Vintage Writing Instruction

A podcast of classic articles on writing fiction.
Posted 02/10/2023

Episode 27: A Simple Means to True Psychosis

By George Law.

Originally published in January, 1924 in "The Editor." Now in the public domain.

Many a novel proves a failure because its characters do not respond truly to the incidents of the story. The author has not endued them with a true-to-life psychosis. He may describe them well; he may succeed in differentiating their personalities; but he does not cause them to act as people of their kind should act under the circumstances. Many a product of toil and hope fails to find the light for this reason. Others that are published die quickly or fall short of being great because the psychological factor is poorly handled. I could mention several authors, who are much read to be sure, but whose books repel the discriminating and gain no reviewers because of this shortcoming.

No matter how thrilling the incidents or how clutching the plot, if the character psychosis is poor, the discerning reader will at first sniff, then expostulate, and finally throw down the book in disgust.

What is required of the author is an understanding of the motives, both conscious and unconscious, of the characters he is trying to handle. Generally speaking, human beings may all be expected to act in the same way. There is no excuse for a misrepresentation of the species. But it is their special differences that count both in life and in a story. To mirror these, and the effects produced by them in every situation, the author must know his people. Not just casually know them, but understand them thoroughly; hold in his hands the keys admitting him to the underlying motives of their lives.

"Motive" suggests forethought. Most people do exercise more or less forethought. On the other hand some plunge into action on the impulse of the moment. With impulsive people motives are unconscious and refer back to temperament, habit and absence of deliberate philosophy.

Everyone possesses a peculiar mental design of life, either acquired unconsciously or studiously cultivated—not a final draft except in the case of radicals and fanatics, but a figure in the making. From this emerge motives, and could we but see the designs hidden in the souls of other people we would be able to predict how they would react to various stimuli. The author, presumably, possesses inside information about the characters in his novel we do not. That is why we are likely to be interested. But we can quickly tell whether he is giving us men and women or foisting puppets upon us, and we will read or neglect him accordingly.

By means of careful observation a writer can accumulate considerable knowledge of people. The simplest sort of advice is to tell him to note how different persons react to the same stimuli. Observation is the first and elementary department of science. But observation rarely penetrates beneath the surface. By analysis, on the other hand, inner processes are revealed. It was said of Cuvier that from a single bone he could reconstruct the entire body of any mammal. So may it be possible for a skilled novelist to elaborate from a glimpse into a soul an accurate narration of conduct. That is to say, a knowledge of motives is a means to valid psychosis. And it is probably the only deliberate means of fusing characters and incidents into viable situations.

But such insight is not easily gained; and for that reason a recognition of its value serves both to urge to the acquirement of it and to warn authors again, from still another angle, not to hazard writing beyond their knowledge.

Always with everyone there is a certain field in which he is perfectly at home. Half of the time the mystery of the unknown fools writers into believing that other fields are far richer in material than their own. But though it may be true that they must experience the lure of something unfulfilled in order to infect the interest of others in the same thing, still this can never be construed to mean that lack of acquaintance with subject is anything but a warning not to write.

Fundamental human motives are patent. The simpler the people and the less their development, the simpler are the springs of their action. An author is comparatively safe in writing about the masses; their impact is head-on: his problem is to make them interesting. But when he comes to treat of complex people—those who have glimpsed alluring vistas of emancipation and are fashioning individuality with every book they read—he encounters heterogenous motives. The psychosis becomes more complex as his characters become people of higher development. But such people are the most interesting. Often their reactions are so unexpected and shocking as to become stories in themselves.

Now the author wants to handle such characters. But he must be sure that he can get their points of view or else he will have them acting from his own point of view, or acting altogether inanely.

In this connection the value of autobiographical novelizing stands out. Rather than have a lot of imaginary characters acting their parts from his point of view, all in much the same manner, let a writer put himself boldly into the narrative. If his experience is rich and varied enough he can make two or more books out of himself, being at least certain that the central character will conform to true life. He can learn from such work what equipment he needs for the successful handling of personalities distinct from his own. (This is not, however, in favor of more thinly-disguised autobiographical novels, but a suggestion that the author play the lead in well constructed stories elaborated from experience.)

An author should be able to appreciate the various motives that direct or misdirect the lives of the people in his home environment. The wider his sphere of life, provided he participates actively, the broader his field will therefore be. If he can write successful fiction at all, he. can use to surest effect characters fashioned after familiar friends, relatives and acquaintances. (Discretion should of course direct his employment of such material.)

Failures proceed from-the attempt to handle alien characters. People outside the range of an author’s personal experience possess springs of action that he knows not of. Therefore he cannot represent them truly. If he is determined to introduce them into his story notwithstanding, he had better take time off to make a deliberate study of their ideas, or attitudes without ideas.

Once he has grasped the motives of other people he can work out true psychoses for characters drawn after them; and the incidental touches, mannerisms and the like will largely follow. Sympathy with the life of the character he employs is essential to vivifying that character’s acts. If this sympathy is not to be drawn from the authors experience, then he must gain it through a mastery of motives. A habit of analysis is certain to enlarge insight even into the motives of people known only by newspaper report. Once such insight is gained an author can cause any character to react to plot stimuli in a lifelike manner. It is conceivable that an expert in this line, given a single glimpse into the life of any person, can make that person live again in the pages of his book.

All these newfangled ideas that are being thrust upon the coming authors, ostensibly to help them to the hall of fame, are disgusting in a way. The great names of the past did not need them: why should the potential lights of the future?

The answer is that the departed great used without defining what some present writers are neglecting to use and others are defining.

Then there are, we would fain believe, geniuses of every time and age who possess intuitively what others have to struggle for and then fall short of gaining. Possibly there are authors, old and new, who understand by intuition the motives of their fellow men. But most must travel a more circuitous way. And it is better, I believe, to develop conscious ability, aware of its processes, than to possess a precarious gift. Developed ability is not elusive and fitful; it endures longer, and it fosters composure and happiness where a gift of genius often produces irritation and distress.