The tickle of curiosity. The gasp of discovery. Fingers running across the keyboard.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Gut Checks and Heuristic Traps: Thinking, Feeling, and Your Character

Ah, humanity.
Which of these two characters would you follow to stay alive?


I was looking through some of my reviews. I know, I know writers aren't really supposed to do that. But I do. I like to get a feel for what my readers are thinking about my work. 

Some of my reviewers have mentioned that I have my characters think and feel. And some of my readers would prefer they only think, others would prefer that they only feel.

And it's true. My characters do think and feel... That's how brains work. People both think and feel. 

And that's what this article is about, how little of the brain is actually thinking and how much it is actually feeling.


Human Decision making includes such components as:

  • Emotions
  • Memories
  • Weighing risk
  • Images
  • Social cues
  • Learned patterns


We are not purely rational beings thanks to our limbic system. 

The limbic system (survival) is connected to the neocortex (logical part that regulates executive function).

The neocortex, according to research, can’t balance more than five factors in any given situation. Therefore, the brain relies on the input of the limbic system to help make decisions that are complex.

The limbic system looks back at learned patterns and guides the character’s gut instincts. The problem then is that the limbic system tells the character what to do based on past experience and what would feel good e.g. stay alive.

Unfortunately for our characters, we authors usually are pulling them out of their everyday experiences, thrusting them into the unknown where their limbic systems might very well encourage our characters to do the wrong thing.

What was your character thinking to get themselves into this mess?

The reality is (whether the author is using "feeling language" or not) that the author isn’t writing the character from the neocortex; they’re writing the character from the limbic – feeling part of the brain. 

Humans (characters in this instance) do not usually come at a situation in logical rational manner that would come from the neocortex. The neocortex "is involved in higher functions such as sensory perception, generation of motor commands, spatial reasoning, conscious thought, and in humans, language." Science Daily.

Characters don’t think as much as they feel. 

Military and other training tries to develop new patterns of dealing with situations so when the people are thrust into bad situations their limbic system and neocortex can pick good behaviors and eveyone gets home alive. 

  • When there is a repetition of training, the limbic system develops experiences. 
  • When you are writing your character, it’s important that the character tried and succeeded a repetition of the behavior you want them to perform. Or not. You can twist your plot whatever way you want. 
  • You might even write it in there, Character Blue had read about this in an article once. That article told him how to get out alive. But that didn’t feel right to Blue. Blue decided to go with his gut on this one and wow did that go sideways fast!

Now, characters can learn from the stories of others. It’s actually a really important way that the human brain learns. BUT and this is a great big but, in order to learn, the story must trigger a strong emotional response in the character. So you can teach you character by hearing a story, then show them having a visceral reaction to it, clutching at their shirt, tearing up, having nightmares, telling others the story with an emotive voice. “Can you imagine? Isn’t that horrible?”

The neocortex can also learn

By reading about and watching documentaries about true life experiences, the neocortex learns how the limbic system impacts our decision making. This trains the brain to know when the instinctive decisions made by the limbic system might not go well.

If you, as an author, only writes the action without explaining the reason that the characters took those actions -- why they thought they'd have less risk and more reward by doing X instead of Z-- it can be problematic for your reader.

Most of your character’s decision making will rely on heuristics. And this is fine for the banal part of your plot line. Not so much when you’re shoving your character out into a shit storm. In a new and unique circumstance, old patterns, old learning, old ways of assessing can get your character into the world of hurt by ensnaring them by a heuristic trap. Heh, heh, heh.

We all know that coincidence is acceptable if it helps the bad guy in our story; it's unacceptable if it helps the good guy. But be careful about this. If the good guy is making stupid mistakes and it makes things worse (and worse, and worse) for your character, then the shine comes off your hero. Readers develop hindsight bias and that really sucks for your white hat.


One way that you can avoid your reader scoffing at your plot line is to prevent hindsight bias – knowing the outcome and therefore rolling their eyes at your characters bad choices (think 1980s horror films when the pantie-clad young woman goes to check on that noise in the basement), is to take your reader through the feeling-driven thought processes of your character. In this way, your reader can see that the series of events was logical to this character, even if their behavior makes thing worse.

How do we take the reader along as our character digs himself a nice deep hole to fall in? The author shows the inner workings of his characters' decision making.

And we can show the neocortex being swamped by the limbic system which reigns supreme in most decision making. Yup, we're a touchy-feely driven species, whether we like it or not.



Heuristic Traps

Heuristics are short cuts that characters use to weigh risk v. reward. 

Heuristic traps can get authors into trouble


Applying the teachings of Dr. Elizabeth Andre in her lecture about emotions in back country decision making, your character should remember the acronym FACETS to identify the most likely heuristic traps.

The FACETS acronym was coined by researchers who studied avalanche accidents and research in social psychology. 

While this was developed for awareness in back country conditions, an author can extrapolate them to manipulate their scenes.  For example:

  • Do you want your character to feel safe and depend on heuristics? Put them in a familiar setting. 
  • Do you want your character to be uncomfortable and more aware? Put them in an unfamiliar setting, a foreign country with language barriers, and lack of readily found support of family and friends would be a good example.
Watch how FACETS are applied to show how risk/reward is assessed by the brain and when risk-taking behavior will increase or decrease:

F – familiarity – your character will feel more comfortable in places s/he knows. For example, back country skiers will take more risks in familiar terrain. Your character will take more risks walking at night in her neighborhood v. a strange neighborhood in a foreign city.

A – acceptance – desire to be accepted by others. "Socially acceptable" can backfire in bad situations, like following someone into a situation that your character isn't fully untrained for, pushing past their comfort. 

They want to impress someone. 

They want to prove something. 

This is particularly true if the person that they want to impress is a potential mate

This is one of the reasons I like to write my brand of romantic suspense. In most of my books, the impetus for the decision making is based on the desire to keep the mate or loved one safe, this then leads the character into events that they might not have the skill to deal with. 

For example in JACK BE QUICK Suz Molloy the teacher tries to save two of her students. She tells us that one of her great fears is that, if push came to shove, she would not do what the teachers at Sandy Hook did, and throw herself between the bullets and her children. She is afraid that her level of courage would not meet this societal standard set by those brave real-world heroines. In weighing her actions, Suz's brain thinks she can be succesful even though she has no skills. Her brain arrives at that conclusion because failing to try feels like the more dangerous track.

C – consistency. Once your character has made a decision it is hard for them to vere off that path. 

Time and time again when I’ve studied search and rescue outcomes, I’ve seen that had the victim continued with the original decision that they’d made, they would likely have succeeded much better than second guessing (this might be MY personal heuristic trap, and I need to be aware of it when I’m in the back country). 
It's not a bad heuristic. Awareness of this heuristic, though, can be life saving as the neocortex could argue with the limbic system about what to do next.

Our characters’ brains often want them to continue on the same way even when they’re presented with new information or conditions change. The heroine continues with her plans to go to the art show and meet their friends even though she'd heard her ex with a big gun and a bigger chip on his shoulder was looking for her. If you don't want to get a great big eye-roll from your reader, you'd better explain that thought process.

E – Expert. Defacto leaders often emerge in situations whether or not they have the skill sets necessary. 

Our expert heuristic tells us to trust that expert (again, whether or not they actually have expertise). For example, the character’s boss is in the building when the terrorists burst in. What would be best is that the gal with the three tours in the war tell folks what to do. But no, everyone is looking at the boss for leadership. The boss doesn’t no anything about this situation and will probably make some really bad decisions that everyone will follow like lemmings thanks to the expert heuristic. The vet might wrestle the "expert" name tag away from her boss so that the coworkers have a better chance, but when this is all said and done, she might be out of a job for shaming him. Something else to weigh in to that plot you're twisting...

Social status or charisma might afford someone with the expert status. 

Will your character fall for this? Some people will also believe they’re the expert. I’ll give you an example: I was on a search and rescue mission.  The person with the most medical training will be the designated medic for a mission. On this mission, this guy and I both had wilderness first aid. He said, “I’ll do it.” His other background was that he was in sales. 

I’m wilderness first aid/k-9 tactical first aid trained. I also have medical background from going to a medical college for a masters in rehabilitation counseling. I also put myself through college as a massage therapist and had a massage therapy license that included, as one would assume, lots of anatomy training. I also dealt with 4 kids and their emergency runs to the hospital for kid stuff; one of these kids had a series of life and death crises (where I applied medical information under extreme stress). The guy who became our expert had none of this. What he had going for him: he was an extrovert, a big wig at his business, and bigger physically than I am. On the surface, he looked like a good fit for expert. 

In my mind, I knew this guy well enough to know that in a situation, he'd turn to me for help. It wasn't like my wrestling for that "expert" label was going to hurt anyone. However, it might be intersting to make your beta character exert as the expert and see your alpha squirm. 

Using the above example, recognize that this is another way to twist your plot with the expert heuristic: folks might feel better trusting a certain kind of physical or mental picture, to their detriment. 

When lacking a true expert, it’s best for your characters to rule by consensus, that way there’s a pool of knowledge and information.

Here’s an example from search and rescue where the expert heuristic was properly overcome: On a training search in freezing cold weather, the rain was just beating down on us, I was part of a group that was packing a search team leader out of the woods. Why? He had become cold and dehydrated and his brain got fuzzy. 

He was the “expert” but one of the team members noticed him slurring his words and acting oddly. When confronted, the expert agreed something was off for him. The second in command took command, called in a “real world emergency” and all of the teams out in the field swarmed to help. Once the expert saw what was going to happen, he tried to wrest the authority back to himself so he could avoid the embarrassment. Luckily, the new leader (expert) would have none of it. Thus, a more serious outcome was avoided. Having your non-expert character ask questions and point things out can be done in an annoying way, a way that sows doubt and discomfort. This can add to the bad of the situation OR it could add to the better outcome. It’s your plot, twist it how you’d like. But applying this expert heuristic can help you move things along your trajectory.  

(See? Sometimes you can play nice with your characters)

T -tracks – short hand for scarcity. 

Low supply high demand means that the sought after thing must be a good thing. 

The pressure of characters who are going after the same thing might force your heroine through the T heuristic to make decisions that aren’t good for her. She might want to date Mr. X just because all the women want to. And he turns out to be dangerous to her health and well being. That job offer your character wants so much, might not be the best for her, but everyone wants that job Her brain makes her think accepting that job is the best outcome, when I fact, she would be better off staying in the small town and starting her own business...

Social facilitation – the more people the more risk taking. Sad but true.

Now how can you help your character make good decision?

First, they should understand that FACETS are in play and include that information in their decision making. 

Humans have an optimism bias – so have your characters practice thinking negatively. Other things that will help (or you could conversely deny your character so that things go badly) include:
Well rested
Well fed
Well hydrated
Comfortably warm

Go back to my search and rescue example when they took over from the expert. When he was at the hospital it was discovered through his effort on that training mission, he’d become hypoglycemic (low blood sugar from not having sufficient food), dehydrated, cold, and he’d exerted himself more than he was capable of handling that day. His decision making was thus affected to the point of putting him (and his team) in danger.

Your character's brain is a fabulous tool of survival but can also work against them. I hope this article gave you some interesting ways to think about the plight you’re advancing for your characters and your plot.

Happy writing,
Fiona