Association, Learning and Character – Psychology and Fiction

Behaviour is a function of its consequences – to show us that what we do is effective and rewarding.

coincidence__by_ivorymoonn-d64u4tv1It’s been said time and again that characters actions must be relevant to the plot, not abstract or simple accidents. Well, those actions can be accidents, but incidental accidents, like in those comic sketches where one can predict that a banana skin cast aside earlier will cause the slipping over of a character.

In today’s post, I’ll address not where there should be an absence of coincidences, but about why the banishment of coincidences in characters’ actions is more realistic to the real life emotion cause-effect from the view of the behavioural sciences.

Characters can be Pavlovian conditioned. Ivan Pavlov – you know, that guy who trained dogs to salivate at the ringing of a bell rather than the presence of food. Pavlov realised that dogs were associating the sound of the bell with the presence of food to the extent that the food could be removed and the dogs would pre-emptively prepare themselves for it – by salivating at the sound of the bell.

In that simple evidence, the food takes the role of ‘neutral’ conditioned stimulus (ie. the dog always salivates in the presence of food, regardless. This can hardly be changed – by classical conditioning, that is. See later for the role of punishment in conditioned stimuli). The bell is the unconditioned stimulus that turns into a conditioned stimulus; salivating changes from an unconditioned response to a conditioned response. In short, in fiction:

Event one = a neutral stimulus = a biologically-tuned need that suggests a change, eg. food, sex, safety

Event two = an unconditioned stimulus comes along

Event three = the neutral stimulus is associated with event two, changing it

Stivers 2-10-03 Pavlov's dogs.gif

Characters always (or nearly always, depending on genre) have the goal to stay alive. Pavlovian/Classical Conditioning turns their surroundings, a neutral stimulus, into an event connected or associated to their idea of maintaining existence.

This paradigm is nearly always shown as the unconditioned stimulus at the beginning of a novel. (I’m using my own plots because I understand their associative responses the easiest; that’s not to say, though, that plots don’t exist where the unconditioned stimulus is missing from the start. However, a missing obvious inciting incident is rare). In contemporary, this might be a character feeling elated/joyful as they walk past the café in which they met their love. The character naturally associates the existence of the previously-unconditioned café with the natural mating urge*.

In Sci-Fi/Fantasy, of course, these associations are less straightforward/ecological. A character in the midst of a space battle wants to preserve their life, but their conditioned responses and actions naturally take on a more bizarre context. Destroying the Death Star leads to saving their life, eating, having children, etc. Sure, we could say that these people were doing the ‘right thing’ by killing evil, but the action of destroying the Death Star is also fulfilling innate biological needs and stimuli within them.


So...this is a table I'm supposed to be able to talk about in my essays.
So…this is a table I’m supposed to be able to talk about in my essays. Operant Conditioning

Like BF Skinner’s pigeons and superstitious behaviour, we are unconscious of these associations – we cannot help ourselves. These behaviours are reflexive of nature – they are innate. Therefore, to be realistic in writing, we may need to make sure our human(oid) characters react and later act to their stimuli.

The problem with classical conditioning is that, over time, the conditioned response without the occurrence of the neutral stimuli can return the response to an unconditioned one. This makes sense in animalistic terms, but in terms of human behaviour, I think that there needs to be something that can explain why our emotions influence our innate needs.

Why does the heart and mind still crave its loves/desires beyond the presence of the original event? What stays…what goes?

Although classical conditioning makes sense, Instrumental (or Operant) conditioning may be more relevant to writing. It is, indeed, the response to the stimulus/inciting event that drives a story. Pleasure responses lead to the gratification of needs, a sense of rewards, from the sharpness of betting and drugs to the nicer gratification of needs like food. Food is good.

Eg. the character searches the window of the café for their love because they’ve gone away for the week and the MC misses their presence enough to want to reconstruct the meeting. Sometimes conditions are not met and the MC must battle to their goal. Operant negative reinforcement in relationships (eg. absence) can hurt a lot more than punishment (eg. argument).

(See Skinner’s rat boxes for more information about Operant Conditioning, both the ones providing the reward of food and the ‘punishment’ of a shock. For instance, this Wikipedia page sums what I’ve been trying to say.)

And those characters, they do learn though this conditioning, hence internal progression.

Dopaminergic Pathways. Not exactly linked to behavioural psychology, but if I can get in Neuroscience, I’m not turning away the chance 😉

In conclusion, characters never act without an ulterior motive (though, let’s not get into whether those selfless deeds actually exist, a la Phoebe!); even when they don’t truly realise so, they have a biological reason for their choice of action. As writers, whilst we cannot always portray this idea in those words exactly – it would be very literary to have a character stop and consider what emotionally drives them to act – we can at least bear it in our own minds. Banish coincidences because they don’t exist. Every action has a selfish background to it.

For more information about conditioning, there are many articles online addressing the subject and distinction between types of conditions and developments on the way conditioning is changing, and Google Scholar is great for finding the source texts (if you’re that type of person). I hope to write a few more Revision Pitstop posts relating to writing later in the Easter break.

*In case, you’re wondering, this is a reference to the set of scenes in Triangle when Lucas goes to retreat High Leigh with his class, leaving Andrea in Lansdell to wonder if their relationship has changed since his therapy.


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