I read a lot. Writers should, in general, and not just the sort of stuff we ourselves write (or want to write). I also work as a librarian and there’s a cliché about librarians and reading that isn’t as accurate as people think, but which happens to be true in my case.
Anyway, this week I started Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, which turns out to be one of those books that has a way of connecting up with other things I’ve read recently.
Or maybe not so recently. As I absorb Kahneman’s construction of System 1 (quick, intuitive thinking) and System 2 (slow, logical reasoning) I am reminded of another book I read two decades ago, and still widely recommended in self-defense circles: Gavin de Becker’s The Gift of Fear.
Both books examine two modes of human thought, but do so from different perspectives and to different purposes. Kahneman, I think, is trying to get at why and how we react, judge, choose, and believe the way we do, often in ways that observers would view as mistaken–and why we’re so bad at recognizing our own mistakes. De Becker was starting from a similar place, but with a much narrower focus: the purpose of The Gift of Fear is to train your intuition–Kahneman’s System 1–to sort real danger from something that might seem dangerous but is really innocuous, and to trust that intuition when in a life-or-death situation. That might seem at cross purposes from Kahneman’s assertion that System 1’s conclusions are frequently suspect, but I don’t think it is. System 1 is at its best when there isn’t time to sort through rational responses and pick the best one. Most of the time, we aren’t in that kind of situation–and I can point to instances when I was, and System 1 served me well (avoiding a car accident, catching a falling object before it hit the floor and broke, responding to and de-escalating a physical threat).
What does this have to do with characterization?
If we’re trying to create convincing characters, one of the ways to add depth to them is to think about their System 1 and System 2. What do they believe–and what do they really believe, perhaps not even consciously? What things are they so experienced at that when they have to perform them, they do so at the System 1 level? (For example, most of us in the United States are good enough at driving a car to handle it reasonably well under normal conditions, avoid crashes, etc. But very very few of us are capable of doing the same on a racetrack.) How do they react to the unexpected, and how do they rationalize it afterward? What unconscious, intuitive motivators lead them to make mistakes that readers and other characters will recognize, but they will not?
I often say that I don’t care whether a character is likeable, as long as they aren’t boring. Unlikeable characters in whom we are nonetheless interested and might even sympathize with can be some of the most intriguing examples of System 1 and System 2 in conflict. A character whose System 1 thinking betrays negative or even evil impulses, but whose System 2 thinking constantly strives to either override or justify them is more interesting than a character who is just evil for evil’s sake or who never makes a mistake because their intuition is always correct.
Even if a character’s System 1 and System 2 are largely in alignment, finding ways to incorporate both into that character’s beliefs, personality, and behavior adds depth and nuance. Such characters tend to be more interesting to watch or read about than those who never engage in self-reflection, act in ways that turn out to be contrary to their own interests, or make mistakes. If one of the purposes of story is to help us understand ourselves, then informing our writing with research like Kahneman’s can help writers accomplish that purpose.