The Subconscious


Developing a realistic character requires a base understanding of human psychology. This isn't a massive problem because we all have it anyway. After all, we spend a great amount of time both being and being around humans and it's perfectly natural that we'd pick up some of the basics.

However, it's all subconscious knowledge rather than something you actually know. This document is intended to take some of that subconscious instinctive knowledge about how humans work and turn it into conscious knowledge. It's stuff I find very useful indeed. It can add depth and flaws to characters, become themes for a story and also covers the premises for a bunch of useful story concepts such as brainwashing and how voodoo works. In a way, this is also pure character development. Those key moments when a character in a story changes from what he was and into what he will be are very often based on this.

I should point out that I use the term "subconscious" to refer to both the subconscious and the unconscious mind. This isn't technically correct but the two terms often confuse people - heck, they confuse me - and the difference between them is actually not important here.


Her confidence had always been her strength. There was always a way if you looked, if you believed. That was her power. That was her luck. She left her mind open instead of closing it with limitations. She assumed nothing was impossible and, for her, it never was. That was easy when life was a game, when there were no consequences.

This was real and there were. As that knowledge has seeped in, her luck had seeped out.

- Cher Desilva from "Chasing the Wind"

This is a nice easy thing to understand and isn't really connected to anything else so I'll deal with it first. It's quite a useful little tool.

RAS stands for "Reticular Activating System" and is, surprisingly, absolutely nothing to do with turning your lawn sprinklers on. It's simply the part of your brain that keeps an eye out for things that are important to you. It's the bit that, for example, will spot a familiar face in a crowd or hear your name when it's said in a noisy room. It focuses your attention sharply on that event simply because it's important to you.

It's why you'll wake up in the middle of the night if there's an odd noise but you'll sleep through your own (or your partner's) snoring. The noise is important - it may be critical to your survival to react to it - but the snoring is completely irrelevant. But, if you get up and find out the noise is the garbage men outside, suddenly you know it's safe and unimportant and that noise will probably not bother you again. Not after your RAS gets the idea, anyway. It can take a couple of times.

Mothers are, of course, finely attuned to the sounds of their babies and fantasy books are rife with the professional fighter who's a "light sleeper". Make the wrong noise around them and they'll have a knife to your throat before they've realized they're awake.

It'll also help you get what you want. If you decide one day to buy a new house, you'll find that you'll suddenly notice all the "For Sale" signs on your way to work. They were there the previous day, of course, but they weren't important then. That's your RAS helping you out. In fact, it's a very powerful problem-solving tool. Even if you have no idea what the solution may be, the RAS will keep a look out for any opportunity that might help you. Just be careful not to give up because you think the problem is insurmountable. Give up and so will the RAS. Want the solution, and the RAS will find a way. That's it's job.

I always imagined that Sherlock Holmes had a malfunctioning RAS. After all, he noticed everything.

The Subconscious

She tried to remember how it felt. She could sense it in her memory but it was hard to pin down. She'd lost it so long ago. Now, she tried to feel it again. It could be done. Remember anger, and you'd get angry. Remember happiness, and you'd grow happy. Remember... Confidence.

- Cher Desilva from "Chasing the Wind"

Everyone knows what the conscious and subconscious are, I'm sure. The conscious mind is the bit that thinks and knows, the voice in your head. It's the bit that, in a wonderfully arrogant display of ego, thinks it's you. It's wrong, by the way.

The subconscious works in the background and drops feelings, instincts and impressions into the conscious mind. It's also very gullible. In fact, it's completely incapable of recognising a lie. It simply cannot comprehend the idea in more or less the same way that we can't imagine a seven dimensional cube. It is a completely and utterly alien concept, like tax forms.

And so it believes everything. Everything.
So, it'll make you cry when you're watching a sad movie, or make you angry again If you remember the argument you had yesterday. You'll cringe when you remember that time everyone laughed when you said exactly the wrong thing, you'll be terrified of a nightmare, and you feel pride when you remember the first story you had published. That's all because the subconscious isn't aware that all of those things aren't happening. As far as it's concerned, it's all real.

The subconscious also does a massive amount of background processing in support of the conscious mind and is incredibly powerful. While most people would have difficulty with physical formulae as applied to objects in flight in an environment with gravity, the subconscious can do that same math so fast that by the time the ball's reached you, your hand is right there to catch it. (Warning: Results may vary.)

And the subconscious does a awful lot of work all the time. As I'm sitting here typing, I know pretty much what I want to say and roughly what order it should be in but I certainly don't have the entire document planned out word for word, or even paragraph for paragraph in my head. I don't think about every word I type, or even every sentence. Heck, for the most part, I just sit here and the words roll out from under my fingers. My conscious mind controls the general direction of what I'm typing but the specifics - the language used, writing style, the grammar, the spelling and so on - I don't have to think about at all.

Do you think about walking, plan every step? Do you concentrate on your driving? Do you do the math in your head to catch that ball? Do you think about where each finger needs to go when you touch type?

You used to. Back at the beginning, when you were first learning you did, you had to concentrate pretty hard. However, as you do that, your subconscious is watching carefully and trying to work out the rules of what you're doing as well as what you want to achieve out of it. It will create a new program based on your experiences and then refine it. Eventually, it will be able to take over and you'll be able to do the task "without thinking".

It's also a matter of learning to trust the program your subconscious makes. There was a time when I was learning to type when my fingers knew exactly where to go but only if I wasn't thinking about it. As soon as I thought about it - usually after about thirty seconds - I would become unsure because I'd be relying on my conscious mind and memory, neither of which is terribly good at small details like key placement.

And the more you do this task - walking, typing, catching a ball - the more refined the program becomes. Every time you get it wrong, the subconscious will adjust things slightly and try again. However, after the program has been working for a long time, it becomes entrenched and hard to change (hence the saying about old dogs and new tricks). Fun fact: It is actually impossible for an astronaut in space to catch a ball thrown at him. He automatically compensates for Earth's gravity even though it's not there. He can't help it. It would take a lot of practice for the program created by the subconscious to realize that, hang on, it's not working any more, and that, hmm, we might need a new one...


The Professor thought for a moment, and when he spoke it was the manner he used when explaining something to students.

"Consider it like a Hunter," he said carefully. "Solving crimes is difficult, but laudable. People appreciate it and show respect, but they can hardly expect you to solve the crime before it's happened. I just... told you there was something worth investigating, showed you the crime to carry the analogy. It cannot have occurred to you to look for something you didn't know was there. You cannot find a murderer unless you know there's a dead body."

That had closed him off a bit, Lyri noticed. He talked more in his lecturer mode, and was better at explaining things, but his heart was turned off. It was only his brain speaking, trying to describe his point of argument.

Her fault, really. She had asked a student question. He always had time for students, just not friends.

- "The Professor" and Lyri from "Peace and Goodwill"

Here's the kicker. You know all that stuff I said about subconscious programs above? It applies to your personality. When you're talking, do you think about every word you say? Do you think about pauses and timing? I'm afraid there's a program in your subconscious that does all this for you too. Who you are and how you act is just another program. And there's not just one, either. There are many. Typically, you'll have one for each social situation you know. I act differently around my mother to my brother, for example, and again different around my friends and entirely different when I'm lecturing. There are wonderfully friendly, personable people who abuse their partners, or are dictatorial bosses, or thoroughly ruthless lawyers, or, heck, serial killers. People act differently in different situations.

Ever seen the movie Grease?

In it, Danny meets a girl, Sandy, over Summer break when he's away from his friends. Later on he meets her again, only this time his friends are there too.

There's a problem. He acts completely differently around Sandy than he does around his friends. Suddenly he has both there at once. Which personality program should he use? The wrong one, of course. He defaults to his "around friends" personality and completely alienates Sandy.

And this happens. When there's a choice between two personalities, your subconscious gets confused and dumps the mess into your conscious with a note saying "your problem". You're unsure what to do and how to act and you frequently try to juggle the two, so as not to alienate or offend either party. It rarely works well.

Avril Lavinge wrote a song about exactly this, in fact.

I like you the way you are
When we're drivin' in your car
and you're talking to me one on one but you become
Somebody else round everyone else
You're watching your back like you can't relax
You're tryin' to be cool you look like a fool to me

- "Complicated" by Avril Lavinge

When you find yourself in a new social situation - a new job, public speaking or a first date - there is no predefined personality, no known rules for how you should act, for your subconscious to use so it feels a little lost. You'll be nervous, you won't be sure what to say and you actually do have to think about it. The conscious mind tries to do the work and it's really not very good at it. It can stammer, stutter, ruin the delivery of unfunny jokes and say the wrong thing.

However, after a while, the subconscious will pick up on how you seem to want to act in this situation and it will either start using an old program that fits, possibly adjusting it a little, or make up a new one. After that, words will flow more easily and be more natural. The subconscious has taken over again.

Wait a minute. If the subconscious mind creates a personality program based on how you act at the beginning, doesn't that mean that how you start off is how you'll stay?

Pretty much, yeah. The subconscious is not entirely stupid. It can recognize when something isn't working and adjust things. However, once it's done, it's very hard to break it. The program kicks in automatically once you're in that situation and it's fairly difficult to force yourself to act differently. Changing how you act in conversation is doubly difficult simply because you simply don't have the time. Conversations move at a fair rate and you don't have the latitude to think about what you want to say - and if you don't think, the subconscious does it for you. Changing the way you write is a lot easier simply because you have the time to pause and think or even go back over it after you're finished and adjust it. When writing stories, I find that dialogue, in particular, needs to be gone over after it's finished to get the character's personality just right. At least, I do until my subconscious makes up a program for that character's personality.

The other problem is that you actually have to want to change the program. I mean, really want. Sticking with the program you have is easier and simpler. It's the path of least resistance and the subconscious is basically lazy. There's an automatic system in place so, really, why bother changing it?

This is why some perfectly nice people can, say, be abusive to their wives or have a Napoleon complex at work. Different situation, different program. They probably decided on their first day as boss how they'd need to be - and it'd probably be an ill-informed and certainly inexperienced decision. The subconscious picks up on it, writes a little program and then they're stuck with being an unpopular, domineering manager. The easiest way to change is to start afresh somewhere else. Do so and since it's a different social situation, the subconscious will expect a new program to be made. Just make sure you get it right during the first week.

It's always tempting when things go badly wrong in your life for you to pull up stakes, leave and start anew somewhere else. This is at least partially why. A new start means you can reprogram yourself from scratch more easily, become the person you regret not becoming before. There's quite a few stories about assassins, spies and so on finding themselves a new life - although, of course, their old life tends to come back to haunt them in order to get the plot rolling.

The last thing of note about these personality programs is when they fail. They're basically an act and the act can break down, slowly under constant stress, or suddenly after a shock, at which point all the masks fall away and we're left with the core of who the person is. In most cases, this core will be fairly primal, the default setting for the human animal from millions of years ago. It can, however, be either good or bad. It can be anger and violence, folding up into a ball and crying, heroic determination, unbreakable will, desperate panic...

Private Hudson from the movie Aliens is a good example. He freaked out once things got out of his control. Lieutenant Gordon also lost control of the situation and Ripley, who was more familiar with the situation, took over and saved the day.

So, characters should have slightly different personalities for different situations that they're used to. In situations they're not used to, they should be nervous and uncertain. If two or more situations collide, they should be confused, torn between two personalities. For extreme situations the character is not used to, you should have a second, completely different personality. If under constant stress, the second personality should seep through, possibly eventually breaking through completely and suddenly. If experiencing a sudden shock, the personality should break through all in one moment and the character should be transformed.

The Creative Subconscious

She'd found Tay here in Arima. He'd appeared from nowhere and threatened her mission. He'd taken away her contact before he had told her anything, blown her robbery open and lay a trap for her to walk into.

She hadn't cared. She'd never given it a thought. He was just not able to stop her. She'd believed that so much she'd never even thought about it. And she'd been right.

Behind her was an android, armed, armoured and targeted upon her. It was her death, following her steps, drawing closer. She'd believed that so much she'd never even thought about it. And she'd been right.

Whether you believe you can, or believe you can't, you're right.

- Cher Desilva from "Chasing the Wind"

Those little personality programs I mention above are dealt with by a sub-section of the subconscious called the creative subconscious. It does far more than that, though. The creative subconscious is the entire psychological basis of every professional sports training regime in the world. It's used by every successful person whether they know it or not. It's the principle behind brainwashing, voodoo and it's something that's easily powerful enough to kill you. Or, indeed, save your life. You may have heard that healing is 30% mental. The creative subconscious is why.

The creative subconscious quite simply contains an image of who you believe yourself to be. That's all. The personality programs are part of it, but it covers everything from health to skills and talents. The creative subconscious will also adjust this image as it learns new things about you.


There are two things that make it so ridiculously dangerous and so incredibly useful.

The first is that if you don't correspond to the image that the creative subconscious has of you, it will make it so you do. If you believe yourself to be bad at math, it will actively sabotage your efforts to make damned sure you are. Conversely, if you believe yourself to be good at math, it will pile every mental resource it has available into making sure that comes true as well.

And it's not to be sneered at. Sports coaches all over the world know that in order to make someone achieve his or her best, you have to convince them that they are the best. Then the creative subconscious will kick in and help make it true. In fact, any successful people are usually successful because they believe in themselves and in their ability to do what they're successful at.

It's a little odd to come to grips with. We tend to think that skills are in-built, that talent has an upper level, that you can get so good and no better and that if you're bad at something, well, that's that. It's true, to an extent, but not to the extent than people believe. Once you get your creative subconscious on side, you'll find you have more talents than you thought and that "this good and no better" becomes far better than you thought it could be.

It's hard to explain exactly how ridiculously powerful it is but the best examples are found on the negative side, when you believe the worst and the creative subconscious makes sure it happens.

For example, a man once died of hypothermia after being shut in a refrigerator truck. Sounds reasonable until I tell you that the refrigeration wasn't even turned on and the temperature inside, while cool, wasn't cold enough to kill. He died of hypothermia simply because he believed he was going to die of hypothermia. He was shivering, he went numb and he died, all in a room temperature environment. You could do it yourself right now if you wanted. You could sit in your computer chair and will yourself to death.

Hallucinations make it all seem that much more real, of course. The X-Files did an episode on that idea and the Matrix mentioned it in passing as well.

"I thought it wasn't real."
"Your mind makes it real."

- Morpheus and Neo from "The Matrix"

The one limitation is that you cannot be killed instantly, simply because there's no time for you to convince yourself you're dying.

The creative subconscious is also the reason voodoo works. Leave a doll with a pin in the leg on the porch of someone who believes in voodoo and they will get a sore leg because they'll convince themselves that they do. It's real pain, but generated by the mind. Similarly, give a man a placebo and he might just convince himself into health. In a way, it's a shame we stopped being so superstitious. It has it's uses.

The second and most powerful thing about the creative subconscious is that, like the rest of the subconscious, believes everything. Everything you hear, everything you see, everything you think.

So... wait. If the creative subconscious can turn you into what it believes you to be and if it also believes everything it hears... Doesn't that mean that other people can convince you that you're something you're not?



"How many times have you been beaten, Zs-Aex-Seir? You think we're so weak compared to you, you think the Palmans are so soft. You can believe that if you like, but it's not the truth, is it? You keep losing, they keep knocking you back. You would have had no hope, even this time, if it weren't for us. You're nothing. WE are the destroyers of worlds. We have that power. You are nothing. Nothing."

"You -" Zs-Aex-Seir began, but Daniel cut right over him.

"Face it, Zs. You're weaker, you have no will, and you have no future. We are your betters, and we will destroy your god. You're time is over. Make way."

- Daniel and Zs-Aex-Seir from "The Other Side"

A "wizard" is someone who tells you something about yourself with the idea that your creative subconscious will pick up on it and help you become that. Sports coaches are an obvious example. They'll try and convince you that you're better than you are and once you start believing that, your creative subconscious will then pull out the stops to make you that good. That's a "positive wizard", someone who's trying to help you become better. Morpheus from the Matrix movies is a very clear example of this, and nowhere is it clearer than in the scenes between him and Neo in the first movie.

"What are you waiting for? You're faster than this. Don't think you are, know you are."

"Come on! Stop trying to hit me and hit me!

"Every single man or woman who has stood their ground, everyone who has fought an Agent has died - but where they have failed, you will succeed."

- Morpheus from "The Matrix"

Agent Smith, conversely, is a negative wizard, someone who tries to convince you you're less than what you are.

"You had your time. The future is our world, Morpheus. The future is our time."

"Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet."

"It is inevitable."

- Agent Smith from "The Matrix"

The amazing thing about the creative subconscious and how it works is that everyone already knows it all at an instinctive level. That's why bullies, even in primary school, instinctively know that this will work...

"You're useless! You're pathetic! You've no hope! You can't catch a ball. You can't write. You're a waste of space. If you were a dog you'd be put down!"

Negative wizards are rife in real life and in fiction. There are many, many more negative wizards than positive. They don't even have to be bad guys. A staple of fiction is the friend or parent who simply doesn't believe in the hero and don't think they should even try for fear of failure.

In fact, humans are automatically negative. We instinctively distrust positive wizards and reject what they say (whether verbally or just in our minds). We brush them off with such phrases as "It's nice of you to say so" which, while polite, clearly implies that they are wrong. You shouldn't. Accept it and it will help you become it.

One important point about wizarding is repetition. It's weird to think but you can convince someone of anything if you repeat it enough and deny him or her the chance to find out in other ways. You can convince people that they're mad, that they're hallucinating, that they're guilty, that they deserve to die or even that the sky is green. In theory, anyway. It's one way brainwashing works and is often seen in interrogations in fiction. Drugs help to make people more susceptible.

One example was, I think, Star Trek, where an interrogator asked Captain Picard how many lights there were above the desk and Picard correctly said "five". The interrogator insisted there were four and even seemed puzzled that Picard would say anything else. Anything to break a prisoner's grip on reality.

There are two ways to beating such methods. The first you'll probably recognise and it is to have something - usually an object - that reminds the hero what's real and what isn't. In the story and TV series of "Neverwhere" by Neil Gaimen, the hero is put into a hallucinary state and various figments of his imagination try to convince him that the fantastic adventure he's on is all in his mind and he's really wandering around mumbling to himself and dribbling. What saves him from being convinced is a bracelet in his pocket which belonged to a girl who died on that adventure. The same trick is used in the webcomic Fans, where one character is institutionalised but realises that what she remembers is real when she sees an indent in her hand where she held a twenty sided die tightly.

The other way, which is less dramatic, is simply to have the character empathically state the truth every time you hear a lie - even if it's in his own head. For every attempt to convince the character of something wrong, he or she should match it with an affirmation of what's right.

Which neatly brings us to...

Self Talk

And Daerick... Well, his prejudices were clear to anyone who looked with open eyes. He had been the main opponent to the addition of women to the Towers and, Aurist believed, only took Joannon along so as to find as many faults as possible with the Towers' best - but female - student. And he'd have found them, too, Aurist knew. Not just because he'd see what he wanted but because he'd be looking all the harder for any error. It was very easy to convince oneself of something so much that it became truth. Indeed, this was why spells that detected truth were so useless. You had to get to a man quickly if he wasn't to convince himself that something he wanted to be true was.

- Aurist from "Staff and Pipe"

The most powerful wizard is the one inside your head. Sure, the creative subconscious listens to and believes other people but it listens harder and believes more strongly what you say and think. People know this instinctively just as they know about wizarding. One of the best and most effective negative wizard phrases ever is "Who are you trying to convince?" Not only are you wrong, it says, but you're just saying that to try and delude yourself. And maybe they're right but self talk - being your own wizard - is extremely powerful. The bullies and the baddies might try to convince the hero that he can't possibly win but if the hero himself starts thinking that, he's really sunk. Or, at least, he needs some other character with belief shining in their eyes to positive wizard him back on track.

And, because self-talk is so powerful, you'll often see in fiction a negative wizard force a person to repeat the negativity. For example, in the TV series Firefly, there is this exchange between an assassin named Jubal Early and the ship's female mechanic, named Kaylee.

"There's nobody that can help you. Say it."
"There's nobody that can help me..."

- Jubal Early and Kaylee from "Firefly"

Of course, the trick works just as well for positive wizards.

"If you can't say it, you can't win it, so say it."
"I want to win."
"You want to win what?"
"I want to win a national spelling bee!"

- Doctor Joshua Larabee and Akeelah from "Akeelah and the Bee"

(Interestingly, Doctor Larrabee is played by Laurence Fishburne who also played Morpheus. Obviously he does the "positive wizard" bit well.)

Conversely, in the series "Dark Angel" by James Cameron, there is a paralysed man who, at one stage despairs out loud that he will ever walk again. His physical therapist then threatens to beat him up if he ever hears the him say anything like that again. Why? Because it's negative wizardry. It's defeating oneself before one starts and it should not ever be repeated or, for preference, even thought.

I said some way above that we're automatically and instinctively negative. As such, we tend to be our own worst negative wizard rather than positive. It's odd, but there we are. The people who are different... Well, they're the successful ones. They believed, they talked themselves into it, and their creative subconscious kicked in and helped them become it.


Alis felt her sword in her hand, the leather hilt warm from her grasp.


If Lassic was a victim, too, if Lassic had been corrupted by this beast as she had, then Nero had not yet been avenged. Lassic was just the tool. The beast was the cause.

She heard it bellow in anger, felt it move towards Noah.

Her sword scraped against the stone floor as she rose, eyes burning.

- Alis Landale from "The Corrupter"

All those subconscious programs and beliefs get more and more entrenched the older you get. That makes it a lot harder to change them, but you still can.

The way to fight the program is to want to. Not intellectually, but emotionally. Eating habits are a program and lots of people know they should go on a diet but they don't really want to. There's no enthusiasm. In that case, you either need to be incredibly stubborn and strong willed or you might as well give up from the beginning.

But... if you get dumped by your partner because you're overweight... then you have that urge, that strong feeling in your chest that you really, really want to do this. Diets try the same trick by fooling you that this time it'll really work. And, if they can fool you into thinking that, then they're right. If people can see the goal, if you can get them to concentrate on the results, then their want is much stronger and they'll stick with it long enough for it to work.

Want is a powerful emotion because that's what your brain takes it's cues from. Apart from being motivation to re-program the subconscious, I've also mentioned that the RAS is dedicated to getting you what it is you desire.

Vengeance is, of course, a very common story want. As above, the characters tend to focus on the goal - the death of their enemy - and that keeps them focused and motivated.

Got any comments?

Feel free to buzz me. This document will be added to as new things occur to me but I'm always open to suggestions and criticism.