By Writing Excuses | October 4, 2009 - 5:53 pm - Posted in Guest, Theory and Technique

John Brown joins us again, and tells us that fiction “is all about guiding an emotional response in a reader.” We begin with a discussion of depression, which John (like many of us) had to deal with. He tells us about the paths for emotional response, and how a beginning writer can end up in the depths of depression just by looking at the work of successful writers.

But working through that, especially with cognitive therapy, can provide the writer with fantastic tools for informing his or her writing. And those tools are really why you’re here. Listen closely!

Writing Prompt: Give us villainous heroes, romance, and something that evokes terror.


This entry was posted on Sunday, October 4th, 2009 at 5:53 pm and is filed under Guest, Theory and Technique. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.


  1. October 4, 2009 @ 6:28 pm

    I’m calling “close enough” on the writing prompt given that I’m outlining a plot with a heroic villain. 😉

    Was hilarious hearing John talking about how cognitive therapy influenced his writing because the same thing happened to me quite recently :)

    Posted by Matthew Whitehead
  2. October 4, 2009 @ 6:46 pm

    the writing prompt can be fulfilled with two words. Two simple, horrifying words: Hello Kitty.

    Posted by Jake
  3. October 4, 2009 @ 7:47 pm

    Aahahaha. Jake wins.

    Okay. Actually listening to podcast now.

    Posted by Raethe
  4. October 5, 2009 @ 12:38 am

    Jake, you sir, are a sick, SICK man. I must give you mad props.

    Posted by WEKM
  5. October 5, 2009 @ 6:26 am

    My favorite heroic villains are Richard the Warlock from the webcomic Looking For Group and Vlad Taltos the assassin from the fantasy series by Stephen Brust. The come at heroic villainy through very different routes: Richard is hillarious and unapologetically enjoys what he does; Vlad had a rough childhood and did what he could to ensure his own security and prosperity as a despised minority. Vlad also has deep personal loyalties to his friends, but ‘business’ is a completely different matter; it’s not personal, it’s a job. His detachment helps you like him despite being personally horrified at what he does. The Vlad tack is a much tighter line to walk, but Brust does it very well.

    Posted by Jen
  6. October 5, 2009 @ 9:32 am

    Listening to this podcast, I could not help but disagree with John. Cognitive therapy seems like an unnecessarily difficult process to deal with depression as a writer. There is an easier way:

    You ready for it?

    Okay, here it is: read crap.

    No joke, this is the easiest way to deal with depression as a writer. Go out there and find the worst book you can imagine from your genre. If necessary, look for bad reviews on Or, failing that, you can just pick a book randomly from a bookstore shelf without knowing who wrote it or what it’s about. 9 times out of 10, it will be atrocious.

    Whenever I read an awful book, I find myself saying, “You know, I could write better stuff than this drivel,” and, “You know, someone needs to do something about this. Someone needs to start putting quality fiction in bookstores.”

    Someone like me.

    And after I’m done reading the bad book, I always feel good, like someone’s thrown a parade in my honor. I’m totally serious. It feels awesome.

    So the next time you hear a prospective writer say, “I’m just not good enough to get published,” you might want to remind them that you don’t have to be any good to get published. Not that you want to be like one of those bad book authors, but there are plenty of books out there that have horribly flat characters, forced plots, unimaginitive settings, and narcileptic dialogue, and some authors have published 20 such books.

    Sorry for the long post, but this method (at least for me) really works. So if good books are getting you down, use bad books to lift your spirit.

    Posted by AlanHorne
  7. October 5, 2009 @ 2:56 pm

    Bad Alan, bad! You don’t taunt depressed writers with bad examples, otherwise they get motivated while still depressed and go out and write navel gazing or dystopia and punish all the rest of us. ;>

    You guys really do know how to make me suffer, don’t you. You guys just love splitting podcasts in half and making me crazy waiting for the second one.

    Posted by WEKM
  8. October 5, 2009 @ 3:05 pm


    Actually, what’s you’ve done above is cognitive therapy. You can’t escape it, bud. It’s just how emotions work. 😉

    “Cognitive therapy” is just a fancy term for identifying a distorted thought and replacing it with something that’s more accurate. The fact is that there are a lot of books published that have one issue or another with them. This means you don’t have to write a perfect book. Nor do you have one that blows away the competition. Nor do you have to have one that appeals to everyone because no book, not even the most popular mega-sellers appeal to everyone (witness Twilight). A lot of people get published and progress in skills with their next books. A lot of people forget these and many other things when facing rejection and the long wait to the break in.

    But unless you’re doing it chemically, you’re not going to be able to consciously change your emotional response without using principles cognitive therapy is based on. It’s not a trick. It’s just how emotions work.

    Posted by John Brown
  9. October 5, 2009 @ 3:11 pm

    […] As usual, the guys had some great insights. Check it out: Emotion in Fiction. […]

  10. October 5, 2009 @ 3:17 pm

    As for you, WEKM, you are sentenced to five years of Jude the Obscure read by Alvin Chipmunk.

    Posted by John Brown
  11. October 5, 2009 @ 5:04 pm

    David Burn’s “Feeling Good” is a classic.

    Cognitive therapy is just so useful. It does more than just helps with depression. It can help with motivation issues, anger issues, social issues, and all sorts of other emotional or thinking problems.

    Writing in itself can also be part of cognitive therapy as it forces a person to verbalize thoughts. So writing characters that have the same fears, joys, and other feelings of the author can help the author either come to accept the feelings or look at the feelings in another (hopefully healthier) perspective.

    I suspect this is why so many horror writers can write such twisted things and yet many are some of the most straight-laced and considerate people I’ve ever met. In fact, I’ve found that the nicer and more trusting the horror writers appears, the scarier their books. And the more creepy and disturbing the writer tries to be in person, the more I seem to be disappointed by their writing.

    Posted by Jeff Creer
  12. October 5, 2009 @ 7:18 pm

    So you’re basically saying we just need to write a book about Lestat from Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles – villainous hero, romance (sometimes), and it definitely evokes terror. Lestat has to be one of my favorite anti-heroes of all time.

    But, being serious now, this podcast couldn’t have come at a better time and I’m not even talking about it applying to my writing. I’ve been in desperate need of some cognitive therapy to get me back on track in school. I’m a 3D animation major and I’ve been really depressed by my inexperience which has kept me from working as hard as I know I can.

    “This means you don’t have to write a perfect book. Nor do you have one that blows away the competition. ” Pure gold right there John (and it wasn’t even in the podcast!)

    Thanks you guys for addressing this topic! (and it has also helped my writing too as I am currently writing a game design in one of my classes)

    Posted by bdagger
  13. October 5, 2009 @ 8:47 pm

    I understand the value in pulling your own emotional paths that you learn from into your writing, but the limit to this is that we don’t experience everything that we need our characters to. I think the second half of this topic deserves further exploration.

    For instance, Dan has talked in the past about how in writing his first Serial Killer book he did a ton of research on sociopaths and how they experience the absence of emotion/empathy. It was a good extreme example. And maybe that’s always the answer: get some books; read up.

    I have absolutely no psychology textbooks and never bothered to take even an undergrad class in the discipline. I rely exclusively on my imagination to go beyond my personal emotional lexicon. How might I feel if X happened if I was in Y circumstances with Z life story? It’s no easy task.

    And then you have to write it.

    Posted by Eliyanna
  14. October 5, 2009 @ 9:06 pm

    I think you’re right Eliyanna. There are many situations we’ll never be in but will have to write about them. And it takes imagination. Still, basic emotions like suspense, surprise, fear, dread, curiosity, attraction, etc. we’ve all felt. And there are structures and general conditions for each of them. And I think it helps to know them so we can imagine more effectively (along with the research you talk about).

    For example, surprise is structured different than suspense. There’s was a great study done on this where they pinned it down. Insight has a structure and conditions. Rooting has its requirements. Humor as well. All the major emotions we feel in a killer story. So I’ve found it is possible to think about general conditions and then apply them to the specific and novel situations in our stories, doing exactly what you’re talking about and extrapolating using your imagination.

    In fact, I frequently find myself coming to a place in the story that doesn’t feel right. I probe it in my mind and realize I’m feeling the wrong thing about the situation. The story has guided me to the wrong place. For example, in this last novel I ground to a halt. I found myself annoyed at the main character for what she was doing. She was a fool. But the effect I knew I was wanting was sympathy and rooting. I quickly figured out what it was that annoyed me. Once I saw the mistake, it was easy to see where it didn’t meet the conditions for rooting and sympathy and then come up with something to fix it.

    Posted by John Brown
  15. October 5, 2009 @ 11:01 pm

    One thing that I might recommend for stretching one’s emotional imagination is – take an acting class. It might not be for everyone but in an acting class one of the things you learn is to put yourself emotionally in the place of a character. It forces you to really understand the character inside and out. You have to work out what they’re thinking and feeling and translate that into the resulting visceral response.

    You can also learn how emotion influences movement – it makes blocking a lot more convincing. For instance, remember the example Mary Robinette Kowal gave in one of her guest appearances where she talked about the character fidgeting with a spoon (I’m pretty sure that was it)? That’s something you might not think about unless you really understand how thought translates into action.

    There’s a lot to be learned from theatre that can be applied to writing (as demonstrated by the fabulous Mary Robinette Kowal in her recent guest star appearances).

    And if you’re not one for being onstage then it might be wise to pick up a book on acting and read through it. With any luck it will be less dry than a psychology book and more likely to help you place yourself in the position of your characters. One book I’d recommend is “Respect For Acting” by Uta Hagen. I remember that book being a particularly good resource in my last acting class.

    Posted by bdagger
  16. October 6, 2009 @ 11:19 am

    Favorite anti-hero of the moment – Dexter. I haven’t read the books, just watched the TV show but if the author handles it as deftly as the show, it has to be a great example.

    Posted by Dan J.
  17. October 7, 2009 @ 6:21 pm
    Posted by Mike Barker
  18. October 8, 2009 @ 12:51 am

    @ John Brown
    You sir have taken the place as top torturer. Just reading through the Wikipedia entry on it made me want to gouge out my own eyes. If this is a favorite book of yours, you are either a much more complex man than I, or a seriously sick bastard. Possibly both, you seriously complex sick bastard you.

    My OCD kicks in with having to know how things end. A split podcast is like crushed glass bouncing around in my brain box for a week. I can still function, but the irritation is always there.
    And as far as reading torturous things, at my wife’s insistence, I am reading Twilight. The really sick part is that I am actually enjoying it.
    Feel free to swing by and pick up my man card at any time.

    Posted by WEKM
  19. October 8, 2009 @ 8:24 am

    *Rides in on fat boy; smacks WEKM with billy club; grabs 2 (out of five) of WEKM’s man cards; drives off into the night*

    Posted by Jake
  20. October 8, 2009 @ 9:44 am


    I don’t know anybody who really likes Jude the Obscure, which is why you must be punished with it. Alas. And having just lost 2 man cards I fear it shall be a heavy blow.

    Posted by John Brown
  21. October 9, 2009 @ 12:47 am

    I actually related a lot to what you said here about fears and false expectations. I found that I had I wrote the most when I had no expectations. When I began to compare myself to other writers, and allowed that fear just to eat up inside me I couldn’t get anything done. To top things off I was raised in Special Ed so I have always had all that negative society label crap shoved down my throat my whole life. I am going to begin to evaluate those misconceptions more and to do what I have always said that I wanted to do. I am trying to brainstorm and outline my novel right now. John you are an inspiration to me because you spoke frankly about the fears of becoming an established writer. If you can do it then I can do it! Well some day. I may need to write a few books to hone my craft.

    Good luck on your career!

    Posted by Kenny
  22. October 9, 2009 @ 9:47 am

    Hemingway on his writing efforts when he was an apprentice in Paris:

    “I was trying to write then and I found the greatest difficulty, aside from knowing what you really felt, rather than what you were supposed to feel, was to put down what really happened in action: what the actual things were which produced the emotions that you experienced the real thing, the sequence of motion and fact which made the emotion I was trying to learn to write, commencing with the simplest things.”

    Posted by Dizz
  23. October 9, 2009 @ 10:45 am

    Well it looks like my comment was deleted for some reason….anyway loved the podcast.

    Posted by Kenny
  24. October 9, 2009 @ 10:47 am

    oh never mind…for some reason my comment wasn’t showing before. I feel like an Idiot.

    Posted by Kenny
  25. October 9, 2009 @ 11:10 am

    “I am far too arrogant to have problems like these.”

    I think that is close to what Dan said. I laughed hard at that. I have found cognitive therapy useful in dealing with my depression, and appreciate the reminder to use it more often. All that dribble I write in my journal has a purpose. HUZZAH!

    Posted by junefaramore
  26. October 9, 2009 @ 2:14 pm

    Alan is right…

    if you everwant to get undepressed with respect to your writing abiliy just go re-read Da Vinci Code, and remember that book is one of the best selling novels of all time.

    Unfortunately writing skill is secondary to contraversy and promotion in this world.

    Posted by Sierra_Dragon
  27. October 9, 2009 @ 5:34 pm

    (curls up in a ball and whimpers) “The horror! The horror…”

    Posted by WEKM
  28. October 9, 2009 @ 8:55 pm

    I understand the value in pulling your own emotional paths that you learn from into your writing, but the limit to this is that we don’t experience everything that we need our characters to. I think the second half of this topic deserves further exploration.

    Not only do you not need to, it’s freaking impossible to try and would screw up your life. Research and discuss* the topic(s) enough that you can fake them convincingly. For side details that ought to be enough.

    * ie. discuss the topic(s) with people who actually have experienced the thing you’re researching. This gives you a sense of how reality varies from the theory. Use these people as alpha readers too, so that they pick up your obvious errors. For instance, if you’re writing a story about someone who is a veteran, you should give it to someone who’s suffered post-traumatic stress disorder. If you want to write about magic that makes it hard to think clearly, give your manuscript to a schizophrenic. (for common mental illnesses, giving your work to a therapist or counselor of some description is also good) If you have horses in your fantasy novel, find a horse trainer who’ll read your work.

    One thing that I might recommend for stretching one’s emotional imagination is – take an acting class. It might not be for everyone but in an acting class one of the things you learn is to put yourself emotionally in the place of a character. It forces you to really understand the character inside and out. You have to work out what they’re thinking and feeling and translate that into the resulting visceral response.

    For those of you who are complete nerds like me, you can also do text-based roleplay. It won’t give you the same ability to describe the physical aspects of emotional reaction as learning about and observing good acting will, but if you do well it’s great “voice” and character practice.

    Couple that with watching dramatic movies and/or plays and mining them for things you can describe the physical reactions with and you’re golden.

    Posted by Matthew Whitehead
  29. October 10, 2009 @ 5:56 am

    […] listening, etc. October 10, 2009 John Brown talks about emotion in writing, and depression in […]

  30. February 20, 2010 @ 7:32 pm

    One thing that I as an amature writer am thankfull to Mr. Sanderson for is putting the first draft of Warbreaker online. It really taught me that I didn’t have to get it perfect on the first try and could go back later on and fine tune it.

    Posted by Oliver Perks