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It’s a fact that we all know, and take for granted: power corrupts.

But did you know that it’s been scientifically proven?  Power increases testosterone levels, which increases the uptake of dopamine in the brain’s reward centre.  The result is increased egocentricity and decreased empathy.

According to the New Scientist,

Power feels good because it uses the same reward network as cocaine and sex.

Well, that explains that then.

When given a plate of biscuits, the boss of the group is more likely to take the last one and eat it messily.  Think about that the next time you’re sharing biscuits at work or with a group of friends.

Power affects different people in different ways.  Those who feel they aren’t up to the job tend to become more aggressive to compensate.  But for those who are up to it, power increases people’s ability to think strategically and abstractly.

Have you given your characters power recently?  Have you thought about how that power is going to change them over time?

I spotted this article, a quick and simple summary of the different sub-atomic particles.  If you want to write a character who is a nuclear physicist, they will know this stuff, and lots more.

Personally, I don’t have time to become a nuclear physicist, or a botanist, or a horse-riding champion, just because I want to write believable characters.  But I do want to write believable characters.  The question is, how far do you go to get the level of knowledge right?  It’s got to be simple enough to not lose your audience, but correct enough that you don’t piss off any nuclear physicists, botanists or horse-riding champions who happen to read your book.

Here are some ideas:

  • Have a friend who is a nuclear physicist explain whatever concept you need to have in your book to you in simple but correct terms.
  • If you don’t have any friends who are botanists, go to your local university and find theirs.  Chances are, they’ll be happy enough to explain things to an interested person.
  • Once you’ve written the scene, get that person to read it and tell you if your character is believable to a horse riding champion.
  • Then give the scene to a “normal” beta reader and they’ll tell you if it’s too complex.

Why this order?  Experts tend to over-complicate things.  It’s much more likely that they will insist you include that one extra vital detail – which is likely to be the one detail that confuses non-experts.  Since most of the people who read your book will be non-experts, they should get final say.  After all, you’re not writing a textbook.

Specifically, I am considering the naming of pets.  It occurred to me that I had never met a cat called “John”, or “Alice”.  I’ve met a dog called “George”, but most of the pets I’ve met are called more exotic things, like “Juanita” or “Rover”.

Why is that?  Do we have a bias against naming pets with human names?  If so, it doesn’t extend to cattle, who are quite often called “Bessie”, and goats, called “Billy”.

Names are self-reinforcing through the generations.  Having a grandfather called Jack makes it more likely that you will call your son Jack, and knowing that countless generations have called their Sheepdog “Shep” makes it more likely that you will call your dog that, or something similar.  It just sounds right.

Interestingly, a quick internet search revealed that people have actually researched this and discovered the opposite.  In the 50s and 60s cats and dogs were all called “Blackie” and “Spot”, but in the past few years pet names have been mostly the same as those for human children – “Max”, “Oscar”, “Chloe”, “Bella” and so on.  The authors speculate that as people have fewer children their pets become more important to them, almost substitute children.  I’d like to put forth a different argument – as people have fewer children, there is less chance of children naming the animals!

Of course, some people like to have more imagination when naming their pets.  One of my old housemates had rats called “Sin” and “Pasta” (short for Yersinia pestis and Pasteurella multocida).  My husband wants to call our cats (when we get them) “Pyewacket” and “Balsamic” (because it won’t be a tom cat, so “Vinegar Tom” won’t work).  He also suggested “Apatosaurus” (because “Pat the Cat” sounds fun), or “Alley”, short for “Allosaurus” (because they have sharp teeth and are kind of tabby coloured).

How much thought do you put into naming people or animals in your books?  Do you try to stick to your own culture or do you deliberately pick odd names to give a sense that the people are somehow alien?  What if the animals are main characters?  Does it change the type of name they get?

Which way do you gesture when talking about the future?  Or the past?  Unconscious gestures can reveal the way people think about time.

The New Scientist reports that a remote tribe in Papua New Guinea has a time stream that follows the course of the nearby river.  The past is downhill, at the mouth of the river, and the future is uphill, at the source.

When they talk about time, they always gesture in those directions, no matter which direction they are facing.  When they’re inside and can’t see the river, the door represents the past.

Researchers are thinking that this is because when they moved to the region they came from the sea, so the mouth of the river is where they have been.

They aren’t the only tribe to have time going in interesting directions.  There is an aboriginal community in Australia whose time flows east to west, and a tribe in the Andes whose time flows front to back – with the unseen future behind them.

Gestures aren’t the only thing that shows how we think about time.  Phrases in our language are also important.  Going forward and back in time spring to mind.  Perhaps that’s why Back to the Future was a good choice for a film title – it defied our expectations slightly and made us curious.

The next time you are building a world, or a new people, consider how they think about time.  Which way will they be gesturing when they talk?  What phrases will find their way into their language?

What gestures and phrases might develop for a group of time travellers?

I woke up this morning feeling… normal.

When you are a child, you look forward to being 18.  When you reach that lofty age, you have a large party, and then life goes on.  You realise that actually there is no difference; you are the same person as you were before.  You think, “When I am 21, it will be different.  At 21, I will feel like a proper adult.”

And so life continues.  You go to university, or you don’t.  You get a job, or you don’t.  And when, in three long years, you reach the age of 21, you have a party, and life goes on.  Somehow, you are still the same person as you were the day before.

But they say that life begins at 30.  Perhaps at 30 it will be time to be a proper adult.  By then you will have settled down, and might be thinking about children.  You might have children already.  Surely at 30 you will feel different?

Today is my 30th birthday.

I feel no different to the way I felt yesterday.  But these days I’m learning.  I know I am not the same person as I was at 18.  I am more confident in some things and less confident in others.  I have tried many new things and met many new people, and all that has changed me.

But change is gradual.

I won’t be the same person on my 40th birthday as I am now, but I won’t wake up feeling different either.  Every day, every new experience, will change me slightly.

What a responsibility!  I am creating the person I am going to be, one step at a time.

Who am I creating?

Who are you creating?

The Author

Nicola Higgins is a 30-something martial artist who runs two Brownie packs and works full time. She somehow still finds time to write.

Her favourite genres are near-future and alternate world science fiction and fantasy.

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