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.


  1. I was riding in a car the other day and the driver was looking for her cell phone charger. It occurred to me that there is no rational reason for cars to be built with such large 12 volt outlets, except that they fit electronic device chargers, and that those chargers were originally designed to fit into cigarette lighters.

    So, even though cigarette lighters are no longer standard equipment on cars (and haven’t been for a while, I don’t believe) cars are still being built with oversized charging ports and devices still come with oversized chargers.

    A generation hence it’s likely that 12 volt chargers with still be the same size, and drivers will have no idea why, and probably wouldn’t believe it if you told them.

    1. actually we were in a new rental car that had both a USB charging port and a normal 120 v plug. We won’t get that till we buy a car like that used, in ten years or so, but…

      1. It will take a while to completely change out. If ever. But the new ones with the USB port are definitely easier to deal with.

        1. The problem is the bulky blug in units for the “lighter” ports. Putting two side by side is too much, and how many times do the kids and both of us have to plug in fire/phone/laptop on a simple trip to Denver?

          1. Oh heck yes. That’s a bitch right up there with the fricking huge plugs that occupy three slots on a powerboard.

          2. On the other hand you can plug in a cigarette lighter charger (and incidentally all my rigs have a cigarette lighter still, although all but one of them also have power ports, heck even my fourwheeler has a power port, no cigarette lighter but the symbol on the little plastic cover for it is a cigarette) without taking your eyes off the road, while driving a windy potholey road. Try doing that with a usb port too many times and your going to break something.

    2. Oh, yes. It’s rather like the old chestnut about the reason standard gauge for railways is the width it is.

  2. Sometimes my characters are extremely rational, but that is usually because they are nuts.

    For some reason I tend to create a lot of fanatics and madmen.

    1. Oh, you can have a lot of fun with someone who is quite rational, apart from the one thing that sets their reasoning on the “Fanatic” or “nutcase” side of things.

        1. I am convinced that a lot of murderous SOB’s are saner than the rest of us, they continue to use rational thinking when the rest of us irrationally decide that murder is never justified.

  3. Ah, thank you, Kate. You just explained something I’ve been wondering about with my WIP (semi-extreme pantsing). The character is not behaving in a completely rational way, but given her age, situation, and medical history, it is a realistic way. I just hadn’t realized it (dumb author!)

    1. Heh. Don’t call yourself dumb. Author-backbrains like to hide things and make us bloody work for it.

  4. It’s something I worry about–my impulse is to have everything make *sense* and I think it makes my writing flat. I should try throwing in a bit of weirdness every now and then just to shake it up–and let my betas tell me if it works.

    1. I have a beta telling me a _government_ isn’t acting rationally. As if!

      Of course it doesn’t hurt to add in a few lines to show that it’s the government, not the author, who’s who is blind to the need for hasty reactions . . . No, no, no. No need to grab your phones, I’m a _nice_ kind of crazy, really.

  5. Habit, tradtion, whatever you want to call it, pattern behavior and recognition is pretty well hard wired into us humans, I think, from where the dish towels go, to which side of the bed we sleep on, to what kind of stories we tell. Just look up tv tropes if you don’t believe me (and be prepared to have hours of your life disappear). *grin*

    Enough pattern to be familiar, but enough different to be interesting is a balancing act. Too much and it’s all “Simpsons did it first!” too little and, well, the words are english but the ideas are a little too Venusian (and then immersion is broken, TBAR). The odds and weirdness are part of what make me keep reading- what’s going to happen next?

    As a reader, rationality is kind of overrated- unless it’s the “straight man” to highlight and balance the cuckoo. Give me engaging, interesting, and strange any day.

    1. Absolutely! As long as it makes enough sense you can take all manner of weird from an interesting character.

  6. There was a story about a woman who always cut off the end of a ham before cooking it. When asked, she said her mother always did it. Her mother was asked why she did it and said the same thing. When the grandmother (of the first woman) was asked, she said that she did it to fit the ham into her baking pan. [Very Big Grin]

    1. I’ve heard that story – and I totally believe it because it took me a while to realize that this was why my mother always cut the end off the leg of lamb.

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