Plotting a sociological novel as opposed to a psychological novel

Dan Jones

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I'm in the early planning stages for my new novel, and have realised that I'm writing my first sociological novel, rather than a strictly psychological one. Or, more accurately, I'm attempting to. It's hard. My understanding of the main difference between the two styles of storytelling is mainly one of scope. Psychological stories arguably make up the vast majority of the novels (and films, TV shows etc) that we read and write; they focus on individual characters' journeys and how they navigate the events of the world. These stories also provide psychological, individual explanations for the ways in which people behave - for example, if a character is wronged by another person, then the wronged person may explain that by projecting some form of negative experience or characteristic upon that person who wronged them. A story told in a psychological manner would focus on plot and character; decisions are made by various characters, and the evidence provided for those decisions is made the presentation of the characters' personalities; if they are in alignment, the narrative is kept nice and neat. IMO most stories are psychological ones: The Lord Of The Rings, Dracula, Alien, It, Moby Dick, A Christmas Carol, The Silence Of The Lambs, Crime And Punishment, Beloved and most other things I can think of off the top of my head are all told in a psychological manner. All my books and short stories have been psychological.

A sociological novel takes pains to present the institutions, social mores, history and cultural practices of a place and/or time and present the characters as being bound by them. In other words, they still have their own personalities and character arcs, but they are also bound together by social convention and expectation. In this way it's rare for characters to be presented as either good / bad, and take the Solzhenitsyn view that the line between good and evil runs through every human heart; we're defined by the decisions we make, and sometimes the decisions we make are influenced by social factors as much as psychological ones. So decisions might run counter to a character's own personality but still make sense because of the social conventions by which they're bound, and still they would make sense in the frame of the narrative. Sociological novels, as far as I can see, as much rarer, and tend to be very big so they can effectively present the worlds by which the characters are bound. A Song Of Ice And Fire, Dune, War And Peace, Middlemarch, and A Suitable Boy are examples I can think of off the top of my head, and I'm struggling to think of many more (though I'm sure you folks will put me right on that).

My new WIP is set in a fictional early 20th British town, in the years 1901, 1917, and possibly some point in the 1920s. It focuses on a set of families with three generations present; some members are descended from diminishing aristocratic stock, while others are being swept up in the tide of radicalism of the day, while others are working class and dealing with the grind of their own lives. Background events and movements like the death of Victoria, WW1, the Bolshevik Revolution, and modernism, also shape the narrative. The introduction of a small, homeless boy who has inadvertently travelled there from the future changes the course of the town's history. The difficulty I'm having, which I've not encountered before, is that each character is bound by their own generational coincidence, their loyalties (or disloyalties) to their family, their class, their name, their politics, etc, as well as their own personalities. And there are several characters, and I'm telling the story from omni.

Has anyone else written a novel with this sort of scope? I suppose, thinking about it, my last novel was maybe very slightly sociological as it was set against the background of the Church, which was a major factor in the storytelling, but it's still focused very much on the psychological shifts in the MC. But the scope of this new WIP seems dauntingly big, and I wondered if anyone else had any experiences of writing anything like this.
 

HareBrain

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Interesting topic. Also very hard.

A Song Of Ice And Fire

I'm not sure I'd agree with this. Yes, the characters are bound to some extent by the world they inherit, but many/most of the important characters have the power to change that world, and do.

The difficulty I'm having, which I've not encountered before, is that each character is bound by their own generational coincidence, their loyalties (or disloyalties) to their family, their class, their name, their politics, etc, as well as their own personalities.

But this is true to some extent in any novel, surely, in which the world is at all fleshed out? I think that the difference between a psy novel and a soc novel (feel free to use those shortenings -- have fun with them!) is in how its themes emerge from the stories of its characters. You could have the same characters doing the same things, but if the author's thesis is not sociological, it won't be that type of novel. (Discuss, 10 marks. Show your workings.)

But the scope of this new WIP seems dauntingly big, and I wondered if anyone else had any experiences of writing anything like this.

If my last paragraph holds true (if), then the difficulty is less to do with soc novels particularly and more with just handling a large cast of characters, no? In which case I perhaps have as much claim as most people here, judging by the number of my sister's friends who've complained about trying to keep track of who everyone is in TEP. Or do you think there's a particular difficulty in making characters engaging where they have less agency, as is the case in soc novels? Or are you worried that because a soc novel should have a thesis, you can't let the characters just "do what they want", but must constrain them to serve that thesis?

Anyway, it sounds an interesting project.
 

Steve Harrison

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Your story sounds very interesting.

I have never thought of my books and stories in sociological or psychological terms, though they would mostly fall into the psychological if I applied your definitions.

As to tacking a something with enormous scope, since the 1980s I have been mulling over a sweeping novel centred on an inciting event in the Vatican and which that spans thirty years and involves diverse characters on four continents. It has sweeping historical, mystery and spiritual elements and ends several years into the future, and I have been trying to get my head around how to tell such a sweeping tale incorporating real people and events, particularly as those people and events are constantly changing the longer I avoid starting the book. (For example, the death of Pope John Paul I was a major plot point during the early formulation of the novel, which will now start decades later).

My current plan is to start work after my next novel and I think I've worked out a method so that I don't get overwhelmed by the enormity of the project. As most of the characters spend more than half of the story unconnected with each other, I will write each of their stories independently, using my customary multi-POV, up to the point where they begin to interact. I don't do formal outlines (I just work things out in my head), so this, I hope, will allow me to focus without getting lost.

I have no particular interest in whether it will be sociological or psychological or both - I just want to write an exciting and engaging novel that sells millions of copies - and I don't know if I'm biting off more than I can chew, but I feel that I'm finally ready and capable. And there's only one way of finding out!
 

Wayne Mack

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I am not sure that there is a a clean separation between sociological and psychologic stories; both are in play and only the balance of the two is the question. I am not entirely clear on the specific definitions, but from the original post, it appears there are two aspects: past influences being either societal or individual and change occurring to society or to the individual.

Fantasy, in general, spends a great deal of effort creating one or more societies and then has the main characters move in opposition to society. This is true in Lord of the Rings, each character in the quest acts against the pressures of his individual society (except for Gandalf, who appears to have no society). At the end, whole societies are pitched against each other in battle. What is left in doubt is what happens to the societies once the ring is destroyed.

I also see society building in most other types of novels. Political thrillers will create some sort of hidden ruling cabal for the protagonist to uncover and defeat (or lose to). Legal dramas, medical dramas, etc., each try to create a specific society and embed the reader in it.

It is a balance and I suggest the story described has multiple individuals influenced by the past and individually struggling to either overcome the past or preserve it. Each character has his or her own psychological struggle with society and individual choices are affecting the future of society.

The short answer is, don't view this as a completely different style of writing, but simply as a change in the areas given more prominence in the tale. It sounds like an interesting premise, and what if, alternate history stories are quite interesting to read. Good luck!
 

Dan Jones

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I'm not sure I'd agree with this. Yes, the characters are bound to some extent by the world they inherit, but many/most of the important characters have the power to change that world, and do.

I put it in the soc novel category because it does such a good job of representing the institutions that exist in that complex world - the various families and factions, the Church, the various cities and their own identities, the exiles, masters and slaves, the university at Oldtown, the Wall and the tribes beyond it etc etc - there is a huge scope of the different types of institution that in turn house several different characters who are, to a greater or lesser extent, bound by the conventions of those institutions.

You're right that a soc novel tends to have a large cast of characters (ASOIAF has well over a thousand named characters IIRC, and War and Peace has well over 500, around 200 of whom who were real historical figures), but that they necessarily come from a wide variety of backgrounds. As sociology is dealing with the social consequences of human behaviour, these sorts of novels have to present a sufficiently broad cross-section of society to show social consequences of the webs of actions and decisions.

But this is true to some extent in any novel, surely, in which the world is at all fleshed out? I think that the difference between a psy novel and a soc novel (feel free to use those shortenings -- have fun with them!) is in how its themes emerge from the stories of its characters. You could have the same characters doing the same things, but if the author's thesis is not sociological, it won't be that type of novel. (Discuss, 10 marks. Show your workings.)
If I'm reading the exam question correctly, I think it's a matter of how the characters are presented in terms of narrative delivery; themes arise from the actions of characters regardless of what style of story it is, but if it's a psychological novel, the themes presented will be focused on one individual, or a small number of characters. And even a small number of characters can change the world, and the world can be tangibly changed by their actions, but the changes to the world are shown in broad brush strokes. It might be something like Frodo destroying the Ring in LOTR and Aragorn re-establing the line of kings - these are big-ticket changes to Middle Earth, but the more profound changes are to the small number of characters with whom we've been acquainted throughout the novel. But a soc novel will show the changes to the society in greater detail.

Actually, now I think of it, your point about people doing the same things but being presented in a different way is interesting. I mentioned Crime and Punishment, and I've also read Demons, which Dostoevsky wrote a little later, and they are thematically very similar in that they feature characters who think that they are justified in breaking the fundamental rules that keep society functioning. In CAP this is focused very tightly around the character of Raskolnikov and the psychological consequences for him; more or less the whole story is from his perspective and we see how he is affected (and also others, but from his perspective). Whereas in Demons, the characters like Stavrogin, Pyotr, Shatov, Kirillin etc do similarly repulsive things to Raskolnikov, but we are shown events from a slightly wider perspective; as well as seeing the individual consequences of these people's actions, we see how a whole town is affected.

I have no particular interest in whether it will be sociological or psychological or both - I just want to write an exciting and engaging novel that sells millions of copies - and I don't know if I'm biting off more than I can chew, but I feel that I'm finally ready and capable. And there's only one way of finding out!

Again your idea sounds really interesting! I think I've got a bit more confidence for tackling historical fiction after writing my last novel, which was set in the 14th century and needed quite a bit of research but came out pretty well, I think. I do tend to write out reasonably formal templates for my novels, as I do like to keep track of how people are getting to where they're going, and I feel for something like this I would need to keep track of everything. But I also feel like it'd be a standalone book (although quite a big one) rater than a series.

I am not sure that there is a a clean separation between sociological and psychologic stories; both are in play and only the balance of the two is the question. I am not entirely clear on the specific definitions, but from the original post, it appears there are two aspects: past influences being either societal or individual and change occurring to society or to the individual.
I think that's a fair point, and HB said something similar. Any book that has characters by definition will have a setting for those characters, and that will have some influence over their characters. Both are potentially in play, and a lot of good books can show a fully formed society that feels alive and vibrant and functional. I think it's rarer to show a society that is actively changed through the mass actions of webs of characters.

I guess it would be relatively easy to change a world in a "save the world from the big baddie" type way, but that's not really what I mean. That's the sort of "Great Man Theory" of 19th century history, in which it is posited that a single "great" person has the potential to change the world. In War and Peace, Tolstoy argues against this, by showing the many many characters acting in such a way that they effect the movement from the Napoleonic Wars to the Decembrist uprising. (disclaimer; I've not actually yet read WAP but I'm building myself up to it!); so change and historical events are brought about by the many intricate connections between several people.

It is a big topic, and I'm still trying to get my head around it. It'll probably take a few months of just thinking about it until I'm ready to start writing.
 

DLCroix

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Hi! I would advise you that, regardless of whether it is a book, a tetralogy or even a saga, above all you dedicate yourself to think carefully about the main premise of your story. This should be an idea that you can summarize in one sentence and is what supports the entire frame of the building. Most of the stories are based on the idea of the struggle between good and evil, but the premise is what gives them a characteristic that makes it unique and consigns them to a certain kind of story.
For example, watching Star Wars, but also many western and war movies, over the years I began to wonder: why do the bad guys, or the so-called bad guys, in the case of movies about human wars, lose? And I guess Star Wars was just the trigger. When I finished watching Return of the Jedi I discovered the enormous affection he actually had for the Imperials, and I began to wonder: what would happen if, on the contrary, I did a story where the protagonists are the Imperials? In history they were going to lose the same, but the explanation of why they lost was obviously sociological, of that he had no doubt, although he did not want to make a fanfake, but something of his own, anyway with an empire that was going to hell in all senses, but with an absolutely different worldbuilding of weapons, technology and nations.
Later, so you can see that even the premise of a story can change, I began to realize that I was worried about the bad guys who always lose, and then I got to the real premise: can evil defend good? This is what ultimately defined that from the first book on, I always portrayed evil characters "on both sides" in such a way that the reader would fall in love with these evil imperialists and would obviously regret their final defeat, but above all he would his farewell would thrill, a contradictory but very heroic, noble act. Returning to the comparisons with Star Wars, it was equivalent to the rebels not being the ones who destroyed the station, but a renegade unit of the Imperials themselves, in reality that the rebels were always the poorest and most stringent and that they triumphed anyway I never bought it. "What strength or eight quarters ?!," I wondered. Furthermore, even without Emperor, Darth Vader, or Death Star, the empire was an organized force that controlled many worlds, and its economy, and had a huge fleet, capable of responding with a devastating immediate counterattack such that bye rebellion. Therefore, if the empire was to fall, it would not be because of force, but more likely the product of a coup planned by his own dome: Moff Tarkin himself, if he had not gone overboard with the tan in the first Death Star, he could have done it.
So the big conclusion: if the good guys, or those who defend the supposed cause of good, win, that is only possible because others help them, sometimes the bad guys themselves.
So as you will see, a central idea generates a whole series of secondary ideas, which you will develop through arcs, ellipsis and particular premises of a people or group of individuals.

But everything, as I was saying, rests on the central idea. For the rest, this is the first part of the series of advice that I want to share, since I have already written eight books of my series over about twelve years of work, so I think I have a lot to say about it. In my next post I will address the analysis that is also necessary regarding the treatment and tone of the story, since it is the way in which all the premises and ideas will develop the argument, which, in turn, will be the objective of a third post. I want to give this topic the most appropriate and detailed extension possible, as it is full of small great details that should be reviewed step by step. For now, I'm going to finish another piece of art that I'm charring, cooking, I mean, in the kitchen. :sneaky: :censored:
 

DLCroix

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The treatment.
We already know that we have a space opera, but, applied to your case, regardless of whether it is a war or political story, it is just as important to consider what is the best way to present it. This type of analysis, in fact, presents the elements as cards, and the sociological and psychological aspects that you say unfold. But, as a writer and aspiring to create a novel work, right here there is also the need to think about these elements but at the same time answer the question of what really makes them unique or at least they attract the attention of readers. In addition, a river novel, in itself, presents such complexity in terms of number of characters and events that at first glance it does not seem very tempting for a large majority of readers. Therefore, it is not that we are thinking of a work as a product, but deep down it is what we have also done since childhood, a desire to do something, to put it in a way, better. In addition, it is enough that to some you mention the Anatomy of Influence, postulated by the unforgettable Harold Bloom, so that they immediately start throwing tomatoes at you. But the old man was more right than a nun. You write comparing yourself with others. Point. And Amen.
The violence, for example. How should that be presented. My brother is a military man, my parents, grandparents, everyone has had a rifle in their hands, so as a family we have always had one thing too clear: men have not yet reached the limit of horror, and although there are more and more women in the armies of all countries, thank God there has not been another world war where it is truly known how far that horror can go.
But the horror itself is another element. Because it can come from everywhere. There is the typical evil or evil horror, in which man is faced with spirits and supernatural forces, adversaries that he cannot even see but they whisper in his ears. Imagine this in a trench, in the mud and rot, a girl's voice murmuring in the fog. In the distance those eerie red tongues of flamethrowers are fuzzy, which is an inhuman horror, but compared to that, a girl's voice sounds like an even more ghoulish mockery. Even so, try to make it just one more element, do not try to become Lovecraft. Only he would be able to make Cthulhu appear in the trenches.
But there is also the horror produced by human misunderstanding, the edges of the madness into which soldiers can fall from so much existing in a reality where the presence of evil in anything, in the simple brush of a fly on the face, is constant. The loss of memory, or that a soldier is the only one who remembers something while others deny it and look at him as someone with a bad head. In short, horror has many faces, but it is at least the second element that I considered.
The question of the families that you mention, although I considered it, I could only develop it as I wanted in what is supposed to be the prequels of the saga, since the original trilogy corresponds to the part and final defeat of the empire. Therefore, the few troops that still remain (and who are supposed to be the bad guys) defend themselves with more anger than because they are interested in saving themselves at that point. But already in those first analyzes I began to visualize, without even proposing it to me, aspects that, as you say, clearly belong to the psychological field. For example, on the one hand there is that fear of punishment that the wicked feels, but at the same time an irrepressible and contradictory desire for that to happen. In fact, the last chapters relate absolutely suicidal battles and the worst thing is that the civilian population sees it through the media. The underlying idea is not to polarize, although I know that today's writers are no longer so Manichean or so contaminated by nationalism and fanaticism as before, because nobody is so good or so bad.

Now, we must also accept that we can have decided what treatment we will give to the story, but this only amounts to a declaration of intentions, because we still do not know how we are to carry out such a task. It is also necessary to distinguish two phases of the same process that are different from each other:
The thickest part of the work, the objective that matters at the moment, is to be able to write chapter by chapter until the word "The End" is written. That serves as a first draft.
But, unless we're ****ing geniuses, nothing's settled about the tone yet.
Nor should we obsess over documentation details. In this regard, something I learned from when I was playing in a band, is that a song must be a melody that can be whistled. It is simple. It dispense with technology. It is not more melody because it has more instruments and it tries to become important by disguising itself behind a baroque complexity. So, in the same way, I think we all have a notion of what a battle in the trenches was like. For now, I wouldn't waste time trying to figure out what the English or the Germans were shooting with. What I am not clear about is the date they started with the flamethrowers, nor with the gases, although I think it was the Germans who started with that, or in what exact places tanks were deployed (those were the English), But even if you make a mistake, then you change the name of the site and that's it. Also, a tank may not appear in your story, so why bother. For example, I am aware that, being books, I cannot describe to the reader, no matter how hard I try, what a fighter or a battle cruiser looks like. But what I can speak of is in terms of small, large, heavy, uncomfortable, old-fashioned, etc. The soldiers don't see the tank, but the ground shakes, that's what scares them. Sensory sensations can be transmitted to the reader.
Well, at least one advantage you have is that the worldbuilding of your story has already been solved. Even so, I did not complicate myself too much, the only thing that interested me was to tell the story. Later, and as a result of a whole maturation of concepts, the details of architecture, customs, clothing, languages, etc. began to appear, and in a second maturation it was already possible to set up conflicts based on these new elements.
However, applied to your novel, what I do seem to notice is the need to reflect a certain indifference in the way your characters take the news or things that affect them. I think it was characteristic of the people of that time. Also suspicious of others, they always looked at you with a raised eyebrow, as if they doubted you were competent. In addition, the young people of that time were very idealistic and naive.
Now, this situation of a little homeless from the future fortunately presents certain coincidences that I am happy to see, because, since I have developed that idea, it offers me the possibility of giving you some insights regarding how you can develop the story.
First, it is not a paradox, that is impossible. The child does not come to change anything, because by appearing in that past he becomes part of that past. For example, in my novel, some always rumored that an AI or "someone" would have traveled three centuries into the past. In fact, in a certain chapter, a character is made known the name of the imperial martyr who will be decisive in the future and even the exact date when the empire will fall. It is all the information that these people need to set in motion the entire sequence of operations that through three centuries will seek to keep a secret of extreme value safe, and although in a certain way it resembles that of John Connor, in my story it does not It is about avoiding the Final Judgment or its equivalent at the end of that war and the defeat of the empire, but precisely about allowing that to happen so that this future can be fulfilled. We discussed this at length with an editor and friend who has helped me all these years but the conclusion we reached I think can also be applied to your story. In mine, we understood that the danger of the mission failing is so high that the only solution is for that information to be known from the beginning, because for the mission to be carried out "it is necessary" that the peoples at war become to unite and forgive themselves.

So, the fact of that child from the future appearing in the past must also obey a purpose. So so that should determine even the suspense. But, I repeat, that boy did not change the history of the city because, whatever he did, that "is" part of that past.
Also, for the rest, I wonder what relationship there is with those three families and three different dates. I would advise evaluating well what is the real relevance of each of these elements, since a project of these characteristics must satisfy specific expectations in order not to appear whimsical. For example, in my series I took the precaution of making each book self-contained, but it is also a work that has been going on for more than a decade. By this I mean that you must be very patient, and above all enjoy the process, because I am sure it will be exciting and fun. Worrying about the psychological and sociological, moreover, at the moment seems to me an unnecessary complication. Except for the general aspects that appear in your scenes, the true details, those that reveal what makes the reader say: “ah”, you will not find them thinking or investigating. They will appear on their own, but after you spend some time dining with your characters or accompanying them on their walks through the countryside. Then you will begin to notice that some smoke pipes, others have problems with laudane or opium. Or suddenly you will discover that your characters start to make jokes. Or you will be able to determine when they started to have electricity and stopped using kerosene lamps. The charcoal, moreover, will continue to be used for a long time. In fact (in 1947, if memory serves) there was a serious health problem in the City due to the build-up of sulfuric acid in typical London fog.
But that boy still worries me. I hope you can be clear about what he did in the past, if someone knew about this or if he was exposed to any danger. And above all, what were those supposed changes that it produced in the city?

Anyway. In the next part I hope to be able to address everything about tone, which is the subject of another important analysis. :giggle:
 

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It would seem that close third and first person POVs would best facilitate the psychological where an Omni-variant would work better for the sociological novel.

That would be that the closer POV would allow internality, which lends itself to the psychological.

And the Omni, or more distant POV, through having to use the camera lens to tell the story would create the correct atmosphere for the sociological novel.

I suppose that with a bit of trickery one could use the POV usually considered close and give it distance to help craft the Sociological novel. It would be a bit of work that might not quite succeed unless you can get the right balance to draw the reader into it.

However I think in most cases with a close third or first person POV you would at best end up with a blend of both types as some people have already mentioned. Very difficult to separate them.

I think that the Sociological addition would likely help develop the character by adding that bit of extra room for conflicts.

In fact that might describe how a lot of people are today; where we all usually have a fair idea of what is right and what is wrong, yet that gets colored by social aspects sort of like the nature and nurture thing. The very reason that it is almost impossible for anyone to be totally non-racist without making a conscious effort to break out of what we have learned.
 

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How would soc vs psych affect the writing of the story itself? That is, what effect do *you* think it would have. From my viewpoint, that's the sort of thing critics would talk about after the book comes out. It's a reviewer question, not an author question. But I'm interested to hear why you think it's significant.
 

Dan Jones

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How would soc vs psych affect the writing of the story itself? That is, what effect do *you* think it would have. From my viewpoint, that's the sort of thing critics would talk about after the book comes out. It's a reviewer question, not an author question. But I'm interested to hear why you think it's significant.

It's a really good question. I think it doesn't necessarily affect the way a story is produced or written with respect to the outcomes of particular character arcs, but the difference might be in the way you present how a world, or society is changed in some way as a result of the actions of a fairly large number of people who are either directly or indirectly connected with one another. Again, I don't mean "change the world" by way of killing the Big Bad and restoring peace etc, I mean how might you make a society more or less hostile to its people, or more or less free, or more or less equitable, or more of one thing and less of another.

And it might be a reviewer question, but I don't think that necessarily precludes it being an author question as well.
 

sknox

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>... the difference might be ...
Write the story and find out! I don't mean to be flip about this, as your question was earnest and considered. But I don't see any way even to approach an answer without having the actual story in hand, because as with all things artistic, it's all in the execution. I was trying to envision how deciding one way or the other ahead of time, the way one might choose a POV for example, would affect how I might actually structure the novel, develop characters or theme, etc. I came up empty, so that's why I asked my (probably unhelpful) question.
 

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