Right now, you must be thinking: she has such a fabulous life.
Anyway, as I read through the article, I was struck by the description of how our social knowledge gets encoded and shaped over time.
I thought: Whoa. This is a hell of a character development exercise.
Bear with me here.
Think about your main character and the events, conflicts, and choices he or she faces. Then consider the following:
1. From our experiences in childhood and beyond, we accrue social knowledge that feeds our beliefs and mental scripts (a memory structure that forms over repeated exposures to similar experiences; scripts are running in our heads all the time and lead to expectations about how our social interactions will go).
What early experiences shaped your MC's expectations for relationships and social interactions? What beliefs/scripts does he/she (from now on, I'm just using "she") have about other people and how they will treat her?
2. Along with characteristics of the situation and a person's emotional arousal, this social knowledge influences the way we attend to cues in the environment, interpret other people's intentions, set goals for different social interactions, and develop patterns of behavior.
3. Over time, we learn to process social information in certain predictable ways based on:
- Biological predisposition (i.e., how we're "wired"). How is your MC "wired"? Does she get keyed up at the slightest provocation, or does it take something earth-shattering to get her going? Does she tend to have a big, intense emotional reaction, or is it more subtle?
- Contextual influences (e.g., poverty, culture). What about her "context" has shaped the way she sees the world and interprets the behaviors of others? Does she come from a place of privilege and have the expectation of safety? Or does she come from a rough neighborhood and understand that people can be dangerous? What aspects of her culture contribute to her beliefs about social interactions?
- Parental/family experiences (e.g., harsh discipline, consistent acceptance, etc.). What aspects of your MC's parental/family experiences influence what she expects from relationships? Can she trust and rely on others, or is she wary and expecting to be abandoned?
- Peer acceptance and rejection. What have your MC's relationships with other kids been like? Does she have a feeling of belonging or an expectation that others will reject her? Have others been cruel or kind, and how does that affect her beliefs about interactions with other kids she meets?
In other words, it's not: childhood experience ---> adult behavior
It's: childhood experience--> how we process social information in every situation--> adult behavior
Social information processing is crucial to how we see the world and maneuver within our environments. Leave it out, and we're missing a major step in understanding how childhood affects us in adolescence and adulthood. Obviously, I think this could be a useful way to deepen your understanding of your characters' motivations and behaviors in different situations. It's a good tool to make sure your character is three-dimensional and behaving in ways that are consistent and genuine.
What do you think? Could it be useful? Do you do something like this when you're developing your characters?
Be sure to check out the Sisterhood of the Traveling Blog series for April, in which I inflict my own question on the group: Does each story you write have an overarching theme, and if so, do you think of it ahead of time or discover it after? Laura's up first. See what she has to say!