New website

zara head3A while ago, I put up a website detailing my professional activities because, at the time, Google had no knowledge of me beyond a couple of papers and articles about animals with disabilities. This confused people who were looking for something a little more, well, psychological. It was long before LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and, for all I know, a popular reality TV series on Alpha Centauri, the population of which I hope are not about to vote me off .

The site was a little outdated and so, unfortunately, was my software. I had been using Dreamweaver which, expensive and nerdy, requires some investment and I had not re-installed it for at least two machines-worth of neglect. I dug it out. I thought about it. Then my PC mag arrived and on the free disc was another piece of software that looked very easy, very WYSIWYGy. Also very tempting and I showed no backbone at all. I had the whole thing done in a couple of hours. Xara, in case you’re wondering.

The uploading was an absolute cinch – no messing around to make sure all the pages linked properly, the images properly lined up, and the remote (or local) computer/server/thing agreed with the local (or remote) one. Up went the new site.

Except it didn’t. A ghost of it appeared, a faint whisper of the arrangement I had delivered, but certainly not the crisp and colourful design that my desktop was displaying. The problem in short? My host service could only handle ‘basic’ information, it could not manage the new templates that my software was offering. So the site has moved and you can find it here. Assuming you’re not looking for the animal stuff.

End of bulletin.

How many characters can a short story accommodate?



survey (Photo credit: Sean MacEntee)


Some people had trouble downloading the report on PDF (How many characters can a short story accommodate 2 pdf) and some quite rightly don’t trust documents from the internet, so here it is in glorious WordPressy HTML! For the (obviously erudite and entertaining) preamble, go here.




How many characters can a short story accommodate?








We have all read novels in which entire dynasties of personnel are detailed, each individual with their own plot arc from the tiniest bit player to the central character. The theory goes that a novel has time and space to introduce us to them all, to elaborate them and make their role memorable[1], although some do resort to glossaries which seems to be a tacit acknowledgment that the burden on memory may be a little too great for most.




For short stories – and probably especially flash fiction – there is less time for such elaborations and probably less tolerance of guiding footnotes, never mind appendices, and so the received advice is to have no more than three characters[2]. This is clearly aimed at reducing the potential for confusion and distraction that a greater number might bring but what is the evidence for that?




After being asked to consider losing a character – one that I felt was doing a pretty good job of nipping the story along and whose actions I thought could not easily be given to someone else – I suggested that, since he and another key character operated throughout as a duo, perhaps the strain on memory would be lessened as each would call up the other as a unit and not as separate entities.




I was speculating that a cognitive process called ‘chunking’[3] might be taking place whereby information is processed in organised parcels, when these make sense, rather than as individual elements. Thinking of a phone number; once learned, the dialling code becomes a single entity and not the several constituent digits and the remaining string is often mentally broken up by a rhythm that parcels the digits into smaller packages. Similarly, words soon become whole units rather than strings of letters – and if you have come across the, apparently fake, experiment in spelling manipulation[4] whereby several letters in all the words on the page are changed and the text is still readable, you will appreciate how that economy facilitates reading.




I had no evidence for my theory, I remarked on this during a tutorial and I was challenged to find some. Quite possibly, an experimental methodology was not the one anticipated, but for me here was a hypothesis in need of testing. There follows an account of a very preliminary investigation into whether or not chunking might be operating when characters come as pairs rather than individuals. It is probably the first layer of quite a large cognitive onion.








I found a number of fictional and non-fictional duos[5] that seemed likely to be recognisable by most people, especially in the UK but possibly also elsewhere: names such as Morecambe and Wise, Mork and Mindy, for instance. Then I found a similar number of names that had corresponding contexts but were not paired: (Han) Solo and (Jean Luc) Picard (star ship captains in sci fi films/programmes), Sherlock and Poirot (detectives)[6]. I designed two very brief tests of memory – recognition and recall – that were, in fact, not testing memory per se but the distribution of items remembered.




The Recognition test




Using SurveyMonkey[7], I presented participants with a list of names drawn from one half of each pair: Morecambe  Mindy, Picard, and Poirot, for instance. I asked participants to read through the list of 28 words twice at most and then go to the next page. I gave them no information about the purpose of the survey, or the nature of the stimuli – that these constituted paired or non-paired names.




On this page, a further list of words was presented, half of which were ones the participants had seen before, the rest being the corresponding item in the pair; for instance, Wise, Mindy, Solo, and Poirot. I asked people then to use the check boxes to show which ones they recognised from the first list.




The hypothesis I was testing is this: there would be more ‘false hits’ or intrusions [identification of a name not seen on the first list] among characters normally found in pairs than those of non-pairs because pairs constitute a single item in memory i.e. they would be chunked.




The null hypothesis – and there should always be one – was that there would be no difference in false hits between the two groups of paired and non-paired names.




I asked people to resist the temptation to go back to look at the list. SurveyMonkey is not geared to experimental designs and would allow that function although I had disguised the button that effected this.




The Recall test




On the next page I presented participants with a further list of names. These were all the names they had not seen in the earlier lists – just 14 in all – and included Mork and Sherlock, for instance. Again I asked people to read through the list no more than twice and to go on to the next page. Here, I asked people to list all the names they could remember from that list without going back to look. Again, I gave no information about the aims of the study or the paired or non-paired nature of the names. Recall is much more difficult than recognition and so a smaller group of words seemed adequate.




The hypothesis for this test was not the number of names recalled but the nature of them. I expected to see a number of intrusions from the corresponding duos with more of these being from the paired than the unpaired category. The null hypothesis was that there would be no difference in the distribution of intrusions.








I was looking for intrusions into recognition and recall of unseen items that might have been triggered by associations among items that the participants had seen. I expected there to be more of these in the case of paired items than non-paired items because I believed that well known pairs of names may be stored as a single unit – chunked – not as individual items and so have the cognitive load of one and not two units of memory.




I put out a link to the survey via twitter, Facebook, my blog, and LinkedIn. The target population was likely to include both writers and health scientists. There was a number of re-tweets of the link which potentially widened the catchment population.




After five days, sixty six participants had completed the study. I closed it at this point as a number remarked on what they saw as their ‘appalling short term memory’ and it seemed judicious to remove the temptation to return to the study from a different computer in the hope of a ‘better’ score.








The sixty six participants generated a total of 637 responses to the items they saw on the first list, 88 of which (13.8%) were intrusions.




Of the 88 intrusions, 77.27% were of paired items, 23.26% of non-paired items.




As percentages of the total of responses: 10.68% (68) were from the paired category, 3.4% (20) from the non-paired category.




This distribution is in the predicted direction: i.e. there were more intrusions from the paired category than the non-paired category.




To examine the significance of the figures, I applied a t-test for independent measures. This is a way of making sure that the outliers that can affect averages and percentages are put into proper perspective and checked against expected statistical norms[8].




This gave rise to a t value of 1.87 with 12 degrees of freedom. Using one-tail values because my prediction was only concerned with one direction – I did not expect a deleterious effect of paired items on recognition – this is significant at the .05% level, which means that the result could be expected to come about by chance on only 5% of occasions. Put another way, there is a 95% chance the result reflects a real effect.








The sixty six participants reported 217 items, including 20 (9.22%) intrusions. The range of reporting was 0-12 items with most people (15) recalling around three items.




Of the intrusions; 9 (45%) were from the paired category, 2 (10%) were from the non-paired category, 5 (25%) came from the first list and 4 of these were paired, and 4 (20%) were miscellaneous and may or may not have been associated in some way with seen items.




Paired responses, including intrusions, constituted 115 of the total – 7.82%




Non-paired responses, including intrusions, made up 93 of the total – 2.15%




The numbers are too small for statistical analysis but again the distribution is in the predicted direction.








This was a somewhat off-the-cuff study[9] using item pairs that had not been independently validated, survey software that did not preclude re-visiting of the lists, and an uncontrolled sample with no systematically recorded or required demographic data. For these reasons, the direction in which the results point is probably more valid a platform for discussion than the percentages and statistics. Nevertheless, these support my hypotheses that pairs intrude more often than non-pairs even when the non-pairs are contextually associated and might trigger each other, which may have been the case with Dobby, Porlock, and Zippy [Noddy, Warlock/Gandalf, a Rainbow character like Bungle].




This might mean, as I suspect, that they are being chunked and so represent less of a cognitive load, and this might in turn mean that where characters consistently operate together in fiction, you might just get away with exceeding the stated dose.




What this exercise goes no way to answering is whether the premise is valid in the first place – can people really manage only three characters in a short story or flash piece?  How closely related/interactive/similar do the characters have to be in order to be chunked? There is, I think, a plethora of dissertations in that.




[1] I have found very little direct evidence or theoretical rationale for this, although it seems to make intuitive sense.

[2] Again, evidence for a rationale seems to be lacking although there is plenty of repetition of the advice which is occasionally presented as a rule.

[3] ‘The recall or forgetting curve illustrate that each item in a cluster typically requires about the same amount of time to recall’

[8] Robson, C. Experiment, Design & Statistics. Penguin, 1994. P 71-81.

[9] A scientific report would necessarily include a greater amount of theoretical background into which findings would be placed for discussion. This is a ‘quick and dirty’ exploration based on a small component of memory which itself is influenced by many factors not taken account of here.


Itty bitty survey – results are in!

English: Statue of Eric Morecambe in Morecambe...

On April 3rd, I asked for some help with a survey and an astonishing sixty six of you took part. In fact this was not a survey so much as an experiment aimed at teasing out a bit of evidence relating to that oft-quoted rule regarding the number of characters a short story can accommodate [three, evidently]. In a recent tutorial piece of around 5000 words, I had four characters and I was challenged to consider whether I could lose one by giving his actions to another. Well, I rather liked ‘Eric’ even though [maybe because] he is a vulnerable little weasel who takes out on others the injustices he has experienced himself. I thought he carried an important theme in the story that the other character could not. I also thought that, as the two characters pretty much operated as a pair throughout, they might actually function as one unit as far as memorability was concerned. I put this point, along with the proviso that I had no evidence for it, and I was challenged to find some.

And this is where we step away a little from literature, which might not be quite the approach my tutor was expecting! To me, evidence is not someone else’s opinion, whatever their status and however well argued. Evidence is material generated as the result of  a question posed within a particular methodological framework. It is much the same theoretical shift as the appreciation that there are two kinds of research: the sort that involves looking up facts and details set out by others, and the sort that tests hypotheses in order to find a new platform by which to understand something. The first kind usually informs the second and also exists as a valid entity in its own right, but the second addresses beliefs and sets out to find evidence for them.

Or actually it doesn’t. The really important thing about research is that it sets out to find disconfirmatory evidence (cf Karl Popper), not just evidence that supports the theory. In other words, if I want to demonstrate that unicorns don’t exist (I know, that’s contentious), I have to be sure my study will give unicorns every possible opportunity to appear and not just look in my enclosed back yard with its unicorn repellent wood stained fencing. For this study, my unicorn was the idea that characters do not operate as a single unit and so I needed to design the survey so that this would show up if it were true. This meant putting up a challenge that looked like one thing but was targeting something else so that participants could not know what I thought might happen.  I hoped most people would take this is a straight remembering task and not drill down to the real purpose.

The underlying theory for my belief about paired characters comes from cognitive psychology in which studies of memory show that, if we can ‘chunk’ information into handy groups, we will recall more items from a list than if we can’t. Sometimes we do this semantically – remembering all the vegetables or all the colours, sometimes rhythmically as in telephone numbers. Repetition has a role in that the more we use a particular string of data, the more it becomes a single rather than a multiple unit. Single units take up less space in memory – they constitute less of a cognitive load – so I wondered, if two characters operate consistently as a pair, are they represented in memory as a single unit, thereby allowing them to count as one for short story purposes and not confuse the heck out of people?

When I think of Eric Morecambe I don’t have to think separately about Ernie Wise – I just think ‘Morecambe and Wise’ almost as one word. Similarly ‘Mork and Mindy’ even though I have no idea why I know those names. My suspicion is that they are, cognitively, one and not two units of information. Other characters, Poirot and Sherlock for instance, are not pairs even though they are contextually similar and so I doubted they would be stored as a single unit. If then, people saw a list comprising a mix of half of these pairs and non-pairs and then had to decide from a second list which ones they had just seen, would they check any of the other halves of those pairs and non-pairs and if so, would there be any difference between those two groups? I thought that a) they would ‘recognise’ names on the second list that had not been on the first list, and b) that more of these would be from the paired group than the non-paired group.

The next part of the study was a little more difficult. I asked people to read another list of names – these were halves of pairs and non-pairs that they had not seen already – and then see how many they could recall. Recall is a harder task than recognition because there are no cues to trigger a memory and so people would need to search their minds to respond. I thought again that there would be names in the response lists that had not been on the list people read, and that more of these would be from the paired than the non-paired group.

Here’s what happened: How many characters can a short story accommodate 2 pdf

I want to say a very big thank you to everyone who took part and to assure you all that you are pretty darned normal – at least as far as recognising and recalling stuff is concerned.  For the rest of your personality and behaviour – you’re on your own with that!

Itty bitty survey needs your help please

Can you help with a very short survey? No pain involved and a whole lot of lovely gooey altruistic wonderfulness to gain by helping with my MA. Also the chest broadening feeling of having contributed to devastatingly original research when I post the results. You’ll do it? Oh WOW! Thank you!

Thank you everyone who took part, this survey is closed now, results up soon.