Shown, Not Told, and Yet Too Real for Comfort

I have written a number of fiction books dealing with a variety of social issues, such as bullying, eating disorders, the emotions (not the heroics) of war, child abuse and parenting, global warming, education, and the redevelopment of a society after colonizing another planet.

Just as my non-fiction books concern our different inborn personality types and how those affect how we deal with each other and our environment, so the characters in my fiction books are human beings. Each character has a personality type, a history, as well as beliefs, emotions, sensitivities, experiences and prejudices, some of which are culturally influenced and learned. They interact with other characters who have different personality types, a different history, and different beliefs, emotions, sensitivities, experiences and prejudices.

These variables are how real people in ‘real’ life get to their problems, their arguments, their joys, their love, their hate, their wars, their celebrations… their everything  and that is how the characters in my stories get them.

Human nature, after all, is not a question of simple equations or a few chemical elements that always respond the same way in the same circumstances. Human beings are not objects with static observable traits that give evidence of their inner nature. Apart from the variables that come from their different personal and cultural histories, human behaviour is largely motivated by unconscious influences and inborn tendencies.

“Human nature” as a concept is not something that can be described, because there is not one nature inherent to all humans. The type differences are not limited to humans and different types of people are so different that they can only conceptually know what may motivate other types, but they will never be able to experience it: We cannot crawl into each other’s personality type.

Our personality is what we are and it influences everything we encounter in the world and has done so from the day we were born. We cannot and never will be able to change our inborn personality type – the tendencies that make us experience life the way we do.

All too often, fictional characters are two dimensional. They encounter a problem and solve it according to some method that “always works”, presuming all people to be psychologically identical.

If a book has a victim of bullying – a child that has been on the receiving end their entire life – suddenly make a radical character change that stops them being victimized, then it creates an unrealistic psychological situation. People cannot change their personality at will, so that such stories implicitly blame the readers that are victims for not changing who they are, because, according to the story, that would make everything okay.

Don’t you think they would have changed if that was possible? More often than not, they have tried to do so their whole life, because they get the same message at school, from doctors, from counsellors, and from the media – and the more they are told, the harder they try until it becomes too much and they either start shooting or commit suicide.

The same goes for stories in which the bully suddenly has a revelation and changes his ways.

Now, I realize that writers are also human and they have different types (that unconsciously influence them) and therefore will deal with human nature differently in their stories. Hard science fiction tends to be written by Ts, who love technology and cannot deal very well with human emotions, which they tend to call irrational and try to analyze, so it makes sense for them to write cardboard tour guides who explain to the reader the technology that is the focus of the story – maybe a story like that has no need for the variables of human interaction.

Similarly, action stories are often written for those who are not very interested in psychology, so their heroes can be stereotypes, and fairy tale characters can be superficial when written to express a moral lesson.

But when the objective is to write about human interactions, human relationships, human development and society, presenting characters that have no human complexity – no ‘real’ life – is presenting the reader with a false picture.

Now, writers get told to “show not tell” what their characters are going through and that is what I try to do. For example, In the Real World has two point of view characters who are different types. Only by allowing the reader an insight in both their minds, can their different natural responses to the same situation be made understandable.

In The Happiness Inquisition, we need to get into the minds of five characters to understand the way they act if we don’t want to assign undue blame based on superficial behaviour. People do not act without a context – every action is a reaction.

And in Of a Note in a Cosmic Song there is a multitude of point of view characters, because each represents not only a different personality type, but also a different social background and a different belief system. You cannot build a colony without people and forgetting that they are people (by focusing on the technology only ) soon results in interpersonal quarrels and acts of sabotage that put the entire colony at risk.

Yet, it is often exactly those who repeat the popular slogan “show don’t tell”, who are now telling me that showing different behaviours and motivations makes things too complex.

In Soup and Bread, my latest novel, written from the viewpoint of an 11-year old girl, I show how some kids turn on themselves when confronted with adversaries, while others take revenge.

In order to show the complexities of everything that influences their responses to the bullies or to food, I introduce a number of different characters and situations – in this case all through the main character’s eyes – to show those natural differences in children that make them more or less likely to end up a victim of bullying or to have eating problems.

Not always in so many words, but I have been told that Soup and Bread is not suitable for kids with the suggestion that it is because of this variety of characters or because the story deals with two problems (bullying and eating disorders) instead of one.

I think it is more likely because I don’t assign blame or cause in the children (or their bodies or their upbringing) but look at the environment that accommodates this behaviour: the school. Not only is this not the accepted viewpoint, but it creates discomfort in adults, who suddenly feel the need to defend themselves.

But the thing is that I don’t write my books to confirm what is already generally believed. Doing that would make me obsolete as a writer. My aim is to show readers that people are not all psychological clones of each other and, therefore, that such conflicts are not one person’s fault – no matter how much easier it is to assign “right” and “wrong” based on superficial traits and ignore all the variables that influence a person over their lifetime. My goal is to show how we are different and how that can lead to problems without there having to be anybody to blame (including the school), and that these same differences are vital for our happiness and progress as well. My goal is to create acknowledgement for our diversity, not denial of it.

If this makes things complex then that is because human nature isn’t as simple as chemical elements or the workings of the neurones in the brain– and that is a good thing or we would all be puppets to the whims of a dictator – and simplifying these complex issues has so far made things worse.

Only by showing the differences can I show the different types and so explain the different behaviours of the children. Some readers will ‘get’ one character and others readers will ‘get’ another and if they start talking to each other, they may start to see that there are more than one way to be human.

And my book is not too complex for children. If my book is too complex, it is so for those types of people who prefer to deal with human nature in a simple way.

And just for the record: that has nothing to do with being smart, but only with how each type perceives the world. Some people naturally deal with complexities and variables and others try to limit them. Referring to “Ockham’s Razor”, many philosophers and scientists dismiss entire aspects of humanity because it isn’t the simplest answer, and so they make characters out of cardboard and set impossible standards for real people. That is because such types are naturally better at dealing with the hard sciences – with facts and objects – than human beings; each type has their special strengths.

And children meet many different characters at school every day and they are confronted with both bullying and eating disorders (which are related), so why would meeting them in a story suddenly make things too complex?

So should I stop writing complex characters and stories – because the media, the publishers, some teachers and some book sellers believe that good books appeal to the masses?

I cannot do that, because I would deceiving exactly those readers (including kids) who are currently blamed and given medical labels for being “different” on the basis of simplified ideals and stereotyped popular icons.

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