Today's topic is Association, one of perhaps the most fascinating subjects in psychology.
Cue the ooohing and aaaahing.
Ok so in it's most basic form...association is concerned with what memories and meanings we associate with everyday objects, events, words etc.
Let's take a jar of peanut butter...
You might think that if you put that jar of peanut butter in a room with 50 people, they'll all have the same reaction. "Ooooh! Peanut Butter!" But...that's not true!
I guarantee, at least one person will be hyperventilating because they're allergic to peanuts, someone else will be gagging because they hate the smell, and another person will be worrying about how many calories are in peanut butter while someone else is licking their lips, wondering if they really need a spoon before they dig in.
The reason is though an object may appear neutral, everyone is bringing something different to the table when they see it.
Because we have a tendency to carry our memories around with us and allow them to color the way we see the world. Especially if the memory is strong or significant.
The person hyperventilating above is probably associating the jar with a memory she had as a child when she found a jar of peanut butter and opened it and then was rushed to the hospital and nearly died. Pretty traumatizing stuff that can take a simple allergy to a thing of fear everytime she sees a jar.
What if there is another person in the room with a peanut allergy? Let's say he successfully stayed away from peanut butter his entire life. His reaction might just be, "Oh. Well, I'll stay in the back of the room." No big deal, no need to panic. Because he doesn't have any strong associations for the food. No memories. No emotion!
Emotion is the key when writing!
What makes characters in stories interesting, what makes them unforgettable and stay with us? By allowing the reader to feel close to them emotionally. And association is a great tool to help you achieve this.
So let's move on from peanut butter.
Let's talk about bath tubs!
Close your eyes and think of a bath tub. What happens? Anything? Any major memories in one (and let's keep this PG rated thankyouverymuch). Are you thinking, oh...that's where I get clean. Or...crap, I forgot to give my kids a bath. Or...oh now THAT is the one place where I can totally relax! Le sigh...
Well...if your Sam Roth from SHIVER, guess what? You are ready to pass out and hyperventilate!
One of the most memorable moments in SHIVER comes when Grace forces Sam into a bathtub full of hot water because he got too cold and is in danger of shifting into a wolf. Sam does not want to be a wolf. At all. He'll do anything to stay human. But he fights and struggles against the bathtub likes there's no tomorrow because when he was a child, his parents sat him in a tub and slit his wrists, attempting to kill him (they thought his wolf condition meant he was possessed by the devil).
So of course, Sam can't even be in the same room as a bathtub now. He's that traumatized. The associations are THAT strong for him. (I mean, of course! Poor Sam)
And you know what? It works! It's one of the best examples of association, emotion, and memory at play. And no surprise, it's one of Maggie's favorite scenes from the novel and the one that often sticks out most in people's memories.
Let's try something a little happier....sort of...
Let's talk apples!
What do you think about apples? Do you like them? Do you like the smell? Do they stir any memories for you of making apple pie?
Well for Melinda Sordino in SPEAK, the overwhelming scent of apples in her bio lab brings her back to a moment when she was a child and her parents took her apple picking. She's so lost in this memory that she takes a bite out of her apple, when she's supposed to be experimenting on it with her lab partner.
Why is this significant?
Melinda is a high school freshman completely ostracized from her friends, suffering from depression and major post traumatic stress after being raped by an upper classmen near the end of summer. What's important here is that for the majority of the book all we have of Melinda is this depressed version of herself, unable to speak, unable to find joy in anything. But the emotional memory behind the apple scent is so strong, it's able to momentarily pull her away from herself to a happier and more innocent time.
For the most part, the only memories we get from Melinda concern that horrible night. When she's brought back to reality, the contrast is startling and somewhat bittersweet. She once was close to her parents, now she can't tell them anything. She once was happy, now she's depressed. She once was innocent, but that's been stolen from her. But it's also hopeful. This happier person is still buried somewhere inside of her. It's not dead.
Now associations doesn't always have to do with memories. They can still exist and still have significant emotional meaning for your charcter. I'll give you an example from my own WIP, STOLEN.
Lilliana Brandywine's mother died when she was a baby. She has no memory of her, no pictures with her, nothing. Something that's a bit of a sore spot for her, especially because she has 6 older sisters who had more time with her mother, and some who actually have memories of her.
But Lilliana has one thing that her sisters don't. Lilliana's hair turns red in the sun (something that's also significant later in the story). Lilliana's mother had vibrant red hair. So for Lilliana, her association with her reddish hair becomes an emotional tie to her mother. Its the one thing that makes her feel close to her and feel like she did belong to her mother, if only for a short while. It's also something that none of her sisters have, she's the only one with any red in her hair. So...it also becomes her small way of "evening the score" as she'd say. Her sisters have memories and time. She has her hair.
OK! Hope you enjoyed your psych lesson for the day!
Here's your homework.
Start digging around in your MC's history. Yes, we must start out stories with the inciting action, the beginning of the plot...but your character was alive before their story began. They've had a myriad of experiences, memories, hopes, dreams and sorrows. Somewhere in there you should be able to pin point something significant, a memory, an association that becomes meaningful to them and find a way to bring it into your story so that you can:
A) Add depth to your character
B) Help the reader feel close to your character
Bonus points if your character's association-piece serves their motivation, which deepens character development.
Think Sam and the bathtub...beyond the traumatizing memory, he does not want to be a wolf, he does not want to be a monster--this motivates him throughout the story.
Think Melinda and the apple...she wants to move past her trauma, she wants to be a happy person again but she doesn't know how, she's stuck.
Think Lilliana and her hair...she wants to feel love, she's looking for ways to connect to people though she has a habit of isolating herself emotionally from others (who else would think of "evening the score").