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.
- 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:
- I was bullied because I’m an unlikable person.
- I was bullied because other people are cruel and untrustworthy.
- I was bullied because the teachers didn’t care what happened to me.
- I was bullied because I didn’t know how to stand up for myself.
- 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!