by Sione Aeschliman
About 20 years ago in a galaxy not too far away, my mother told me about nonviolent communication, aka NVC, and my understanding of people changed forever.
NVC was developed as a communication tool for resolving conflict, but it’s much more than that. Its principles provide insight into my own and other people’s behavior. Hence, it has also changed the way I think about fiction—for what is fiction but an imagined study of how people act and interact in given circumstances?
I’m not going to get too deep into NVC in this post, but in order to explain some of the ways in which NVC affects my thinking about fiction, there are a couple of basic principles I need to outline.
The first, perhaps most basic principle is this: Humans all have the same basic needs—needs that go beyond the physical needs for air, food, water, and shelter—and at any given moment, everyone is doing the best they can to get their needs met with the strategies they have at their disposal. There’s a little more to it, of course, but that’s the gist. You, me, anybody: all the time we’re just trying to get our needs met the best way we know how.
The second NVC principle (slightly modified from the original 4-step NVC process) is that we can parse an interpersonal conflict and its resolution like this:
1) Someone says or does something that I Observe; 2) I make a Judgement (aka form an interpretation) about what that thing means; 3) I have Feelings based on my judgement; 4) which are in response to Needs Not Met (if it’s Needs Met, then it’s a warm-and-fuzzy moment, not a conflict); and then, ideally, 5) I make a Request for a particular strategy that I think will meet my hitherto unmet Needs.
To sum up: Observation – Judgement – Feeling – Need – Request
This isn’t to say that people are aware of all these steps or that we experience the steps in this order. For example, I’m aware of my feeling about something before I’m aware of the judgement I’ve made about it, even though I must have made the judgement beforehand in order to have the feeling. And it’s my lack of awareness about the difference between the observation and the judgement (what happened vs. what that means to me) that often creates conflict. Side note: the feelings and needs inventories linked above are just starting places; there exist more comprehensive lists too.
So how does this help us with our fiction writing? There are five applications I want to introduce today. NVC can help us: 1) create characters with more depth and relatability; 2) deepen the POV; 3) enrich the world-building; 4) explore sources of conflict; and 5) explore resolutions to that conflict.
1. Create characters with more depth and relatability
Get to know your characters even better than they understand themselves by exploring what needs underlie a lot of their feelings and actions. This is a great exercise to take on for any character in your book, but in particular it can help with the development of characters that your beta readers are having a hard time relating to.
For many of us, this includes our antagonists! What better way to make your antagonist feel like a real person instead of a stereotypical villain—what better way to make them relatable to your readers—than by digging down into their most basic human needs, which just so happen to be needs that we all share? So dig deep: What need or needs is your antagonist trying to get met through their villainous behavior?
2. Deepen the POV
You remember that second principle of NVC I mentioned: Observation—Judgement—Feeling—Need—Request? It just so happens to correspond very closely to how your characters experience events in your book, and thus is a key component of writing in deep 1st or close 3rd person POV. Specifically, we need to know what the character observes, how they feel about it (show, don’t tell), how they’re interpreting what they observe, and their reaction to it. That reaction can be a decision, an action, or a line of dialogue. Observation—Feeling—Interpretation—Reaction.
Thankfully, we don’t need all four components for every single action or line of dialogue; to an extent we can rely on our readers to project their own experiences and to apply what they’ve already learned about the characters to what’s going on in the present scene. But it is my experience that if readers lack sufficient information about any of those four elements, they’re going to have a harder time following the action and relating to the characters.
There’s a bonus opportunity here too to reinforce the sense of continuity in your book by relying mostly on your POV character’s goal at that particular point in the narrative to frame their interpretations. For example, Jace wants to get from Earth to the moonbase without dealing with bureaucratic nonsense and goes to Kels for help because Kels has a private spacecraft. But Kels is still mad at Jace for something that happened last time they saw each other and is being lippy rather than helpful. Jace interprets Kels’s behavior as an obstacle to their goal in this moment and is frustrated AF. The point is that Jace isn’t just angry because Kels’s behavior doesn’t meet their needs for respect. Maybe that’s going on too, but the focus is on how Jace interprets Kels’s behavior in light of their goal.
3. Enrich the world-building
Admittedly, this one is more of an indirect takeaway, but I don’t think I’d have the clarity about it were it not for NVC. If we think about how characters interpret what they observe and the strategies they employ to get their needs met, those are both heavily influenced by a person’s cultures—family culture (talk about triggers!), regional or national cultures, religious culture, the unique cultures that develop in university dorms or at boot camp or among people living on the street, etc. Each culture decides what certain non-verbal and verbal signs mean, and it also dictates what is deemed an appropriate vs. an inappropriate needs-meeting strategy. Would storm clouds or a closed fist mean different things to your main character depending on the cultural context? How does their cultural context affect the strategies they reach for in a given moment?
4. Explore sources of conflict
Did someone say conflict, that lifeblood of fiction? Yes! The model for interpersonal communication I mentioned above points to at least five potential moments for conflict to arise, and each of those moments contain multiple sources of potential conflict. Here are just a couple of ideas for each of those five moments.
Observation – Two characters can observe the same thing differently, or a character can see something from an angle that misleads them as to what is happening.
Judgement – A character interprets what is said differently from how another character thought of it or intended it, or two characters come to different interpretations of the same observation.
Feeling – A character’s anger leads to unhelpful reactions, or the strength of an emotion temporarily incapacitates a character.
Need – A character has competing needs in the same moment, or two characters’ needs seem to be in conflict with one another (e.g. safety vs. adventure).
Request – A strategy requested by a character doesn’t meet another’s character’s needs (so it’s not a win-win), or a request is actually a demand because the character is stuck on a particular strategy.
On a related note, once you start looking at the difference between goals (what one wants to do) and strategies (how to do it), even more sources of conflict arise. For example, two characters can disagree on the goal, or they can agree on the goal but disagree on strategies.
5. Explore ways to resolve conflicts that don’t involve violence
If you’re interested in exploring heroes (or antiheroes) who don’t rely on physical, emotional, or psychological violence to resolve their conflicts, and you still want resolutions that feel genuine and satisfying, having your characters unhook from their reliance on particular strategies (hooray for character growth!) and figure out win-win solutions is something NVC can help with. After all, that’s why it was developed!
I hope this post gave you a few ideas you can apply to your work immediately. If you want to learn more about NVC so you can apply it to your fiction, I recommend reading the book Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life by Marshall Rosenberg and checking out the Center for Nonviolent Communication’s website. If learning from a person (rather than from printed words) is more your speed, search for NVC workshops in your area, join an NVC practice group, read the book with your book club, or suggest to your company’s Human Resources department that they host an NVC workshop for employees at all levels—because we all secretly want our workplaces to pay us for learning something that helps us with our writing. ;*)
Sione Aeschliman is a fiction editor and writer with a Master’s degree in English and over sixteen years of editing experience who gets massive amounts of satisfaction from helping authors achieve their goals. She's a co-founding RevPit Editor, co-host of the Novel Approaches podcast with r.r. campbell, and a member of the Editorial Freelancer’s Association (EFA), the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP), and Willamette Writers. She lives in Portland, Oregon with an adorkable dog named Milton, who’s an Expert Urban Forager. Find out more about Sione and her editing services at www.writelearndream.com. She’d also love to connect with you on Twitter @writelearndream.