Learn more about mental sex