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On Character Attributions

I’ve been questioning my characters’ motives recently. Along with my own.

See, when I’m trying to develop a character and get inside their head, I really, really want their story to make sense. I want to understand how they came to be who they are. This leads me to use event A to explain feature Y. 

For example:

  1. John was bullied in grade school, so now he’s a shy teenager.

Even though I know full well that correlation does not imply causation…that’s exactly what I do. In fact, I think it’s what a lot of us do in real life as well: we all have our own stories and “truths” that we believe about ourselves and we act on these beliefs. The same is true for our characters. At a certain point, it doesn’t matter if the past bullying is the “real” reason for John’s current shyness…what matters is that he believes it is.

But to take that even further, even if sentence (1) is the story I want to tell, if I really want to get into John’s head, I have to understand not only what he believes about his past, but also how he believes it. What meaning does he attribute to his grade-school bullying?

For instance, John could believe any number of things:

  1. I was bullied because I’m an unlikable person.
  2. I was bullied because other people are cruel and untrustworthy.
  3. I was bullied because the teachers didn’t care what happened to me.
  4. I was bullied because I didn’t know how to stand up for myself.
  5. I was bullied because my intelligence threatens others.

And whichever one of these attributions John believes is his “personal truth” will drive his current behavior. The John that believes (b) would never join the football team to overcome his shyness, but the one who believes in (d) might. The John that believes in (e) might find an adult mentor who helps give him life perspective, while the (c) John would not. John (a) might find self-worth and validation by befriending a lonely, wounded stray puppy (okay, okay, this is YA, obviously John will find self-worth by befriending a lonely, wounded love interest, but puppies are so much CUTER. PUPPIES!).

So do attributions say something about a character? I think so. Most people tend to interpret events in ways that preserve their self-esteem (unless a person is depressed, in which case the opposite is true). But I’d love to know what you think….how do your characters interpret their pasts? And how does this impact their present?

Thanks for reading!

Stephanie Kuehn

Stephanie is the William C. Morris award-winning author of Charm & Strange, Complicit, Delicate Monsters, and The Smaller Evil.

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  1. Really interesting post. I think one of my faults is that, while I know my chars and their personalities, I don't always know their back stories verbatim. And I'd never thought to think about how they think about their past experiences (unless it was absolutely crucial to the story). This is another great tool for character development. Thanks!

  2. What a great, thought-provoking post! I like to try and understand my characters and their motives, so this is helpful, especially in avoiding inconsistencies. Thanks!

  3. Puppies!!! I want one of those, why? because as a child I always had a dog and it was synonym to cuddling, care-free thoughts, comfort and happiness...:-)
    Your post got me thinking about character development. I write with the flow and I get to know my characters as they develop and evolve. I am just finding out that one of my MC´s parents were murdered but that explains a lot about his trust issues and his "I am trying not to get too close attitude" because he is afraid to get hurt...
    Thanks for sharing!

  4. Thanks all, I appreciate your comments.

    Kris, I think it's so interesting, the connection between back story and personality: kind of a chicken/egg thing! Thank you.

    Jaime: thank you and happy writing!

    commutinggirl: aren't puppies the BEST? And oh, your poor MC, that would explain a lot about his present relationship struggles. Very sad. :( Thank you for sharing!

  5. puppy puppy puppy

    ugh sorry. it's just SO CUTE

  6. Can't he befriend a love interest AND a puppy? Best of both worlds!

  7. Oh my, that is one of the cutest puppy photos ever! Darling. And you make a really great point that events can create a character in a number of different ways. We are all individuals!--and our characters should be, too. :)

  8. Great post! I love how many drastically different outcomes there can be just by tweaking a little thing, like why your MC thought he was bullied. It's like the Butterfly Effect (you know, time-traveling?)

    The MC in one of my WIPs is very hard and cruel. She has a "Survival of the Fittest" attitude, because as a child, she was abused, neglected, and had to take care of herself. Even though she doesn't like her past, she's completely selfish now, because she thinks people need to fend for themselves like she always had.


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Item Reviewed: On Character Attributions Rating: 5 Reviewed By: stephanie kuehn