Image: Mary Nikitina

The Concept of “Normal” Killed Fiction Writing for Me

There are no normal people. There is no normal interior life or thinking. There are no normal attitudes. There is no weird. There is no “most people”. There is no “people in general”. All of these are narcissistic reflections of our own biases, which protect our own egos. If we’re not careful, those biases will bully our characters into homogeneity.

Asher Black
12 min readFeb 13, 2024

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I couldn’t write decent fiction until I stopped using the concept of “most people” or “people in general.” I used to be pretty sure about most people, and as a corollary, most of my characters were versions of each other. They were essentially “most people” as though there were only two kinds of people — “most” and “everyone else.” I had to turn to study of cognitive biases and logic to break the blind arrogance of that generalization.

At some point, in a school, work, or religious context, we are presented with the institutionally inspired notion that on one side of some line are the majority of people, who have a shared set of thought processes, feelings, or responses to stimuli going on inside them, and on the other side are the freaks and geeks (the outliers) who don’t fit that mold. No matter how much confirmation we’re getting, and how sure we are, this perception is poison to fiction writing, besides being biased and illogical. It results in characters with merely superficial, incidental, or stylistic differences, not fundamental ones, or who are cliches for what an outlier is. The “dorks” of the story.

Harlow, your main character, walks into a tavern and orders a beer at the bar. He looks around. There’s nobody at the pool table, so he goes over to it and grabs the rack. Just then a sandy-haired guy with a full beard and coveralls comes out of the toilet. “Hey buddy, that’s my game. Wait your turn, why don’t you?” Fine. Harlow puts a quarter down on the edge of the table and goes back to the bar. Bartender says, “That’s the Calloway boy. Be careful with that one,” and goes in the back for some stock. Harlow watches Calloway casually. Calloway’s cue slips on the final shot of his solo game, jumping the cue ball onto the floor. Calloway looks around, recovers the cue ball, knocks the eight ball into a pocket with his hand, and slams his cue back in the rack. Harlow walks over, picks up his quarter, and starts to feed it into the slot. “That don’t count,” says Calloway. “Shit game. Still my turn.”

Question: is Calloway an asshole? If you have the answer, you probably aren’t writing much fiction.

If our intention as author is to portray Calloway as an asshole, we’ll need more data points for the reader. Any number of people may decide, based on what we have, “That’s reasonable.” or “That happened to me before. I agree with that.” or “He’s maybe just having a bad day.” or “What’s wrong with that?” or “There’s something else going on here we can’t see.” or “Nope, he’s an asshole.” There’s no most people response to Calloway. Again, if you’re sure I’m wrong, you likely aren’t writing much fiction.

There aren’t two kinds of people, and the reader is an aggregate of minorities of all kinds. We’re never building a character most people will regard as an asshole. We’re building one that another character in the same story regards as an asshole. And whether we agree with his assessment will depend on how many and resonant the opportunities we are provided to agree with him, in our diversity. In crafting that or any other aggregate perception of a character (charitable, heroic, decent, unreliable, etc), we need to reduce opportunities for people to have alternate interpretations and responses to the character.

We need to create enough differing behaviors to paint those alternatives into a corner. Even then, someone will say, “I like guys like that. I’m like that. It’s right.” Similarly, a guy who feeds a stray cat is not a “good guy” in “most people’s” minds. To some people, he’s an idiot, weak, wasting time, easily distracted, overly sentimental, a bleeding heart, an idealist, making it worse, or any number of other things. There is no such thing as most people thinking or people in general thinking that you and I are going to infer without extraordinary bias and unreliability or that is applicable outside our own experience from which we inferred it.

Any number of assumptions can convince us of the contrary, but it’s a recipe for delusion and unproductive. All social science is predicated on the notion that a) I color my observations of any group environment in which I am actually involved — any sample that includes me, and b) I and all I know, experience, and learn are an insufficiently representative sample of anything. I do not know what is going on inside most people or people in general. To assert any different is antiscientific thought, aside from its artistic obfuscation. There’s an enormous difference between me generalizing based on myself, my bias, who I know, and my limited experience (whoever you are, your experience is also limited) and a real act of empirical study with sufficient controls across a sufficient sample. It’s the difference between point up when asked where a star is, and pointing at least in the direction of the star.

Well then is anything knowable, because all we have is our experience, right? If you thought you knew what most people think, you were deluded. That doesn’t mean you’re not here right now or that gravity doesn’t work. Lots of things are knowable. And it doesn’t mean you can’t respond to your best guess of how you think someone will react, which mostly will occur within your realm of usual experience from which that guess derives. It’s only when you generalize your understanding of people as “people in general” as though it were bankable for “people in general” that you’re deluding yourself. This is precisely how bias creeps into tests, how entitlement blinds us to others with less opportunity, and host of other areas where we think we see how people are, but to the degree we think it, we are the more blind.

In fiction, an amateur way to cement an understanding of a character in readers’ minds is to have a crowd of characters react to him. Strength in numbers. Twenty people say some version of “Why don’t you just shut up?” Wouldn’t that convince the reader he had offended them? Some readers, perhaps. But just because twenty people react a certain way doesn’t mean the same thing is going on in all of them, or that seventeen of them would have if the first one didn’t, or that any stragglers were just holding back and secretly feeling that way. Groupthink is incredibly powerful. If we buy into it, we buy into the notion that it’s possible to infer what most people are thinking by how a group reacts, that they all react for the same reasons, and that they would have reacted in that way were they not a group. Every significant study of the crowd in sociology rejects such inferences. Said inferences are ineffective in fiction because they don’t reflect “most people” thinking but merely our own assertion that it is in fact most people.

My primary interests are:

  • Artistic Psychological Insight: an artist’s intuitive or studied understanding of the human mind and behavior, which they use to create works that resonate with viewers or readers on a deep, often emotional level. This insight involves recognizing complex human emotions, motivations, and interactions, allowing artists to depict characters and scenes that feel authentic and relatable.
  • Psychological Realism: the portrayal of the inner workings of characters in a way that reflects real human thoughts, feelings, and motivations.

That realism and the insight it relies on require me to do more work than would be required if most people had the same thoughts in response to the same stimulus, whether characters or the reader. Man, that would make life easy, even if boring as Hell. Rather, I must know a lot more about a given character’s intentions and motivations than I’ll ever know about a living human being, and I must make multiple efforts to enact those, with the result that, no matter how well I do it, there will still be significance differences between readers’ understandings of those characters, and differences between their understandings and mine. There are not one or two ‘takes’ on someone.

Going after these ideas was predicated on three things for me. 1) a friend who said, “For an artist and rebel, you’re surprisingly conventional,” meaning I tended to infer a lot about what’s going on inside of “most people.” 2) a colleague said, “Quit trying to be normal or not weird. You’re not normal. You’re an artist. Deal with it.” 3) I’ve been devoted to the social sciences since before I was old enough to drink and almost as long as I have been to literature. Logic and sociology in particular. And that has equipped me with awareness of certain heuristic or cognitive biases. I will term them “social biases”.

This is a list of some social biases that social scientists have suggested, based on representative samples (that did not include themselves) with controls, tend to be intrinsic to the ape. These may have developed in a previous moment of evolution, even though they are no longer necessarily useful:

Social (Cognitive / Heuristic) Biases

False Consensus Effect: This bias occurs when individuals overestimate the degree to which their beliefs, preferences, values, and habits are normal and typical of those of others. People tend to assume that their own attitudes and behaviors are widely shared and more common than they actually are. It can include a tendency to assume that one’s own opinions, beliefs, preferences, values, and habits are more widespread among the public than they actually are. This encompasses the assumption that most people are like oneself in one or more of those ways.

Egocentric Bias: This involves over-relying on one’s own perspective and experience when evaluating the world, including the assumption that one’s own norms and behaviors are standard or typical. It can involve overemphasizing one’s own perspective and contribution in shared contexts, which might also include the belief in being a ‘normal’ or typical representation of the broader population.

Social Projection: where individuals project their own behaviors and reactions onto others, assuming that their social circle is representative of the general population. In logic, a related logical fallacy is Biased Sample Fallacy: when someone uses a non-representative sample as evidence for a general conclusion. For example, assuming that the opinions of one’s close social circle represent the broader population’s opinions could be a biased sample fallacy. Projection Bias: This involves assuming that others share the same attitudes, beliefs, or behaviors as oneself. While closely related to the False Consensus Effect, it emphasizes the projection of one’s preferences and thoughts onto others, leading to an overestimation of commonality.

Illusion of Asymmetric Insight: where people perceive their knowledge of others to surpass other people’s knowledge of them. This bias can lead to overconfidence in our ability to understand others’ thoughts, feelings, and intentions, even in the absence of sufficient evidence or mutual understanding. This bias leads individuals to believe that they know others better than others know them or (in another form) the “Mind-Reading” Bias: that they can understand the true motives and thoughts of others with greater accuracy than is actually the case.

Illusion of Transparency: (related but distinct) overestimating how much others understand our own mental states. This bias makes individuals overestimate the degree to which their personal mental state is known by others vs. the Illusion of Asymmetric Insight which is overestimating our understanding of others’ mental states.

Curse of Knowledge: where once someone knows something, it’s hard for them to imagine not knowing it, including understanding others’ thoughts and feelings. These biases can lead to the belief that we understand what others are thinking more accurately than we actually do.

Group Attribution Error: the tendency to believe that characteristics or attitudes observed in a few members of a group apply to the entire group. It oversimplifies and generalizes characteristics across members of a group.

Bias Blind Spot: is the tendency to see oneself as less biased than others, potentially leading to the belief that one’s own thoughts and behaviors are more ‘normal’ or representative of the general population than they might actually be.

False Equivalence Fallacy: This logical fallacy involves incorrectly asserting that two things are equivalent when they are not. If someone argues that their beliefs or behaviors are ‘normal’ by equating their personal norms with broader societal norms without a valid basis for comparison, they might be engaging in a form of false equivalence.

Homogeneity Bias (Out-group Homogeneity Effect): This bias is where people see members of their own group (in-group) as being more diverse and members of other groups (out-group) as more similar to each other than they really are. While it focuses on the perception of out-group members, it can contribute to the mistaken belief that people (especially those not in one’s in-group) have more in common with each other than is accurate.

The Church of Normal

Once we opt out of the church of normalcy, which asserts that we have a grasp of normative activity in the soul, and which is really a culture of fit dressed up in a bias (normal vs. weird, in-group/out-group, majority and everyone else, people are like this; if you’re not, you’re an outlier), we can finally get down to the real work of observing and learning individuals, really hearing them, whether real or fictional, really portraying them, yes with vastly limited knowledge, but with far more effectiveness than a specious typology.

Are there two kinds of people—our hero rebel detective who won’t be owned, conned, or forced into a conventional life and everyone else who are all too afraid, too committed to the easy way, too mentally lazy? Then all those non-main characters are interchangeable. The same. Drone clones. Might as well not bother having more than one. Or write it that way and cook some pretty tedious fiction.

Incidentally, there’s a reason authors routinely say their characters do unpredictable things. It’s because once you’ve enfleshed someone who connects with us as “real,” you no longer understand them fully, what’s going on inside them at every moment, and what they might do. Even if you’ve known them for years, they can surprise you. Anything less is a stock character. The assertion that people in general share certain feelings and thoughts is the proferring of stock people. Off the rack. Factory assembly line.

Which not coincidentally leads to a clone-like environment where some thoughts and feelings are regarded as the standard, and others as outliers, non-normative. In other words, a conventional culture. A culture of fit.

Carry that into a book, aside from what else it’s doing to you, and it’s a recipe for palpably tedious pablum where all the characters are versions of each other with merely different scars, names, and addictions. Like we’re rolling up stock characters for D&D. Their interactions will seem conventional and tedious, despite the unusual killing methods or exotic places we put in. You can assign assessments to any of them, interchangeably. Their arcs will be superficial or unbelievable, because there’s no basis for them to fundamentally change. This is a case where good fiction is an accurate portrayal of life, and shitty fiction a portrayal of a specious normalcy.

Some People Love These Books & Others Criticize Them for Interchangeable People

The “Twilight” series has faced criticism for characters appearing too similar or like different versions of each other. Apparently, particularly in the first book, the protagonist Bella Swan and the other characters, especially the vampires, have been criticized for lacking distinct personalities and for seeming to blend together. Critics have pointed out that Bella’s relationships with the male characters, particularly Edward Cullen and Jacob Black, are central to the story, but these characters often appear one-dimensional and lacking in depth, with similar traits and behaviors.

Another example is the “Fifty Shades of Grey” series by E.L. James. Critics have noted that the main characters, Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey, lack depth and complexity, with their personalities often feeling shallow and interchangeable. Some readers have criticized the series for its portrayal of an unhealthy and controlling relationship dynamic, which further emphasizes the lack of individuality in the characters.

Additionally, some critics have pointed out that certain works by authors such as Dan Brown or James Patterson feature characters that seem to follow similar templates or archetypes across different novels, leading to a sense of predictability and repetitiveness in their stories.

It’s a tenet of my faith that human beings are not interchangeable. To be interchangeable is to be expendable and replaceable. We have far less in common than we assume when we are looking at things you or I regard as common. To assert otherwise is to assert there are fundamentally one or two types of people, a narrow, monist or dualist view of anthropology. Our commonalities lie more reliably in the things we do not actually ever notice. What exists out here is our biases toward commonality and our spectacular palette of differences. And thank God for that because that palette is what we need to write fiction.

When I dumped the “normal people” theory (except as a joke referring to a deluded pretense that doesn’t exist), I started writing fiction for real. I know my characters very well, and yet they do things that surprise me, do not merely behave on my command, and do not have the same soul responses as each other. They want different things, react differently to the same situation, and do not interpret the world the same way. They are not seeing what you or I are seeing when they look at the stars or each other. If for a moment you can look through their eyes and see as they do, that is the incredible gift of fiction to enable us to pierce the delusion and embrace not one galaxy but billions.

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Asher Black

Asher Black is a storyteller, musician, & karateka satisfied w. the life he always wanted. Profile not yet rated. Parental discretion. Views do not reflect. Etc