How Neuroscience Helps Create Characters

As a big neuroscience fan myself, I’m so excited to have Maree Kimberley posting today about how (being a medical nerd like myself) she used her research into neuroscience to help create her characters.

Welcome, Maree!

My fascination with neuroscience began in 2009 when I read Norman Doidge’s The Brain that Changes Itself. Doidge’s explanation of brain plasticity, and of how the scientific community had discarded the centuries old idea that the brain was fixed, struck a chord with me.

A few months earlier, I’d finished my M.A. in creative writing where I’d explored how characters in young adult fiction showed resilience. One of my key research texts was The Boy who was Raised as a Dog by Bruce Perry. Perry’s case studies, gathered through his working life as a child psychiatrist, led him to believe that trauma experienced as a child changed that child’s brain, causing sometimes irreparable damage.

After I read Doidge’s book about brain plasticity, the two concepts—brain changes caused by early childhood trauma and the brain’s ability to rewire itself—opened up for me a new way of thinking about how my own teen aged characters acted and behaved. Before I knew it, I’d signed up to do a PhD with neuroscience in young adult fiction as my topic.

I hadn’t studied any science since the middle years of high school. And yet I found myself devouring not only the more generalist/popular books on neuroscience but articles published in scientific journals. I borrowed a copy of Neuroconstructivism:how the brain constructs cognition and made copious notes on the writers’ theories on how every gene, every experience and every aspect of a child’s environment work together to ‘construct’ their brain.

I bought myself a copy of Kolb and Whishaw’s The Fundamentals of HumanNeuropsychology and began working my way through it, chapter by chapter, learning about brain anatomy, how the human brain is organised and trying to familiarise myself with topics such as the principles of neocortical function (I’m still working my way through it—it has 800+ pages!). I became obsessed with not only learning more about how the human brain works (or how we think it works) but what this meant for me as a writer of young adult fiction.

The text books are great as resources when I want to use technical terms in my writing; however, the scientific journal articles have a broader purpose. I’m fascinated by the debates about what a new neuroscientific discovery might mean and discussions about where the discoveries might take humans in the not too distant future.

These debates and discussions are, for me, a treasure trove of ideas. The idea might not come directly from reading the article. Sometimes when I’m writing, something I’ve read from a neuroscientific article will connect with a character’s actions or behaviour, and that will spark further exploration about who that character is and why they do what they do.

For my current work in progress, which I’m writing for my PhD, I have written in-depth character profiles (around 5000 words each) for several of my main characters. Going back to the core theories of neuroconstructivism and my reading in neuropsychology, I delved back into each character’s past: who their parents and grandparents were; how their parents met; what their lives were like growing up; details about significant incidents or experiences they had.

I didn’t need to be a neuroscientist to write these character profiles but having some insight into how the brain might construct who we are and who we might become gave me a different focus. It made me really think about who each character was—about their traits, abilities, aptitudes, flaws, actions and reactions.  It led me to insights about characters I doubt I would have had if I hadn’t taken this approach.

Reading neuroscientific texts isn’t everyone’s idea of fun. However, for me, using medicine in fiction is not just about getting the technical aspects right (like making sure you know adrenaline is injected into the thigh, not the heart!).

Neuroscience gives me another way to view my characters, to analyse them more clinically, perhaps, and to get to know them from a different perspective. Neuroscience helps me look into the brains of my characters, and that brings my characters to life.


Maree Kimberley lives in Brisbane, Australia where it’s nearly always sunny. She holds a Bachelor of Creative Industries and a Master of Arts, both from Queensland University of Technology. She has published short stories, feature articles and a children’s book and has several novel-length manuscripts hidden away. Apart from neuroscience, her obsessions include the grotesque, bizarre and somewhat strange. She also has a thing for circuses. Maree enjoys combining her obsessions into stories: some work and some fail dismally. She has a sneaking suspicion that it’s the bad stories that make her a better writer. Maree is on Twitter @reebee01