Some of the most profound fiction-writing insights come from psychology, because the characters in fiction are whom you sympathize with, pulling you into the story and making you part of the story experience, more than just an observer. So when you understand the psychology of your character, you automatically write better fiction.
One of the more recent—and to me, interesting—psychological models is the APET model, introduced by UK psychologists Joe Griffin and Ivan Tyrrell. Their goal was to help improve upon cognitive psychotherapy by overcoming its limitations. But from a writer’s perspective, the APET model reflects much of the wisdom regarding human nature that storytellers have known for ages. And it builds on this wisdom with the latest discoveries from the fields of psychology and neurophysiology. This lets us writers see a more complete picture of what’s going on inside the heads of our characters, and therefore we can write them better.
The term “APET” is an acronym, identifying 4 stages of human consciousness: (1) Activating agent, (2) Pattern matching, (3) Emotion, and (4) Thoughts. Every time something happens in your story, it can kick off these 4 stages, in order, in the minds of each of your characters. And then based on how that process turns out, your character will do or say something, or will decide not to do or say anything. And many times, he will decide poorly. The APET model can help you (the writer) understand why he might make the wrong decision and how it could get him into trouble.
Joe and Ivan give an example in their article on the APET model. Here’s my paraphrase:
Anne is sitting at home, alone, reading a romance novel, when she hears a loud, sudden knock at the door. She experiences inexplicable dread. For a moment, overwhelmed by terror, her mind refuses to work, and her body, paralyzed, refuses to move. She wants to hide, to pretend that no one is home, that someone must have accidentally left the light on. She finally forces her heavy body up out of her chair and drags it to the door, at which the knock has by this time turned to pounding. As she pulls the door open, she is convinced that someone has died.
Let’s look at why Anne’s mind might legitimately go off half-cocked like this, and why it doesn’t mean she’s crazy.
Activating agent – This is something that happens in the world that the character observes or experiences, which kicks off a reaction. He’s not going to observe everything that happens in his world, of course. His wife sleeping with another man, he doesn’t see that, so (for the moment) it doesn’t exist to him. (But later on, his learning of it might be important.) On the other hand, not every event he has access to is going to cause him to observe it. He sees So-and-So walking to work, amidst all the other pedestrians on the sidewalk, but he doesn’t register that fact, because there’s nothing special about So-and-So to set him off from anyone else. In Anne’s case above, she was sitting alone at home when someone knocked at her door. That understandably provoked a reaction. But why? And why did it provoke the particular reaction it did? For that, we have to look to the next stage…
Pattern matching – It might help you to know that Anne had been reading home alone about a year earlier when a strong policeman knocked on the door, just like that, to deliver the news that her son had been killed in an horrific motorcycle accident. This memory is so emotionally charged, it stays in her unconscious mind, ready to anticipate the same feelings she felt that fateful night. This set of circumstances has for Anne become an instinctive template, triggering off an emotional reaction. Now, most activating agents won’t cause such a strong emotional reaction, but whether or not they do, and how strong a reaction, is determined by pattern-matching to these instinctive templates, whether inborn or acquired.
Emotion – The stronger the emotion, the more likely it will take over. As Joe and Ivan explain, “It is the nature of the emotional brain to think only in survival-type choices — fight or flight; go for it or don’t… The degree to which the fight or flight reflex is activated is the degree to which our thinking becomes polarised — more black or more white… We can’t be concerned with the finer detail when making a life saving decision.” In Anne’s case, she instinctively wants to hide from what her unconscious mind expects to find once she opens the door, and so she freezes, as if blending into the decor.
Thoughts – Thought always comes after emotion. “All thoughts and perceptions,” Joe and Ivan explain, “are fueled by, and therefore preceded by, emotion. We are not generally aware of this because it is often a subtle process.” More likely than not, our thoughts simply reinforce, or even rationalize, the emotional decisions we’ve already made. Occasionally, we find ourselves fighting with our emotions, as Anne does, and we may not even understand why. In her case, she has a very specific phobia—like some people are afraid of spiders. However, once her emotional arousal has subsided a little (i.e., she’s calmed down a little), she can think just enough to realize that she ought to answer the door. Even so, she struggles, and thoughts of death and horror continue to weigh on her heart.
As a writer, you should describe each character’s reaction stage by stage, because that’s going to feel most natural for the reader. And in dialogue, you have two characters, each perceiving what the other person is doing and saying, and reacting to it according to the APET model, in ping-pong fashion, back and forth. If need be, you could even make the reader aware of why Anne has the exotic phobia she has, simply by telling her back-story, even though Anne herself is completely unaware of the connection. Or you could have Anne think she’s going insane, but she slowly discovers and deals with the issues stemming from the trauma surrounding her son’s death (i.e., the patterns that have been ingrained).