Doing it for Reasons
The usual spectacle of denial – ably described by Amanda in her last few posts – self-cannibalization – I’ve been finding that one rather morbidly entertaining – and what looks remarkably like a conspiracy to bring down the publishing industry from within continues to rumble on, forcing me to remind myself every few days that sufficiently advanced stupidity is indistinguishable from malice.
In short, if there is any way, no matter who bizarre, that it could be caused by stupidity, that’s the way to bet.
This is actually one of the reasons the soziale Gerechtigkeit über alles types wind up stepping in their own manure. See, I’ve yet to find one that really gets how individuals work – and every society is functionally an emergent entity arising from the interactions of a number of individuals all doing what they believe is the best thing to do given what they know and their history. Usually these folk are convinced that everyone thinks and feels more or less the way they do, which means that if their decisions don’t match up, why, they must be going against their own self-interest due to some conspiracy or other!
Which is where the storied Vast Right Wing Conspiracy usually appears.
Now I may be stretching the analogy a little here, but if there’s a Vast Right Wing without an equally Vast Left Wing cooperating with it, you’re just going to flap in circles.
The mechanics behind this behavior are almost as entertaining to observe as the mechanics behind why people do what they do – and lead to equally interesting story fodder.
After all, few people are evil for the sake of evil. I might, along with Sarah, be half of the Worst Person In The World, but I’ve never yet got out of bed and said, “What evil will I do today?” If I do manage something evil along the way, it’s usually for what presents itself as a good reason.
This applies to fictional antagonists. Or motives attributed to historical figures in fiction (do not ask me about the places my mind is going with this possibility. It’s entirely possible nobody wants to see those results, especially including me). Or, for that matter, the motives of your protagonists and heroes.
We all do things for reasons. Sometimes those reasons are reactions – just watch what happens if you accidentally blunder onto somebody’s sacred cow (or bull, bullock, steer, etc. since we must be sensitive to non-binary gender) – and sometimes they’re conditioned reactions (which is, as I understand it, the core of PTSD: conditioned reactions to an ugly environment combined with a crapload of difficulty adjusting to an environment where those reactions aren’t healthy life-saving things. To a soldier in the middle of a war zone, it’s perfectly normal and healthy to be flat on the ground crawling for cover before the gunshot sound stops, but it’s not quite as well-adjusted if you’re doing that every time a car backfires. Or the neighbors let off fireworks). Or we’ve been told our entire lives that X is the right and moral thing to do, so it never occurs to us to do anything except X.
It’s possible to work through all this and figure out why someone does something, and even know a character who’s completely unlike you so well that you can predict what they’ll do in most situations. Sometimes even in all situations – which requires understanding that person’s life, culture, and innate drives at a level which is at times rather unnerving. One of the reasons Impaler doesn’t have a sequel yet is that writing it puts me so deep in Vlad’s perspective, I get frustrated that I’m not allowed to impale people. This is not a healthy mindset when I’m already in a high-stress situation (to those who think this isn’t possible, I suggest reading The Year of the King, by Antony Sher – it’s a magnificent chronicle of Antony Sher’s process of becoming Richard III and building out that character to the point where he felt odd and wrong to be walking and speaking normally).
Find the reasons your characters are doing what they do. Without that, there’s a high risk of authorial sermonizing devolving to pap.