Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Character Simulator in Our Brains

Here’s a new Cory Doctorow column that really grabbed me. It’s about the creation of characters and why the good ones seem real to readers (and even to the writers who invent them):

Where Characters Come From

Doctorow suggests that all our brains contain “a little built-in simulator in which we run miniature copies of all the people in our lives.” These mental “copies” allow us to predict the behavior of others and thereby interact with them effectively. For people we’ve just met, the “avatar” in our mind is like a “crude stick figure” incorporating stereotyped impressions, just enough to get by in the standard situations where we’re likely to encounter that person. The better we get to know someone, the more depth the mental copy acquires and the better we can predict the real person’s behavior. “The simulator also contains dead people”—so we can imagine the reactions of loved ones who are no longer physically present in our lives. From that point, it’s a short step to spawning individuals who never existed in the physical world at all. “You and your simulator collaborate to create your imaginary people.”

Read the article for Doctorow’s concept of how character creation sets up a “feedback loop” that results in characters coming “to life” for the writer. Ideally, they come to life for readers, too, to the extent of evoking the same physiological responses caused by real-life fear, sadness, and excitement. These imaginary people may even continue to live in the reader’s mind after the end of the book. Hence the fanfic impulse, which Doctorow thinks is not a bad thing: “If fanfic is a sign that your characters were successfully transplanted from your head to someone else’s, you’d be nuts to want to undo that. . . . If you don’t want your people to live in other peoples’ heads, you shouldn’t set out to put them there.”

It’s nice to know I’m not crazy because I have such intense emotional responses to women, men, children, and other creatures made entirely of ink or pixels.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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