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.

But anyway.

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.

98 Comments

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98 responses to “Doing it for Reasons

  1. “What’s my motivation?” is actually a valid question when you’re talking with your characters.

    (Well, not out loud; at least, well, not when there’s other folk around…)

  2. SlitherKitten

    There’s also the sadly common reasoning that “I am a good person and therefore I [vote for X party/Y books for the Hugo/Z government policy…] Consequently, anyone who doesn’t do the same as I do must be EVIL”. No understanding at all that someone else might agree with their goals but have an entirely different way of achieving them.

    • aacid14

      Ya. I often kick myself for not speaking up when at a convention an author said that all you needed to do to get into the heads of bad people like those that disagree with gay marriage or the like is just use the lingo. That they couldn’t be understood, just emulated.

      • Kate Paulk

        Ugh. Yes, speaking up when someone pulls that tripe is essential. Doing it politely enough that you don’t get othered is a bit more challenging.

        • aacid14

          That was my concern. The convention goes even further into othering than lit cons. Had a few persons there that had made physical threats prior.

          • Kate Paulk

            Oy. For that you kind of need to throw their brains into a loop. Like asking them how they’d portray an Islamic person who threw homosexuals off buildings, like those fellows from ISIS have been known to do.

            The short-circuit between “brown people good” and “anti-gay bad” should be entertaining and leave them incapacitated for a while, especially if you can manage a tone of earnest curiosity.

          • Dude. Time to find a new convention.

            • aacid14

              I’ve left them over outright politicization before. I just avoid and come prepared and aware. Reason I hate how everything gets politicized.

  3. sabrinachase

    My motivation is usually “How can I maximally confuse archaeologists a thousand years from now?” 😀 with a side order of “what would be most funny?” if I have a choice.

    • I keep journals in permanent ink in bound books of acid-free paper. I number each page, with the day and date at the top. I have been tempted to start an entry to finish out the bottom of one page with “The most incredible thing happened today. I was” Then I cut out the next ten pages, number the next page to make the gap obvious, and, at the top, write “sure you pass this along to any historians you know. It can be easily confirmed and it will blow their’ minds. It could change how they see our era.”

      That would be kind of dirty, though.

  4. 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!

    Truth of the day right there. In fact I’d say that goes well beyond those people and fits a large segment of humanity in general.

    Probably because just assuming everybody thinks like “me” is mentally slothful and much easier.

    • BobtheRegisterredFool

      I’ve been fortunate in being so mentally abnormal that it became obvious at an early age that my own processes served as a very poor model for those of others. (Okay, others around me, as I think I have a better than normal grasp of certain flavors of evil madmen.) As a result, I have often been a little confused and anxious about what happens socially when I am around. I also forget that I do not understand, and get angry because I jump to conclusions about what those around me know and see. Fortunately, I know my intuition often gives me wrong answers on that, and that helps me catch things in time.

    • Sam L.

      The Tommy Franks Delusion. (Kansas gonna GET him!)

  5. After researching and writing _Blackbird_, I came to have a rather different take on people like Mattias Corvinus Hunyadi and Henry VIII who desperately wanted male offspring in order to secure a smooth transition of government and forestall civil wars. (No, I don’t support adultery or what Henry did after the death of Spouse #3). I’ve also had moments where my fiction world got too close to the real world, and the mental disjunct was actually a little scary. There are places in my own mind I try to avoid visiting and that came a bit too close to the surface for comfort.

    • aacid14

      There are a few tales I keep well locked up in my head.

      • I’ve got a nasty one to write that popped into mind Sunday. That sent me on researching the psychology of serial killers. Fortunately, this wicked thing isn’t from the felon or victim’s POV,

        • aacid14

          Ya. I was in high school and wrote two stories that if I had been public would have gotten me arrested

    • I’ve never been able to understand things like this (or cases where an investigator starts acting like his quarry, in things like serial killer cases).I can’t understand why people are unable to “get in the head” of their subject as a spectator, and watch the inner workings like an engineer would watch the workings of a new machine.

      • And I think now I will check the notifications box…

      • It’s common. When Anthony Hopkins was playing Hitler for a TV miniseries, he once erupted, Hitler fashion, at his wife over some minor thing. It rattled them both. When George C. Scott played Mussolini, there was a scene he automatically went into an Il Duce expression because it felt right. C.S. Lewis only wrote one sequel to The Screwtape Letters because he didn’t like how writing it made him feel.

        I’ve only had it happen once. Part of one of the kids’ book was from the POV of a mute, and while writing those chapters I all but ceased talking.

        • Oh, I know it happens, but I can’t get a gut feeling on why it happens.

          See, part of the reason I can’t understand it, is because I can’t do it.

          • If you can’t do it and don’t want to do it, it’s probably not a useful way for you to process things.

            But everybody does stuff like smiling first, and then feeling like smiling, or yawning because someone else was seen yawning. Physical emulation and mental concentration are a shortcut to feeling and thinking similar things. But you don’t have to do it, and sometimes it needs to be fought.

            It is also not the only way to do acting. Traditional actors once tended to worry about method actors doing themselves psychological harm. Now they just feel sorry for them or are amused by all the longterm LARPing in the profession.

      • They need to read more Father Brown, or at least absorb that one speech where he explains his “method”– which is basically empathy on crack, with a heavy dose of “there but for the grace of God go I.”
        Avoids the “othering” defense, while still identifying evil as evil and the sinner as someone to try to save.

      • Kate Paulk

        Well, with me it’s because observation works fine for logic and reasoning. It doesn’t go so well when you’re talking about emotional reactions to various things – and I find if I’m echoing or “channeling” a characters thoughts and mindset well enough, I’m also echoing their emotional responses.

        Obviously there’s evidence that this isn’t all that uncommon.

    • Did you look into Henry VIII’s head injuries? There’s some thinking now that he may have been affected the same as NFL players who have repeated head injuries.

      • A little, but Henry was more for teaching research than writing research. I mentioned it to to the students and gave them some “if you are interested in more” pointers. Along those lines, I was totalling up the number of known concussions that Prince Eugen von Savoy had by the time he was in his late 50s and it’s a wonder he did so well for so long.

    • Kate Paulk

      Yup, yup, yup… Although after Impaler my views on Mattias Corvinus Hunyadi got a little, um…

      If doesn’t help that he – like every single one of his contemporaries in Eastern Europe, spent at least part of his childhood as a hostage for his father’s good behavior. That kind of messes with one’s mindset.

  6. Patrick Chester

    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?”

    Slacker! 😉

  7. “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!”
    Right it couldn’t be that (in some people’s minds) voting for a vibrant, lightly regulated economy that doesn’t punish success is actually IN their self interest.

  8. This applies to fictional antagonists. Or motives attributed to historical figures in fiction

    Kind of blending those two is Cardinal Richelieu in Dumas’ The Three Musketeers. (Just read that again after many years and the first time was probably an abridged version.) As I read it, it occurred to me that Richelieu was an antagonist but not really a villain. Sure there was the antipathy between him and Anne of Austria which was the primary driver of the plot but Anne was engaging in a little “political infidelity”. It’s just that Louis didn’t care about that. Marital infidelity on the other hand…. And so Richelieu sought evidence of same, even if he had to manufacture it.

    I’m not really going anywhere with this. Just something that has been running around in the back of my head which your post brought to the foreground.

    • Actually Louis also didn’t care about Marital Infidelity, just about it’s being known. There is a good chance Louis XIV was Buckingham’s son. Google Monsieur Le Grand.

  9. Took me three months to get out of being a six foot six blond gay male built like a tank…
    Seriously. That’s what my head thought.

  10. richardmcenroe

    I think you should work out your Impaler frustrations by making a list; it’s the digital age and the cost of that much paper is no longer a limitation…

  11. snelson134

    “I get frustrated that I’m not allowed to impale people.”

    Especially with so many people who have worked so very hard to deserve it around. 😉

  12. As a theater geek, I find that clothing can affect my characterization. For instance, the party where I dressed like a priest (borrowed the shirt and collar from a seminarian friend) was a lot less fun than the party where I dressed as Death from the Sandman novels. And onstage, they recommend that you at least wear the shoes you will be wearing during the performance while you’re rehearsing, because you move differently and you make different choices. I’m not the same onstage character in a corset that I am while dressed as a fairy. (And the latter is really fun if they let you act inhuman.)