What Can Social Scientists Teach Writers? Writing Alchemy

by Kendra Bonnett on May 7, 2012

catnav-alchemy-activePost #46 – Memoir and Fiction, Writing Alchemy – Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler

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In today’s post, I share the tale of my weekend hike up Tunk Mountain–not quite the Bataan Death March but a challenge for my untested muscles–and the ex-Marine artillery sergeant who drove me to the summit.

Social Science Meets Memoir Writer

The origins of social science–the science of society–is probably as ancient as mankind. Picture some dark-eyed, wild-haired, sullen, Late-Pleistocene hunter leaning against the wall of a cave staring at the domestic scene on the other side of the cave where a man, a woman and a child share a charred haunch of saber-tooth tiger. The hunter’s unrelenting stare starts to get on the family’s nerves. The man starts to wonder about the hunter’s motives and wonders what it will take to make him find a new cave.

While his thoughts may not have been very scientific, he was trying to understand the other character. What is his personality? Are there any hints in his behavior? What’s his motivation? Our cave man wasn’t trying to quantify or qualify the hunter’s behavior or catalog his personality type. He didn’t apply scientific principle to his analysis. His interests were more immediate; he just wanted to know what made this hunter tick. And what it would take to get him to stop staring.

It would be at least another 10,000 years before men (and later women) of science tried to make sense of the human/societal condition. Dig into most any modern sociological or psychological study and you’ll find origins in the work of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. They defined, classified and generally tried to impart organization to every aspect of their world and the people in it…as they saw it.

Generations of alchemists, psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, even criminologists, have built on the observations of those early Greeks. Modern psychology and sociology has brought us great insight into the workings of the mind. As writers, we call this character development.

Memoir writers are often challenged by character development. Focused on telling their story, they often don’t think to build insightful pictures of the people they’re writing about. And when it comes to themselves, they sometimes forget to include as much as a physical description, let alone personality and motivation.

But here’s the thing, with an understanding of what makes a person tick comes a portrait of a character with greater dimension. Suddenly unusual behaviors start to make sense…like your mother’s uncle, the federal judge, who would rather hang around with the local tradespeople than attend a meeting of the bar association. A Values, Attitudes and Lifestyles (VALS) study might show him to be an Innovator/Maker type who really wanted to be an auto mechanic but bowed to pressure to follow in the family tradition. An achiever by nature, he reached a professional pinnacle but never lost his love for working with his hands.

Arnold Mitchell, a social scientist with an interest in consumer behavior, worked at SRI International when he decided to apply psychographic systems to the commercial marketplace in 1978. And since that time, his VALS types have helped businesses better understand consumer behavior. As writers, we can use Mitchell’s methodology to begin to build our character portraits.

This is just one example of how writers can apply social science research to their memoirs and fiction writing. You’ll find our new book Writing Alchemy: How to Write Fast and Deep full of hands-on examples and tools that will give greater depth and insight to your writing. We’ve sold out of the first printing; while we’re waiting for more books to arrive, we’re giving you a big discount to place your order now.

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