Predictable Behaviour

As we learn to write, one of the greatest tools, and conversely, the most crippling failing, can be the understanding that humans are predictable. It can be very easy to predict that a man and a woman pushed into close proximity with, say, one of them in the role of taking care of the other who has been injured: we all know that story ends with them being in love. But if we do this too often, we fall into stereotyping. There’s a thin line between developing a cardboard character who hits all the clichés for human behavior, and one who is richly alive but still human in their motivations and reactions.

Let’s take, for instance, a denizen of a blog we’ll dub vile 666 and make an assumption. We could write them as cowardly creatures who stay in their safe space ranting about things they have extrapolated from other blogs, and those things bear little to no resemblance to what the rest of humanity would call reality. But that would be a stereotype. Instead, we need to look deeper and see what motivates these characters and drives them to believe the way they do with the concomitant reactions that leave the rest of us wondering just how delusional they can get. Here, we see that the characters are confusing a tiny space of their close, er, friends with the big wide world. Here’s a human assumption: the reaction of the larger population of humans to small cliques is, by and large, apathy. But inside the clique, reality becomes constricted to the small pool of light cast by their news sources, and they can only see what is illuminated by that light. In other words, a phenomenon known as gaslighting.

In a story, we sometimes see characters and wonder why they are doing a certain thing “that’s stupid,” we think, “why can’t they see beyond their noses?” In real life, this can happen. Humans are predictably short-sighted, and once they have allowed their world to contract into the visible range of the gaslight, the rest of the world falls dark to them. Powerful stuff for the author, if done right, to show that world being expanded again by turning on other lights and revealing a broader realm to the character. The most recent example I can think of in fiction is the Son of the Black Sword by Larry Correia, with the culminating episode being the man who cannot see beyond what he was taught all his life traveling for the first time outside his proscribed realm. A redemption story is one that humans, predictably, crave as it promises that mistakes can be mitigated, and we’ve all made mistakes.

It’s not an easy journey to undertake for your character. Keep that in mind. Simply snapping on all the lights at once to reveal a once-hidden universe will shock a human into a whimpering withdrawal even if they are made of stern stuff. They will reject that which is outside their perceived reality. A very good example is writing a story of a human suddenly discovering that magic is real. Have you ever read a story where the character who learns all about some paranormal phenomenon, takes it in stride, and you the reader had your suspension of disbelief shattered? People don’t react that way. This is also a tool used in writing fantasy, the people who simply don’t believe their own eyes and reject truth in order to maintain their comfortable existence.

It’s not stereotyping to know that people do react in certain ways. The man who rescues the woman will indeed be very attractive to her. The nurse who tenderly cares for a man who in time recovers his strength will be dear to him. But if we look deeper, we can add depth to the characters, using the predictability as a map of highways and knowing we need to add the secondary and tertiary roads to create a fully-developed character. People resist change, and will return to old habits if not pulled away for some reason, or given support as they change slowly. Humans are this way for a reason: it’s not safe for a human alone to careen off in every direction, abandoning the cave for sleeping in the tree and picking that new shiny red mushroom for dinner. We take things slowly almost by instinct, and it’s not a bad thing.

In a story, we can precipitate our heroes into trouble that forces change on them. We can, authorially, shatter worlds literal and metaphorical, to make the story happen. But we must remember that humans are always human. Some of the characters, just like some people, will refuse to admit light into their constrained world, and will run around pulling all the blinds tight, taping tinfoil to the windowpanes, and then retreating to a small closet to pretend the world not-as-they-know-it doesn’t exist.

It’s much better to write the flexible characters, the ones who face the storm afraid but undaunted. These people exist in real life, too. The curious ones, the seekers of knowledge, the ones willing to take a pratfall from time to time, get up, dust themselves off, laugh at how silly they looked, and learn from it. The ones who follow the light and help guide those who cannot see out into safety as the skies fall. They are the characters that, predictably! we like to read about, and hope, in our hearts, that we are like.

26 Comments

Filed under CEDAR SANDERSON, WRITING: CRAFT

26 responses to “Predictable Behaviour

  1. There is also “story predictable” and “real world predictable”. In your example about a man saving a woman the storybook ending is for the woman to fall in love with the man. In the real world, however, she’s just as likely to resent him and grow to hate him for making her feel unable to rescue herself.

    • That’s a good point. I can look around and see Real Life[TM] any time. So in a story, I don’t want real world predictable; I want story predictable: within the bounds of that time, place, and people, but not the same old same old I can see just by looking out my window. Surprise me, but make that surprise grow from what you’ve already built.

      Which might be a fair definition of real world exceptionalism.

      • mrsizer

        This is exactly why I dislike literary fiction. I can get the same story by chatting with several of my friends. Why on earth would I want to read about a composite character having those experiences? Unless the character’s reaction is incredibly non-normal (which leaves out most literary fiction), it’s just real life in a book. That’s boring – and we have reality TV for that, now.

    • There’s a reason that people are cautioned against falling in love with their rescuers, psychiatrists, doctors, etc. It usually doesn’t end well.

  2. TRX

    > takes it in stride

    Perhaps a failure of my selection process, but the majority of “urban fantasy” I’ve tried has done that.

    “Sure, elves|telepathy|dragons|magic just manifested in my life. Whatever. Off to the store|work|school.” No more curiosity than a goldfish.

    Of course, a lot of people operation on “any technology is indistinguishable from magic” anyway, so perhaps it would be no big deal.

    • Nope, I’m with you. I dislike that lack of reaction, too. It’s a huge change, and that is going to manifest in some way.

      • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

        Possible Scene

        Male Character on seeing an Ogre: “You may be bigger than me but that *has* to be a mask.”

        Ogre: “Try taking it off” said with a big toothy grin.

        Character attempts to do so & when it doesn’t come off says “Oh Sh*t”.

        😈 😈 😈 😈

        • “Hey, no prob. Where’d you get the body paint?”

          • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

            LIKE!

          • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

            Of course, that was a commercial with actors. If some nut dressed up as a gargoyle and tried to scare people, there would have been somebody who would “punch him out” or “mace him”. 😈

            Note, major problem with the early Scooby Doo Mysteries was that those fake monsters would have likely met a farmer with a shotgun. 😈 😈

            Fun thought. Imagine an Ogre or a Bigfoot attending a SF con. They’d fit right in. Oh Kate, no problems with using this in your next Con book. 😀

            • Of course, that was a commercial with actors. If some nut dressed up as a gargoyle and tried to scare people, there would have been somebody who would “punch him out” or “mace him”.

              This. As a sort-of initiation prank, when I hired on, a meter reader put on a mask and jumped out at me. I grabbed him by the throat and was about to slug him when it dawned on me “This is a guy in a mask.”

              • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

                Chuckle Chuckle

                Now I’m wondering if you were the first new-hire who turned the tables on the prankster. 👿

                • Reality Observer

                  Among linemen? I’d be surprised if Kevin was the first. I think that profession is somewhat more populated by people where “fight” reflex is far stronger than “flight.”

                  (Now, I don’t know why mine is so strong; I’ve mostly been a desk jockey throughout my frankly boring life. But when I am deep in focus on something, everyone around me knows only to interrupt from a safe distance.)

                  • It wasn’t. One almost knocked him out. Then again, he thought he’d given another one a heart attack.

                    FWIW, one common joke is to kill a rattlesnake, wait for someone to climb a pole, and coil the dead snake at the base.

                    • Reality Observer

                      Now that is a persistent joker…

                      Had the latter pulled on me (bottom of the ladder when I was up trimming a tree overgrowing the roof – I’m not a lineman). Must admit, it took me a little while to figure out that all I had to do was drop the clippers on it. Although it turned out to be a bull snake – wimps couldn’t even go out and find a rattler.

            • SF and furry cons can be wonderful, yes.

      • I don’t know . . . if something eldrich manifested in the hallway of a high school during class change, or in the corridor leading to the lunch room, I suspect 99% of the teenagers wouldn’t notice. Especially if they’ve got their iThings and smartphones running. Which could lead to an interesting horror (or comedy) line.

        • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

          They won’t notice until IT didn’t get out of their way or until IT started to eat them. 😈 😈 😈 😈

          But yes, it would be an interesting scene. 👿

        • mrsizer

          When sitting in the back of a bus (I commute almost daily via bus), I’ve often wondered how many people could be garroted before anyone even realized you were killing anyone. Situational awareness doesn’t seem to be a common trait these days.

          Note that I have no desire or plans to test the theory. Leaving aside the fact I don’t want to murder a busload of people (why bother?), the mess would be horrific – but it would be quiet.

    • Mary

      Try L. Jagi Lamplight’s Rachel Griffin series. The formerly mundane character brought into the world of magic flatly refuses to listen to his history class on the grounds that everything he learned up to about a month ago was faked — how does he know that this isn’t, too?

      • mrsizer

        This is my argument against any “young earth” theory. Sure, G*d could have pre-aged dinosaur bones and stuck them in the ground for us to find, but by that logic, G*d could have created everything five minutes ago. It’s easier to take reality at face-value (keeping in mind that “face-value” may change over time).

        • B. Durbin

          At that point, “most useful” is a helpful phrase. As in, “I’m in this bizarre situation. It could be real, or it could be a dream. The most useful perspective is the one that treats it as real, because if I treat it as a dream and I’m wrong, I’m toast.”

    • mrsizer

      “takes it in stride” might be a bit too calm, but I also don’t understand the total freak-out. This stuff has been in myths and legends for millennia. While discovering vampires are real might be surprising, it shouldn’t induce screaming while running in circles panic, either (screaming once in surprise then running away quietly is probably much more likely to result in survival).

      Although I have seen someone literally running in circles screaming so it does happen – and over a grease fire in a pan on the stove. I didn’t have to wait for “someday”, I laughed about it while I was putting out the fire (lid on pan; oh so complicated).

  3. “the ones willing to take a pratfall from time to time, get up, dust themselves off, laugh at how silly they looked, and learn from it.”

    What’s the point of reading fiction if not to see how characters like these do it – even if they get hurt? We identify with the ones who can take a fall – they learn, and we learn without getting too damaged in the process.

    So we can learn about lots of hazards out there, and how to deal with them. Including love.