What Psychology and Neuroscience Contribute to your Stories

by Melanie Marttila
published in Writing

Psychology is classified as a social science. It attempts to apply scientific methodology to a chaotic system (the human mind) which we still don’t fully understand. It can’t be mathematically defined, though statistics can point out correlations. There are so many variables involved (genetics, biology, environment, experience) that it’s difficult to rule out other causes of behavior.

It has to be approached from a behavioral perspective and on a case by case basis because each person is unique. Patient privacy has to be respected and protected and so the challenges of extracting useful data that can be reproduced and validated are significant, but diligent study has produced a number of sound theories and approaches to human psychology.

Neuroscience is a multi-disciplinary branch of biology that combines physiology, anatomy, molecular biology, cytology, mathematics, and the aforementioned psychology to study the human nervous system. It focuses study on the brain, spinal cord, and neurons, including structures, neurochemical interactions, and functionality.

While you don’t need a PhD in psychology or neuroscience to write a good story, even informal study of these topics can improve your storytelling in the following cool, word-nerdy ways.

Character Motivation

Every character arc begins with an external or conscious desire and an internal or unconscious need. Sometimes the desire and the need can be related, but many of the best stories arise when the two conflict with each other.

The character arc is complete when one of the following occurs:

  • The character recognizes the lie or misbelief inherent in their conscious desire, the truth of their unconscious need, and changes enough to achieve their story goal (positive change arc).
  • The character clings to the lie of their conscious desire and rejects the truth of their unconscious need, and fails to either change or achieve their story goal (negative change arc).
  • The character understands the truth of their unconscious need all along and influences the other characters around them to change for the better (flat arc).

The key to creating a convincing and satisfying character arc lies in understanding the character’s motivation. Why do they act the way they do? If you apply psychological principles to the motivations of your characters, you can create a consistent character arc, placing clues in the things the character says and does throughout the story that foreshadow the upcoming change, or failure to change, in a way that feels authentic to your character and therefore, to your reader.

Causality

Cause and effect is all about plot, but where does the plot of any story originate? In the characters and their actions. Just as you should be confident that each of your characters are internally consistent in terms of the desires, needs, and overall character arcs, you should also ensure that the plot of your story grows organically and logically from your protagonist’s actions.

Part of that involves making sure that when your protagonist acts, other characters, including the antagonist, if applicable, react to those actions in believable ways that propel the plot forward. Psychology and neuroscience can help you assess whether these actions and reactions (cause and effect trajectories) make sense.

Whatever your protagonist does, they should act (not think about acting in the future or reflect on actions of the past). If you’ve ever received the comment that your protagonist lacks agency, it means that they’re passive and letting the events of the external plot pull them along. Your protagonist should make decisions, take actions, and deal with the consequences. Each consequence, in turn, should result in another decision and another action. Thus progresses the plot.

The protagonist’s cause and effect trajectory through the story, as well as interactions with other characters, can produce obstacles, which must be overcome, and complications, which worsen the existing situation. Each decision and action should be true to the character. The character’s reactions to every obstacle and complication should likewise be true to their desires and needs.

Depicting Neurodiversity

Neurodiversity is the range of differences in individual brain function and behavioral traits, regarded as part of normal variation in the human population. It’s most often used in the context of people on the autism spectrum, but also includes those living with learning disabilities and mental health issues. You likely have neurodiverse friends or family and it’s a good idea to want to write about them as part of your fictional world.

This section’s going to come with some cautions, though. Depicting neurodiversity well is difficult at the best of times and if you, yourself, are not neurodiverse, it’s even harder. I would caution against writing a neurodiverse character based on read (or viewed) research alone. Find someone (or several someones) in your community who identifies as neurodiverse and see if they’re willing to sit down and talk about their experience of the world. Consent is paramount. Be upfront about the fact that you’re doing research because you want to include a character like your friend in the novel you’re writing. Let them know that it would be extra helpful if they’d be interested in reading your scenes after you’ve written them. If they decline, or prefer not to be involved, respect that.

If you can’t find someone you know who’d be willing to help, there are sensitivity readers. Yes, this is a paid service. These people are professionals. Interact with them as such. This is an area, like depicting any form of diversity in your characters, where you can’t afford to get it wrong.

Some thoughts on that:

  • Resist the temptation to make your antagonist or villain the only neurodiverse character in your story. If any of your readers share the kind of neurodiversity your antagonist displays, the only character they can identify with is your villain.
  • Unless you’re portraying your personal neurodiversity or have a dedicated neurodiverse friend or sensitivity reader to help you with all the critical details, endowing your protagonist with a profound or complex variety of neurodiversity may not be wise. A neurodiverse reader will be able to tell the difference and inaccuracies can cause harm you don’t intend.
  • Characters are rarely only diverse in one way. This is known as intersectionality. A character could live with obsessive-compulsive disorder and be a person of color. A character may live with extreme social anxiety and be asexual. A character could live with synesthesia and a visual impairment. Again, you may wish to consult sensitivity readers when creating a character of this level of complexity.
  • If you choose to write neurodiverse secondary characters, resist the urge to make them a victim of the antagonist. Again, if they’re the only neurodiverse character, readers who share that neurodiversity may think that the character’s only purpose is to show how evil the villain is, to motivate the (usually neurotypical) protagonist, and that the character, and thus their neurodiversity, is objectified in a negative way. It’s better to show a neurodiverse character making positive contributions to team good, not in spite of, or even because of, their neurodiversity. They’re just a really good programmer, or fighter, or doctor, who also happens to be neurodiverse.

Ultimately, a neurodiverse character’s story is not just about their neurodiversity any more than a character of color’s story would just be about the color of their skin or a visually impaired character’s story would just be about their visual impairment. It’s just one aspect of who they are.

Taking it to the page

For writing-specific psychology resources, I’d recommend Lisa Cron’s Wired for Story and Jonathan Gottschall’s The Storytelling Animal. To start. There are more books on the subject. Just have a look.

There are tons of good resources that you can find on the internet every day. Try not to limit yourself to the obvious choices like Psychology Today, though it’s a great place to start. The Washington Post, The New York Times, and The Guardian often have articles on psychology and neuroscience.

Scientific American and Popular Science have interesting articles, too. I’ve found inspiration on NPR, the CBC, and the BBC. Gizmodo and IFLS can lead you to some interesting findings, as well. There are great YouTube channels to peruse, like SciShow Psych, Kati Morton, and Inverse has an irregular feature with Shannon Odell on how various things (coffee, puppies, lack of sleep) affect your brain.

Become an information magpie and, if you find something of interest, the scientist’s names will be cited, or there will be a link to the source article or material. Then you can dig in. Deepening your understanding of the human mind and how it works can only improve your craft.

Until next time, keep speculating and see where it leads you!


Melanie Marttila creates worlds from whole cloth. She’s a dreamsinger, an ink alchemist, and an unabashed learning mutt. Her speculative short fiction has appeared in Bastion Science Fiction Magazine, On Spec Magazine, and Sudbury Ink. She lives and writes in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada, where she spends her days working as a corporate trainer. She blogs at http://www.melaniemarttila.ca and you can find her on Facebook and Twitter.

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