#13: Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.
The interesting questions about stories, which have, as they say, excited the interests of readers for millennia, are not about what makes a taste for them “universal,” but what makes the good ones so different from the dull ones, and whether the good ones really make us better people, or just make us people who happen to have heard a good story.
Good science is more like Proust than Mr. Popper’s Penguins; its stories startle us with their strangeness, but they intrigue us by their originality, and end by rewarding us with the truth, after an effort. It is the shock good stories offer to our expectations, not some sop they offer to our pieties, that makes tales tally, and makes comtes count.
We tell stories to continue ourselves. We all think an exception is going to be made in our case, and we’re going to live forever. And being a human is actually arriving at the understanding that that’s not going to be. Story is there to just remind us that it’s just okay.
The great gift of the conscious human brain is the capacity—and with it the irresistible inborn drive—to build scenarios.
The writer is not an all-powerful architect of our reading experience. The writer guides the way we imagine but does not determine it. A film begins with a writer producing a screenplay. But it is the director who brings the screenplay to life, filling in most of the details. So it is with any story. A writer lays down words, but they are inert. They need a catalyst to come to life. The catalyst is the reader’s imagination.
The more deeply we are cast under a story’s spell, the more potent its influence. In fact, fiction seems to be more effective at changing beliefs than nonfiction, which is designed to persuade through argument and evidence. Studies show that when we read nonfiction, we read with our shields up. We are critical and skeptical. But when we are absorbed in a story, we drop our intellectual guard. We are moved emotionally, and this seems to make us rubbery and easy to shape.
But perhaps the most impressive finding is just how fiction shapes us: mainly for the better, not for the worse. Fiction enhances our ability to understand other people; it promotes a deep morality that cuts across religious and political creeds. More peculiarly, fiction’s happy endings seem to warp our sense of reality. They make us believe in a lie: that the world is more just than it actually is. But believing that lie has important effects for society — and it may even help explain why humans tell stories in the first place.
[The] average daydream is about fourteen seconds long and [we] have about two thousand of them per day. In other words, we spend about half of our waking hours — one-third of our lives on earth — spinning fantasies.
Brain scans are revealing what happens in our heads when we read a detailed description, an evocative metaphor or an emotional exchange between characters. Stories, this research is showing, stimulate the brain and even change how we act in life.
Researchers have long known that the “classical” language regions, like Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area, are involved in how the brain interprets written words. What scientists have come to realize in the last few years is that narratives activate many other parts of our brains as well, suggesting why the experience of reading can feel so alive.
The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life; in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated.
The novel, of course, is an unequaled medium for the exploration of human social and emotional life. And there is evidence that just as the brain responds to depictions of smells and textures and movements as if they were the real thing, so it treats the interactions among fictional characters as something like real-life social encounters.
The easy lesson might be that journalism is not a game of bean bag, and it would be best left to professionals. But we are in a pro-am informational world where news comes from all directions. Traditional media still originate big stories, but many others come from all corners — books, cellphone videos, blogs and, yes, radio shows built on storytelling.
Our minds form cohesive narratives out of disparate elements all the time: one of the things we are best at is telling ourselves just so stories about our own behavior and that of others. If we’re not sure, we make it up – or rather, our brain does, without so much as thinking about asking our permission to do so.