I was thinking earlier today (I know, bad idea) and it occurred to me, there’s something a lot of writers do that can get us into trouble – mostly because what actually happens is a hell of a lot less sensible than what we do…
See, like economists (shaddup and listen, this will take a while to get there), we’ve got this tendency to do our world and character building based on the concept of a “rational actor” (economics term. Translates roughly to “someone who thinks about things logically and chooses what’s best for them”). The problem with this is that there ain’t no such beastie. If one existed it would be agonizingly slow because to really evaluate any choice based on the evidence at hand you’ve got to do a whole lot of thinking and digging and so forth… This explains the relationship between economists and reality rather well.
For us, unless you’re an extreme pantser, the tendency is to build the cultures and characters according to what makes sense – which can easily leave things feeling a bit “flat”. (If you are an extreme pantser, you’re more likely to spend a lot of time wondering why in the heck you wrote that in).
Things don’t make sense in the real world, and they often don’t make sense in real cultures, either. Perhaps they made sense a long time ago when they started happening, perhaps not. I’ve heard rumors that the stereotypical “upper class English twit” accent is the result of a member of the royal family having a speech impediment and all those in his set wanting to sound just like him. The Chinese (okay, Imperial Chinese) insularity largely stems from court infighting where the explorer faction lost (this back in (if the stainless steel lint trap is correct) the 1400s-ish) to the “none of those barbarians have anything to offer us” faction (Yeah, it was largely true, but still…). Stuff happens, people remember it, not necessarily all that well, and the things they do to work around the stuff become ingrained. Just ask any woman who stores the tea towels in the third drawer because that’s where her mother kept them so that’s where tea towels go. Chances are her mother used the third drawer because that’s where Grandma kept them. And so on.
As for how people make decisions, well… that’s – at least as far as the research I’ve read says – largely a matter of the subconscious pattern recognition routines meeting the emotion routines and picking the path of least resistance. Weirdly enough, it usually works out fairly well – sometimes better than the obvious choice via pure logic (although a more rigorous decision making process – which takes much longer – will often get to the same place as the gut decision). Of course, once the decision gets made, another set of subconscious routines kick in, these ones dedicated to making you happy with the choice you made.
Which, seen through the right filter, does make sense. If our many-times-distant ancestors constantly second-guessed themselves, they wouldn’t have been able to decide that person of the opposite sex was just the thing for a bit of nookie, much less take action on the decision without wondering if they’d have been better off choosing someone else (something that has never been a good idea when dealing with relationships). We’re descended from the folk who saw the big predator and did something (whether running or trying to kill it) instead of wondering what the best thing to do might be.
So, yeah, all that angsty gray goo? Totally unrealistic. Only emo kids and Feminist Glittery Hoo Haas angst over everything.
And don’t be afraid to let your character do something that seems out of character – just make sure you slip in something later to show that yes, there is a reason for this odd action, or have them wondering what the heck they thought they were doing.