People are shaped by stories — to drive them, change their own stories

[— Karen Myers —]

It’s a constant debate, whether people shape stories or stories shape people.

I think it’s a chicken-and-egg issue, myself.

Terry Pratchet had his own opinion.

We’re biased. As writers, we are people, and we are shaping stories. But we’re not the people that count: that would be our characters.

Just as we are driven by the total of all the stories that we know. They define the possible, to us.

Still, it may not begin that way. We think we are in charge of our sub-created world. We build the maze and try to run our characters through it.

What does it mean when we first write something and it feels “false”? My analytical brain has been chewing on what’s going on when that happens.

Let’s say you’re out in the jungle, in a state of nature. That swaying bush might mean a tiger, and your stone-tipped spear is looking mighty small. Your mind begins racing. What if it’s a dangerous animal? If it moves toward me, which of these trees looks easy to climb, and can it follow me? Could I maybe run far enough away if I start now? Maybe I could throw down the small animal I’ve just killed, and distract it from following me. Or maybe I could push my hunting companion in front of me, as an alternative bait. What if I’m wrong about the tiger, how would I explain that action to my companion? Would my reputation suffer? What else could that rustle be, if it isn’t a tiger… And so on. You could spin out dozens of these alternative scenarios and, under sufficient adrenalin motivation, they would all flash before your eyes for review.

When you dream about the incident tonight (assuming the tiger didn’t eat you), ever more fantastical alternatives will present themselves.

This is a fundamental survival skill in humans (and most critters), the ability to take known elements about how the world works and extrapolate from them a variety of scenarios for what might happen next. The humans who did this more accurately survived, and we have very well-tuned skills in this area. We know what a tiger would do, what our running abilities are, what our companion might do, and so forth.

When we make up worlds, when we write fiction, the same rules apply. We can’t help but extrapolate from the known elements to a cloud of possible “next steps” in the plot. We can accept fantastical elements that have no counterpart in the real world (what comes out of the bush isn’t a tiger but an alien) and invent scenarios from there.

But what we can’t accept are inconsistent behaviors in known elements. I know what a tiger might do, I have a mental model of it that is consistent and based on observed behavior. I don’t know that about an alien, but if I observe well enough, I will make a model of its behavior over time, and that will get it done for me — I can add it to my repertoire. Like any other scientific observation, if its next action violates the predictions of my model, then I must improve my model until it accounts for all observations.

The key word in this is consistency. If a character’s behavior is inconsistent with its model, and that can’t be reconciled by additional facts to form a fuller model (which is the same as saying it exhibits arbitrary behavior), then I can’t believe in it — too much cognitive dissonance. (One effective means of psychological torture is for the practitioner to deliberately cultivate arbitrary, unpredictable behaviors toward his victim.)

When writers talk about characters driving the plot in unplanned directions, this is what’s happening. The characters are taken as unchangeable, like real world tigers, and so the plot has to give. But the problem is more subtle: the world the characters come from (their internal background story) — is not consistent with our plans for the plot.

When I’m chewing on a plot problem, my subconscious is good at suggesting what might happen next. My characters are known entities and can only behave in certain ways. If I want one to behave implausibly, I have to change him by giving him a more detailed background that would support a different behavior.

That’s like saying I have to change his own felt world — the one that shaped him. World first, character second.

If I write a scene that feels false to me, the falseness comes from the violation of a character’s model. “That character would never do that” is what we say when that happens. The falseness stops me in my tracks, and I have to change the plot to accommodate it, or support an expanded model of the character by earlier detail in his own internal story.

The plot shapes the people, and if I want the people to be different, I have to change the plot or their original story accordingly. Plots (various) ==> people ==> (my) plot.

What would happen if I were to insist that my plot must drive the characters overwhelmingly, instead? That the two are not inextricably intertwined? Bad things… We’ve all read the mystery and suspense novels that result when arbitrary plot overrides plausible behaviors.

7 thoughts on “People are shaped by stories — to drive them, change their own stories

  1. The other interesting thing is when an earlier version of the character would have done something, but by the time they hit the actual point, they’ve changed in ways that they no longer would.

  2. You forgot to consider that your hunting companion might push you in front of the tiger… 😀

    Your main characters aren’t the only ones affecting the plot. Sometimes another character can do what your main character won’t, or push your main characters in the direction you need them to go.

    1. It’s definitely a consideration. More than once, when I’ve been stuck and unable to push the main character into doing something interesting, I’ve considered what the villain is up to, on the grounds that he’s unlikely to just sit back and say, “Oh, take your time, Hero. I can wait to start the next phase of my plan until you’re done with your homework…”

  3. And I think I’m finally zeroing in on the central question the main character is struggling with, and I’m realizing Im struggling with it because I don’t have a good answer either:

    How does one find what is true and live a true life when all information you have is suspect?

    1. Is there something that the character can lean on, a touchstone of sorts, that would stand solid when everything else is going crazy and that the character can build on? A personal code of honor, a hard line of “this I will never do,” faith in something, a memory of a special moment?

      1. I’m not sure. He may have several that are conflicting. At this point I’m thinking he’s running around with a copy of the architect’s memories, and he was an ardent transhumanist, but he was also not entirely moored to any concept of morality.

        He does end up getting various minds dumped into his, but in this setting the donating process is neither terribly survivable not terribly complete. So that’s going to be a bunch of different, and probably highly hostile viewpoints.

        The female lead could fill that role. She has her own issues, but she’s one of the only characters with both no agenda, and for other reasons, she does not lie. I do see them ended up as respective anchors for eachother.

        Am definitely seeing his core antagonists though. The root antagonist is shaping up to be the director, a small man, envious of the architect’s accomplishments and contemptuous of everyone else. He functions by manipulating his way into power, and influence over people.

        The head minion is the handler. His job is to keep the protagonist on script, and following the director’s orders. He’s one of those people who, while he cares deeply about following his code of honor, it’s fundamentally defined externally, by what his social peers and superiors think it should be. Basically someone who, under a different context, would be a perfectly decent person, ends up being a villain because his compass is completely external. Which will probably also make some really head twisty story arc: he’s basically going to start off with both himself and the protagonist thinking of him as a mentor type figure, rather than them realizing they’re actually opposed to each other.

        I don’t do easy stories, do I?

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