ReThinking with Adam Grant
The psychology of fiction with Jennifer Lynn Barnes
March 14, 2023
[00:00:00] Adam Grant:
Hey everyone, it's Adam Grant. Welcome back to ReThinking, my podcast on the science of what makes us tick. I'm an organizational psychologist, and I'm taking you inside the minds of fascinating people to explore new thoughts and new ways of thinking.
My guest today is Jennifer Lynn Barnes. She's a psychologist who specializes in the experience and effects of fiction and fandom. Think of a book you've devoured or a TV show you've been obsessed with. Jen's an expert at demystifying why we get so invested in these stories and characters. She also practices what she teaches.
Jen is the New York Times bestselling author of some excellent young adult novels, most recently the hit series The Inheritance Games. It follows the story of a teenage girl who inherits a fortune from a billionaire stranger, and she and his four grandsons try to solve the mystery of why it went to her and not them.
My teenage daughter, Joanna, told me I had to read the first book. I did. Then I read the next two on my own volition. I loved the characters and the plot twists, and if you check out BookTok, you'll see I'm not alone.
[00:01:06] BookTok Montage:
I'm telling you. I'm telling you. I'm telling you with my life on the line that this is the book that BookTok was not lying about What? A billionaire died and that all his money to me. And the only way I can get the inheritance is to stay in this mansion that's now mine with four brothers who were obsessed with me for a year?
[00:01:24] Adam Grant:
Since Joanna was the one who introduced me to Jen's work for the first time ever, I've invited my own daughter to make a cameo as a guest co-host later in the conversation. But first, Jen joins me to discuss her deep love of fiction and how it led her to her second love: psychology.
[00:01:44] Jennifer Lynn Barnes:
I love that you got the books from your daughter. That is amazing. I love families reading together.
[00:01:48] Adam Grant:
I mean, I think that's the way it's supposed to happen. I guess the place I would love to start is to find out when and how you first fell in love with fiction, ‘cause it, it's obviously a theme both in your writer life and in your psychologist life.
[00:02:01] Jennifer Lynn Barnes:
I have always been in love with fiction if you take a broad view of fiction. So if you include daydreaming and television and books and writing. Just sort of everything that has to do with make-believe worlds. I can remember being very, very young and having my parents tell me fairy tales, and I would twist the fairy tales in part because I used to watch—when my mom didn't know—I was watching the soap operas, she was watching while she was, like, making me lunch.
So my version of Snow White always got, like, very twisted. It's like “…and then her long-lost twin reappears. And you know, someone falls down a well.” And you know, all this stuff that, like, four-year-old Jen didn't even understand, but I loved stories. And then I have this very distinct memory of being in first grade and writing my first story.
Um, we had to write one for class, and I wrote this very thinly veiled tale of a little girl whose older brother and his best friend didn't realize how awesome she was, but then they got into a fight and she resolved it for them, and then they decided to always play with her forevermore.
And I was like, “Oh, wow. If you make up a story, anything you want can happen.” And then somewhere around the second half of first grade, I was a late reader, and I remember it just clicked one day and I finally understood what people meant when they were saying, “Sound out the words.” ‘Cause I just memorized everything. And I went from not being able to read almost at all to reading, like, chapter books overnight.
And within maybe three years I'd read everything in my house and my family couldn't even keep me, uh, in books and from then on out, when I was having a rough day. I’d, like, go to a bookstore and buy five books and read them all in, like, 36 hours. And that was just always my happy place.
[00:03:53] Adam Grant:
Okay. So it's clear from, I guess, your origin story and also now from the extraordinary fiction writing you've done that you could have just become a novelist, but you, you didn’t. You decide to have two careers, which I wanna talk about. But, what was the draw to psychology and, and how did you end up going on that road?
[00:04:12] Jennifer Lynn Barnes:
I actually think at its core, the draw to psychology was very much the same thing that's always drawn me to fiction, which is the minds of others. Like, when you read a book, you can actually get inside someone else's head in the way that you never could in reality. Like, we might think we know what someone's thinking in reality; we might be pretty sure they might yell at us and tell us what they're thinking, but the only way we can have that intimate access where you truly know what it's like to be in someone else's mind is through a story.
And so I think that's what's always interested me so much about writing fiction as a way of understanding people and creating interesting people and giving readers someone to understand. It's why I like reading fiction and getting to know all kinds of different people and sort of pushing the boundaries of those understandings.
And it's also what drew me to psychology, to sort of just like deeply understand people. And I think what made me fall in love with psychology, not just as something you learn in a textbook, but as something you do is that moment, which I think most psychological scientists have had, where you realize, “Wait. I have a question about the way the mind works, and I can just go out there and answer it.” And then I have another question, and turns out my intuition was totally wrong, but the real answer is even more interesting. And so that process of just falling in love with asking questions and finding answers and always having more questions is kind of how I got bit by the psychology bug.
[00:05:46] Adam Grant:
Apparently, it's contagious, that that bug is everywhere. I have a lot of questions for you about both of your identities and, and how they intertwine, but I'd love to start with the psychology of fiction. I think it's, it's something that a lot of us take for granted, right? That stories are just inherently fascinating. But a lot of us could spend all our time reading true stories. What is it about fiction in particular that hooks us?
[00:06:10] Jennifer Lynn Barnes:
You know, that has been a huge question in the psychology of fiction and actually across a wide array of disciplines from, like, evolutionary biology to philosophy, to literary studies, to media studies. Why did we develop as a species that will spend so much time and money and resources on something we know is make-believe, like on one level that makes no sense. Why would you spend, like, 22 hours binging a new season of television when there are so many other ways that you could spend that? And when you know that all of those people are make-believe. And there are a lot of different theories about that.
I like to play with all of them both in the lab. But then my favorite thing to do is sit down as a writer and say, well, what prediction does each of these theories make about what kind of stories people like?
And then I go out and I try and write exactly those kinds of stories. My old advisor, Paul Bloom, who is one of my Ph.D. advisors, in his book How Pleasure Works, has a chapter on the pleasures of fiction, and he theorized that fiction, basically co-ops what was initially a liking for gossip. So the idea that maybe we evolved to like a certain true kind of story, the stuff of gossip. So you're thinking hierarchies and relationships and sex and conflict and alliances and um, paternity and all of these things that have a very high level of evolutionary relevance so we should want to track them in our real environment.
And then it just happens to be the case that the brain is not great at drawing a wall between the real and the make-believe. So this theory that Paul puts forth, which I often call to other writers, the gossip theory of fiction says that fiction is just gossip about people who happen to be make-believe. Like, you've got shows with names like Gossip Girl and Scandal and Reputation, right? So you've got all of these things that are just hitting that gossip button over and over again.
So one of the things I did as a writer is I'll come up with writing prompts that are based on these different theories of fiction. So for, like, the gossip theory, I wanted to do big-time gossip, so not just like everyone in your school is gossiping about you, or everyone in your workplace is gossiping about you, but what could get everyone in the world to start gossiping about you at the same time?
And so that was my writing prompt. It was: what could happen to an ordinary teenage girl to make her world-famous overnight so that everyone everywhere is talking about her? Because gossip theory predicts that if I can find an answer to that question, people should be interested in it just like they would be if it happened in reality. And this is actually the origin story for my series, The Inheritance Games.
[00:09:06] Adam Grant:
Of course this is, this is Avery's origin story, right?
[00:09:07] Jennifer Lynn Barnes:
This is Avery's origin story. I'm like, “What's a good thing that could happen to you that would get everyone in the world talking about you as a perfectly ordinary teenage girl?”
And the answer I eventually came up with, it just came to me all of a sudden, two or three days in, and it was a billionaire dies and leaves you all his money, and no one knows why, including you. And I was like, “Well that would get people talking.” So it passes the gossip test. So that goes sort of into the next stage of story development where I'm like, “Oh, there might be something here.” Um, because if we really do like fiction because it's gossip about make-believe people, I've just hit on something that's very, very gossip-worthy.
[00:09:47] Adam Grant:
So interesting. It's almost as if your understanding of the psychology of why we're drawn to fiction informs your writing. How could this be?
[00:09:53] Jennifer Lynn Barnes:
Oh, it's almost as if I have a 37-page workbook that pulls from a bunch of different theories. You know, I'd been talking about all of this for so long, just with other writers informally. I’d go, been going to writing conferences and giving craft talks, presenting like, “Here are seven different theories on why we like stories, and here's what I think these theories would say about the kinds of stories we should like.” And I had just started testing some of that in lab settings and I realized I had this, like, two-hour-long talk I'd been given about all these different things we would predict people would want in stories.
So I was like, “Well, what if I actually wrote a book and took my own advice and tried to do all of these different things?” So tried to hit not just on gossip theory, but you know, there's Steven Pinker and How the Mind Works said that fiction is basically like cheesecake, like clever people who create it just jam it full of things we’re hardwired to like. So I actually, like, got out a list of, like, what are hardwired pleasures that we’re hardwired to like, and I came out with things like wealth and beauty and competition to design what was gonna be sort of the backbone of the series. So I did character design and they'd each get their own pleasure for Pinker's theory and make sure I had a certain number of gossip scenes.
And so I'd go through all of these different things, and I say it makes my creative process sound very Machiavellian, but I still, like, get lost in the pleasure of writing it. It's often in the rewriting where I'll actually go through in every scene, I'll be like, “Okay, there's theories that we like fiction ‘cause it allows us inside the minds of others, and it tests our theory of mind and helps us get better at conceptualizing the minds of others. So how am I doing that in this scene? Do I have a character who's really hard to read, who people are gonna have to sort of really try to exercise their theory of mind on?”
And so I'll just do that for all of the theories and all of the different chapters of a book to really try and make sure that I'm not just satisfied with the story as a writer or what I would be as a reader, but to try and make sure that basically everything I know about the psychology of fiction makes all these predictions, and I want to be doing all of those all the time.
[00:12:13] Adam Grant:
Wow. You've proven the, that “those who can't do teach” theory false; it really helps make sense of how you came up with the, the arc and the characters in The Inheritance Games. But, I guess the theories you've talked about so far, don't fully capture some of what was compelling to me about the story.
So, one thing I've always loved about fiction is puzzle-solving, right? There's not only a mystery, but I could actually find the answer to it. And your books are full of those opportunities, and most of the time I have no idea what the mystery is gonna be. And there's a combination of, kind of, surprise, which is delightful, and then also reward, right? Which is validating. So talk to me about the mystery component of fiction and about the power, efficacy, impact element.
[00:12:59] Jennifer Lynn Barnes:
Sure. So one of the very last studies that my lab published before I went to become a full-time writer and step back from academia was a scale we called the Imaginative Engagement Scale.
And this was a scale that we developed because I had the very strong sense that there are multiple ways of reading. That sometimes you read or watch something and you're a more passive consumer. We’re always doing something actively; you can't truly passively consume anything because you're always is thinking something.
But on the spectrum from thinking or imagining a little while you read to imagining a whole lot, there's a lot of variation. And one of the places that I've looked a lot when I was trying to decide, well, what are the ways that you can really imaginatively invest in what you read? So you are thinking, you're putting things that aren't there. You're theorizing, you're filling in gaps, you're projecting down the line and trying to figure out what's gonna happen. And so when we were coming up with the scale, I actually turned to fandom as an example of extreme imaginative engagement with fiction. So you've got these self-identified collectives of people who are highly emotionally invested in media properties.
They're doing all kinds of really interesting, amazing things like writing their own fan-fiction stories and making videos and making art, and doing roleplay or cosplay. Right? They’re engaging with fiction in this way that extends past the text in major ways. You know, in fan-fiction, someone literally co-writes your text. They take the characters or situations and make them their own. They put them in a new situation; they dial really deep into the characters.
But while you're reading, you can do that in your head. So we call it co-authoring if someone's basically in their own head as they read, authoring what's going to happen in the story next. Or another way to do it is a chapter ends and the next one starts after a delay, and are you filling in what happened between the two? Are you taking a character who seems two-dimensional, but you have a theory that there's actually a lot more going on under the surface than is there. And these are all kinds of things that we see people when they're writing fan-fiction literally writing out to do. You know, they'll delve into the enderexplored character. They'll write what happened between two episodes of television. They'll theorize on fan boards about what's going to happen next, like with Game of Thrones, when everyone was trying to guess the ending.
So we actually made a scale that captured that. It had co-authoring, it had gap-filling, which has a lot to do with your tolerance of ambiguities and stories and your desire to puzzle things out yourself before they're handed to you. It had theory of mind, which has to do with really wanting to get into the minds of characters and do a lot of work to understand them, and then it had reflection, which has to do with sort of taking what's there and making it personally relevant to yourself in different ways.
So while a lot of fiction research looks at something like transportation, which is like, “Do you get sucked into the narrative and carry away?” Imaginative engagement is you're not just sucked in, but while you're in there, maybe you take a step back to think, or maybe while you're in there, your brain is just going a million miles an hour. On the author's side, I take, okay, well I've theorized that gap-filling is really important here, soo what gaps am I gonna leave? And at what points am I gonna leave it?
So one example from The Inheritance Game series of a gap that's sort of like thrown out there for readers to play with is one of the four magnetic, charming, very rich Hawthorne brothers who's just been disinherited because this stranger comes, his name is Jameson, and you see very early in the first book that he has this enormous scar down his chest, and throughout books one and two and the first half of three, it’s a big question. Where did Jameson get his scar? Like, that is a purposeful gap that has been left in the narrative so that fans can go out there and fill that gap.
That's the invitation to be like, “Look. You have a high need for cognition, this book is for you. Like, you can read it straight through and watch them solve it, but it's inviting you to try and solve it yourself, and especially to try and solve that bigger mystery yourself.”
[00:17:25] Adam Grant:
I love the way that you describe co-authoring, right? Because that's what you create space for a reader to do, and there's this tension as a reader between saying, “Okay, I really wanna know what happens. I'm gonna race through this. But I also want to think through what's going on with the characters and where the story might go, and then see how my expectations match up with reality.” And I think that that's part of what makes your writing so engrossing.
Lightning Round. Who's your favorite, Hawthorne brother?
[00:17:54] Jennifer Lynn Barnes:
[00:17:55] Adam Grant:
I thought you were gonna say Jameson or Grayson.
[00:17:59] Jennifer Lynn Barnes:
It’s Nash or Xander.
[00:17:59] Adam Grant:
Oh no, my two least favorite. I don't have all the knowledge about them that you do, so maybe I'll have to rethink my team Jameson, team Grayson allegiances.
For someone who loves your books, who's another author we should discover?
[00:18:15] Jennifer Lynn Barnes:
Uh, say Ally Carter. She writes a lot of what we both call unrealistic realistic fiction, so stuff that's set in the real world, but might be somewhat unlikely. And so there's a lot of similarity there at the core, I think.
[00:18:30] Adam Grant:
You’ve published a little bit of research on capuchin monkeys. What was the most interesting thing you learned from observing and studying them?
[00:18:36] Jennifer Lynn Barnes:
Uh, people think monkeys are nice, but they're fuzzy, fluffy, little balls of death and destruction.
[00:18:41] Adam Grant:
Wow. Um, there was, uh, the, there was a classic study, I think it was deCharms and Moller in the sixties where they tracked achievement/motivation imagery in children's stories. And they found that when children's stories had original achievement themes, 20 to 40 years later, the US patent rate spiked.
And I was always curious about whether those stories were a map or a mirror. You know, a generation of kids grows up reading incredible stories about people accomplishing impossible things, and then they're inspired to dream bigger and they make innovative breakthroughs. Or, a culture's already moving in that direction, and so they reflect that, that kind of breakthrough achievement in their stories. Where would you place your bet?
[00:19:27] Jennifer Lynn Barnes:
Second one. The idea that it's already moving.
[00:19:31] Adam Grant:
I was afraid you were gonna say that. There's a part of me that wants to believe that stories have that much of a causal impact.
[00:19:36] Jennifer Lynn Barnes:
It's not that I believe that stories don't, but it's that my default theory has to believe, has to be the correlational one for the other direction, and that I'd need a lot of evidence to believe the rumors.
[00:19:49] Adam Grant:
But then every once in a while you're like, “Well, Star Trek did anticipate a lot of inventions,” and there are stories of inventors who say, “I got this idea from Star Trek.” And I'm like, “Maybe that could happen a few times, but it can't be the majority of the effect.”
[00:20:03] Jennifer Lynn Barnes:
Yeah, and I'd probably go, like, just spurious correlation over either of them.
[00:20:07] Adam Grant:
Entirely possible. That is a study desperately waiting to be replicated. Is there a question you have for me, either as a super-fan of your books or as a non-fiction author or as an organizational psychologist or anything else?
[00:20:21] Jennifer Lynn Barnes:
As a non-fiction author, how much do you think what you do is like just making a story up out of the blue; like, what are the similar parts? Because obviously there's storytelling involved, no matter what kind of nonfiction you're writing. So what parts of it are similar and what's really different?
[00:20:39] Adam Grant:
That's such an interesting question. I think about this a lot. I think that when it goes well, there are a lot of similarities. When I think about the, the books I've written, a lot of them start with an insight that to me was counterintuitive or surprising.
And then the question is: how can I tell the story about both the evidence and the people who illustrate the evidence that, you know, that I'm gonna use to animate the data? How can I unfold that story in such a way that it both surprises you, but it also convinces you, right? It's like, “Wow, I never would've thought that, but it completely makes sense.”
I think a lot of that is similar to like, when, when you figured out where your story is gonna end, then you have to go back when you're writing fiction and kind of plant seeds, but not too many of them. And the, the kinds of head fakes we were talking about earlier. I, I think non-fiction, good non-fiction writing involves the exact same thing.
[00:21:29] Jennifer Lynn Barnes:
Yeah, I was gonna ask, do you ever get to the end and then realize that you've completely messed up everything that led to that point and have to go back? Like, do you know essentially the story before you start to write? Or is that, is it a process of discovery or is it both?
[00:21:43] Adam Grant:
It's always a mix of the two. I've never gotten to the end of a book and thought “My thesis was wrong. I need to start over from scratch.” In part because the, the chapters are usually anchored on a body of evidence that I think makes an extremely important point and it's rigorous and robust. But a lot of times what happens is, this happened with Think Again, probably most recently.
I get to the end, and I realize I forgot to map out or include the most important chapter. Like, in that case, I'm writing an entire book about rethinking, you know, spend all this time on how we can get better at rethinking our own opinions and, and finding joy in being wrong. How we can open other people's minds, how we can build schools and workplaces where people question assumptions that are false, and then I literally think I'm done with the book and it hits me right before I turn it in: I did not write the chapter about rethinking your life. I didn't write about questioning the wrong career choice, about are you in the right romantic relationship, have you moved to the wrong city or country, and how should you navigate that. And those moments are exciting to me because then it's a chance to, to go through the discovery process that you're describing all over again.
[00:22:51] Jennifer Lynn Barnes:
And actually hearing you say that gives me an answer to the lightning round question of what I have rethought recently.
[00:22:56] Adam Grant:
Oh, tell me.
[00:22:57] Jennifer Lynn Barnes:
So the most recent one is a creative one, and it's when I realized that what I thought was going to be the midpoint of my book—so something that happens at the very center that twists things off in the new direction, is like this midway through climax—I realized it was the end of my book. Because there are two books, and what I was thinking was two books, I then realized there are probably three until I was like a quarter of the way there that I suddenly realized, “Wait, that's not the middle, that's the end.”
[00:23:28] Adam Grant:
Yes, there's gonna be a book five. I feel like when, when a world and a set of characters kind of plants itself in your mind, I, I almost think it's immoral for a writer to stop telling their story. So, I'm glad you're gonna keep them alive. You've talked a bunch about theory of mind. This, I think, goes to one of the, the major contributions that you've made around studying how fiction exposure affects us.
Yeah, we’ve talked about why we love fiction, but fiction also leaves a mark in ways that people don’t often realize. What do we know about lifetime fiction exposure and how it alters your experience of the world?
[00:24:08] Jennifer Lynn Barnes:
When you're looking at lifetime fiction exposure, you can't actually use the word alters because the lifetime studies are by and large correlational, right? So they look at lifetime exposure to fiction, does it correlate with certain outcomes? And it does, including the one we just mentioned. So you might hear it called Theory of Mind. You might hear it called mind reading, mentalizing, cognitive empathy.
Most of the time in the fiction literature when people are using those terms, they're referring to a small number of tests, but 90% of the time they're referring to a single test, which is called the Reading the Mind in the Eyes test, which came out of Simon Baron-Cohen’s lab in Cambridge. Was originally developed for use with autism, and it’s this test where you look at someone's face, and it's a picture of just the eye region of the face. So just like the eyes and the brows and just below the eyes, and it's a multiple-choice test. There's four adjectives. You have to say which one the person is feeling. There's a bunch of different items, some medium, some easy, some hard.
And so one result that has been replicated over and over again in the literature is the correlational result that lifetime fiction exposure, which we tend to measure with an author recognition test, by which we mean we show you a ton of names and ask you which ones are authors that tends to correlate with performance on this emotion reading test.
So like as first seen by Raymond Mar and Keith Oatley, seen many, many times, the more authors you tend to recognize on an author recognition test, the higher the performance on the Reading the Mind in the Eyes test. Now, I say we can't use the word alters ‘cause it could equally be the case that people who are good at reading other people are more interested in other people, and it's that interest in people that drives them to fiction. Though of course, there is the competing theory that maybe fiction really does make us better at these things.
[00:26:01] Adam Grant:
Yeah, of course. You anticipated exactly where I wanted to go with this, which is how much of this effect do you think is self-selection versus causation. I would be surprised if it's not some of both, right? That, that people who already are interested in other people do a lot of reading fiction, but also there are psychological benefits of reading fiction. Where do you come down on the importance of those two?
[00:26:21] Jennifer Lynn Barnes:
I definitely think self-selection is playing a big role. I told you my origin story. I was drawn to psychology for the same reason I'm drawn to reading, for the same reason that I'm drawn to writing, and it's because I'm interested in other people's minds. But I certainly as a reader, share the intuition that reading can help you understand people in a different way.
In terms of the experimental evidence, I will say that it is mixed. Even studies we've done in my own lab have turned out to be mixed. My personal theory, which I left science before I could experimentally test, is that just reading probably isn't enough and that one of the reasons that lifetime reading or long-term reading may have more effects is because it's usually intrinsically motivated.
And if you're intrinsically motivated to read, then you're more likely to do all of this other stuff that we think happens with reading, right? To, to do all of the thinking, to do all of the theorizing, to push with the characters, to do all of these different things.
[00:27:25] Adam Grant:
Yeah. That resonates. A quick footnote for the listener, since you mentioned the Reading the Mind in the Eyes test, uh, yes. Simon Baron-Cohen is the cousin of Sacha Baron Cohen, one of the world's leading experts on autism and empathy, and a co-author of yours, right Jen?
[00:27:40] Jennifer Lynn Barnes:
Yes. Yeah, I did my master's with him at Cambridge for a year in between undergrad and my Ph.D. program.
[00:27:45] Adam Grant:
I was also intrigued by some of the work you've done on the stories that kids are drawn to, the emphasis you put on kids caring about social and psychological content in stories, and then also the question of do they always want stories to be made up, or do they actually want to read things that are real? Tell us more.
[00:28:03] Jennifer Lynn Barnes:
Right. So this was some of my dissertation work, and I had looked at those two qualities. One is: is fiction social or non-social? And if it contains people, how many people does it contain? And the other is: do kids care for stories real or make-believe?
And what we found was that by and large children, especially in the youngest age group we tested, so like the four-year-olds, preferred real stories to make belief stories, uh, which was the exact opposite of what my committee was expecting and what most people would expect when you think of kids being so imaginary and sort of becoming more bound by reality with age.
But the kids actually wanted real stories over make-believe stories and adults were a chance on that. So, adults are in line with the gossip theory. They're like, “I want a good juicy story, but I don't care whether it's real or made up.” Whereas kids were like, “Oh, I want the real one.” And then as they got older, that gets a little less strong.
We also looked at fantasy versus reality. Adults went significantly for the fantasy stories because in this case, the realistic ones were really, like, kind of dry and just like mundane every day. And I remember doing this study with five-year-olds and saying like, “This story is about a kid who eats a cookie, and this story is about a girl who plays hide and seek in outer space.” You know? Which one do you think sounds like the better story? They were completely at chance.
[00:29:29] Adam Grant:
Wait minute, Jen, if that's true—
[00:29:30] Jennifer Lynn Barnes:
Completely at chance!
[00:29:31] Adam Grant:
Okay, if that, if that's true, then like Give a Mouse a Cookie should be every bit as popular as Harry Potter and Star Wars.
[00:29:38] Jennifer Lynn Barnes:
Well, we only tested kids four through eight, and it was getting less and less. So like, the four year olds didn't have a preference at all. By like six to eight, they had a slight preference for the fantasy stories, but it still wasn't as strong as the adult preference. So it's almost like on the realism and real versus not real question, the kids were coming into the world a little more reality focused and then maybe once they master reality a little then diverting off.
Although interestingly, it also spoke to, like, the kinds of fantasy that people liked ‘cause we saw more positive reactions to regular people in fantasy worlds than the reverse, than like a fantasy person in a regular world. So, that relatable character who then goes and does something magical.
[00:30:29] Adam Grant:
Right. ’Cause that could have been me.
[00:30:30] Jennifer Lynn Barnes:
Yes, that one could have been me. And that's actually in the trove of unpublished studies that I wish I'd had time to get around to before I went to focus on fiction full-time. We did a study on favorite characters, and one of the interesting pattern of results that seemed to emerge is that it was two qualities.
The first quality is that they're like me, and the second quality is that they are incredibly awesome. So we like characters who feel like they're just like us, but incredibly awesome. It's like they have actual superpowers, but then you have the things about them, of course, that you want readers to relate to.
Like, this character is a punishing perfectionist, not like I relate to that or anything, you know? Or, or like, you know, this character feels like he's in the shadow of his older brother. And so you go through and you do the things that sort of have that core of the relatability, but then you also just, like, crank the awesomeness volume up as far as it will go so that anyone who's reading the book is thinking on some level, “This character is just like me, and they are so awesome.”
[00:31:36] Adam Grant:
I get such a kick out of how scientific you are about developing these principles. It's my instinct as well. And then there's a part of me that thinks, “No, that's gonna kill the creativity and the playfulness.” And you've clearly combined the two to great effect. Something else I was, I was thinking about as you were talking is I was thinking about Sapiens and Yuval Noah Harari’s argument that the ability to generate fiction is actually part of what's made us successful as a species and maybe the most important distinctively human quality of all. As a fiction expert, what do you make of that argument?
[00:32:08] Jennifer Lynn Barnes:
I can see the ability to entertain things that aren't real, and to imagine what's going to happen next, to imagine other futures for ourselves, to imagine other presents for ourselves, to just even get lost in thought and go past the present does seem like this is, it's this quality that is the version of it that we're talking about. Uniquely human, but also very essentially human.
It forms the basis for many of our decisions. You sit there and you're like, “Am I gonna have another kid or am I going to get married?” And you're looking down the paths of all those future lives you might read. I can't stop daydreaming if I try. And one of the interesting things to me about daydreaming has always been that they're not always good daydreams. It's not just like you’re like pumping the pleasure into your brain thinking of all these happy things. If you go to an audience of teenagers and you ask, like, “How many of you have ever imagined what would happen if your parents died?” Or something like that. Like, that’s a very common, like you're going through it. I remember thinking about that as a teenager and then getting so caught up in the thoughts of like, you're sitting there crying ‘cause you're like, I would be so sad if this thing happened. But it's remarkable that our, our brains can sort of do that, and that in the case of most writers, I know it's really hard to get your brain to stop doing that.
[00:33:29] Adam Grant:
I can see, I mean, all kinds of benefits that come from that individually and then the other layer that, that I find intriguing as an organizational psychologist is the collective part of it, right? So, like, America is a made-up story. It didn't exist as a country. There was no such thing as an American flag or a pledge of allegiance or a national anthem, right? Or a Declaration of Independence. Those all started as fiction in people's minds, and then we made them true. And I think almost every group that's ever had a mission, a vision and values has had to start with fiction and then figure out how do we bring that into reality.
[00:34:04] Jennifer Lynn Barnes:
Right. And then it becomes the story you tell in a retrospective. Just like you have sort of your autobiography of yourself, that you tell yourself of those sort of core memories, what you know is that story. And oftentimes, if not total fiction, it's at least picking and choosing the different parts of that story.
And then I'm also interested from the group perspective on what is it like to consume fiction as a group. So you think about the difference, especially I think during the pandemic when I stopped being able to go to movie theaters and you would watch the new release, but you could watch it at home and, like, what's the difference? Especially with something like a comedy.
[00:34:42] Adam Grant:
Ugh, the worse.
[00:34:43] Jennifer Lynn Barnes:
If there's a funny moment, and no one's laughing, but you're not surrounded by all those people laughing at, like the thing that can seem so hilarious in the theater, it’s just completely different to watch it entirely on your own. You know, you look in these fandom communities about people who are in love with the same story, and you see these very strong real-world bonds being created within those communities based on the stories that they're consuming. So I think there is something very social about stories, about not consuming them in a vacuum and about having shared stories between different individuals.
[00:35:25] Adam Grant:
I have an invitation for you to rethink something that you said earlier, which I meant to comment on.
[00:35:29] Jennifer Lynn Barnes:
[00:35:30] Adam Grant:
You, you were talking about how, you know, you drew on your knowledge of psychological science to almost manipulate the reader, and you said it sounds a little bit Machiavellian and you started to apologize for it.
I could not disagree with that more strongly. I think about a, a conversation I had on this show with John Green where he said that when he writes a book, he's making a gift for the reader, and I think your writing is a tremendous gift, and if you take that idea seriously, what you're doing is you're giving a more thoughtful gift, right?
By figuring out what does the reader want? How can I create the most joyful reading experience possible for them? And I can't think of anything less Machiavellian, because Machiavellian is, Machiavellianism, as I understand it, is manipulating people for personal gain, right? You're doing that as a taker, not a giver, and you did it in service of giving a better gift. So, where do you land on that?
[00:36:22] Jennifer Lynn Barnes:
I do want books that people can get lost in and books that make them think, and books that do all these things. So I can see it as giving a gift to a reader. I think the point where I start to feel the tension is because as a writer you're thinking about giving this gift to the readers, and then I'm like, “Okay, is it doing this? Is it doing this?”
And you know, that's usually in revision where I'm making sure it's firing on all cylinders. But it almost feels like you owe something to the characters, right? You don't want writing to feel like you're moving these people around like puppets to do different things. And oftentimes in a first draft when it feels bad, it feels like that.
And then it's only once you get to know them, and like I, I put on my developmental psychologist hat and I think deeply about their pasts and, like, how did they come to be these people, and I know so much more than gets on the page just so you can write those make-believe people as if they were real people.
[00:37:16] Adam Grant:
I can only assume your fanbase has grown dramatically in the last few years. It must be interesting as somebody who has spent a lot of your life studying the psychology of fandom to now have serious fans of your work. What is that like and what have you observed?
[00:37:32] Jennifer Lynn Barnes:
It’s amazing, the fact that people out there form communities about stories has always just struck me as one of the most magical things that exists about fiction. So now getting to do things like talk to readers and hear their responses to the books or see, like you go on Etsy and there's a ton of like merch that people are just making for themselves. It’s really amazing to know that you have created a world that other people wanna live in and created fictional people that other people love.
And so as someone who gets really, really invested in stories myself, seeing that happen around one of my books has been just the most amazing thing in the world.
[00:38:12] Adam Grant:
I wanted to do something I've never done before, which is to invite in a guest co-host who is your biggest fan that I know. Would you be open to fielding a few questions from our 14-year-old Joanna?
[00:38:25] Jennifer Lynn Barnes:
[00:38:25] Adam Grant:
[00:38:26] Joanna Grant:
So in the beginning, you said that your favorite Hawthorne brothers are Nash and Xander. I agree with Xander, but what do you like about Nash?
[00:38:32] Jennifer Lynn Barnes:
It depends on what kind of favorite you're talking about. So Nash is the one that if they were real, he’s kind of the type I would go for the most.
[00:38:45] Joanna Grant:
[00:38:45] Jennifer Lynn Barnes:
I love the, like, overprotective big brother. I love the way he is with all of the different characters. I love the brotherly relationship he's establishing with Avery. Xander is my favorite one to write because when he pops on the page, it's gonna be a fun scene to write because Xander is just fun.
[00:39:04] Joanna Grant:
I like that. That sounds interesting. And I see a little bit more of where you're coming from with Nash now. So, how do you come up with the personalities of the characters? What's your inspiration for them, especially the Hawthorne brothers?
[00:39:14] Jennifer Lynn Barnes:
I love this question because in the past few years, really since writing the Inheritance Games, I have come up with a method I really like to use to give characters their personalities.
I decided there were four brothers who are the grandsons of billionaire Tobias Hawthorne, and I knew I wanted them to have really different personalities. So the first thing I do is I think of either a trope or another fictional character that I love, or just a, a single line that describes each of them.
So the Hawthorne brother I did first was Grayson Hawthorne, and Grayson was initially inspired in part by one of my favorite fictional characters at the time, which is a character from the shows The Vampire Diaries and The Originals. And his name was Elijah Mikaelson. He was like this thousand-year-old vampire that always wore suits and was really obsessed with family and honor and really, like, not showing emotion even as he ripped people's hearts out. But I want those vibes. So that was his vibe.
And then, like, Jameson, I wrote down, like, “sensation-seeker, risk-taker”. I knew I wanted that to be… “Everything’s a game,” I think I wrote down.
For Nash, I wrote down cowboy ‘cause I wanted something I'd never written before and I'd never written a cowboy. And I was like “That doesn’t seem like enough,” so then I added the word motorcycle. So his initial vibe was just motorcycle cowboy. And then Xander, I had something like the, like “Human Rube-Goldberg machine”.
So I have these descriptions which are just, like, a vibe or another character or an inspiration or an idea. And then what I do is I put on my psychologist’s hat and I say, “Okay, what I'm gonna do is I'm gonna figure out how over the course of their development, they became these people.” And then every time I find something about them in the present, I go back and I think about a scene or a moment, usually in their childhood, that might have led to that. And so by the time I'm writing the character, they've gone away from just the initial vibe or idea, and they feel like a real person to me because I know so much about how they became that person. And then that also tells me a lot about their relationships with each other.
[00:41:20] Joanna Grant:
I love that. Now I can only think of Nash as the motorcycle cowboy.
[00:41:22] Jennifer Lynn Barnes:
Yes. Motorcycle cowboy. That's how Nash started.
[00:41:28] Joanna Grant:
So what is a piece of advice that you'd give to your high school self? Whether it's the writing or just like life in general?
[00:41:32] Jennifer Lynn Barnes:
I think one of the biggest things I've learned as a writer that I love telling to teen writers ‘cause it's really freeing is that there is a very high likelihood if you are a writer in high school, that you are overestimating how important originality is in a story, meaning that you know, there are all these psychological theories about why we like fiction and they predict that we should like similar things to other things.
When you finish a book and you love it, no one's like, “I hope I never read another book that seems like that again.” You don't have to hide from the things you love. Originality comes from perspective. It comes from an author having things that they care about and that matter to them and their own ideas and their own voice, right?
So what I would say to my high school writer self is don't be so worried about whether your ideas are original. Because if you're sitting there saying, “I can only write this idea if no one else has ever done anything like it,” you're not gonna write anything. Knowing that it might be a good thing if it's like other things is really freeing in terms of letting you just go forth and have fun.
So whatever idea you have, whether you think it's original or not, see what kind of fun you can have with it and put yourself in the book in some way. And then it will be original ‘cause it'll be you.
[00:42:52] Joanna Grant:
I love that. It’s actually one of the things that got my dad into it. I told him somebody said it was like a modern version of The Westing game and he was like, “Oh, I'm reading it now.” I'm so excited for books four and five and the show.
[00:43:04] Jennifer Lynn Barnes:
Oh, thank you so much. And thank you for getting your dad to read my book.
[00:43:08] Joanna Grant:
Of course. Thank you.
[00:43:09] Adam Grant:
Well, thank you for taking the time to chat. The psychologist in me is really disappointed that you've left the field. The reader in me could not be more thrilled.
[00:43:19] Jennifer Lynn Barnes:
I feel somewhat the same.
[00:43:26] Adam Grant:
What did you think was most interesting?
[00:43:28] Joanna Grant:
I loved what she said about how she comes up with the ideas for the characters and how Nash is a motorcycle cowboy. All of the characters are very relatable and you can see, of like, other characters from other books and a little bit of yourself and people you know in them, so it makes it even more relatable.
[00:43:45] Adam Grant:
Who do you see yourself in?
[00:43:48] Joanna Grant:
A little bit of Max.
[00:43:49] Adam Grant:
I knew you were gonna say that. I was just gonna say, I think you, you, you reminded me a little bit of Max.
[00:43:54] Joanna Grant:
Yeah, I loved how she talked about it doesn't matter how original it is, as long as it's yours and it's like special in its own way. Because that’s, like, something I worry about if I'm trying to write something is what if this already happened? You know, this sounds really similar to whatever book I read last week, but it's still, it's still gonna be good and different and however it ends up being.
[00:44:14] Adam Grant:
One of the things this podcast has given me an excuse to do is to call some of my favorite fiction writers and talk to them about their craft, and it really has taken the pressure off.
I, I feel like if I were gonna ever write fiction, I thought when I was a kid I might be a, a sci-fi writer, but I've never gone back to that idea because I, I feel like it, it just… The bar for originality is too high, and I don't know that I have an idea that creative. And as I've talked to a bunch of these novelists, I've realized they don't see their ideas as that creative either. That's empowering.
ReThinking is hosted by me, Adam Grant, and produced by TED with Cosmic Standard. Our team includes Colin Helms, Eliza Smith, Jacob Winik, Aja Simpson, Samiah Adams, Michelle Quint, BanBan Cheng, Hannah Kingsley-Ma, Julia Dickerson, and Whitney Pennington Rodgers. This episode was produced and mixed by Cosmic Standard. Our fact-checker is Paul Durbin. Original music by Hansdale Hsu and Allison Leyton-Brown.
Okay, so I don't want a pet monkey.
[00:45:21] Jennifer Lynn Barnes:
[00:45:22] Adam Grant:
All right. I gotta rethink that one.