-Hamlet, Act II, Scene ii.
Why do people in life --- or characters in our writing --- do the things they do?
Well, contrary to what many of us believe when watching the often crazy/ridiculous/inexplicable behaviour of our fellow human beings, there’s one thing you can pretty much guarantee: people do not do things arbitrarily or without cause. There’s always a reason why someone does the things they do --- even if those things look unfathomable to the rest of us. Just as Will says in the quote above: “though this looks like madness... there is a reason for it.” Yup.
People are always looking for something, or something to happen. Or the reverse, wanting something not to happen. Or they’re acting based on past experiences or fears. (We could say they act on hopes, but unfortunately, waaaay too much human behaviour seems based on the negative crap --- the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, to borrow another one of my favourite phrases from Will --- we all undergo in our life journeys. Some of us more than others, admittedly, although karma is a subject we could discuss another time. And it’s not really the right word to employ, anyway, unless you’re a Buddhist, which I most definitely am not.)
Part of our bemusement stems from the fact that people also often act impulsively --- irrationally the rest of us might say --- based on their emotional state at any given time. But even there, those emotional states are triggered by past experiences. You know, considering how highly homo sapiens tends to hold itself in intellectual regard (look up the Latin translation of the species if you’re unfamiliar with what it means), an awful lot of our behaviours and actions seem governed by some pretty elemental parts of our brains.
So... before this irretrievably becomes a treatise on human behaviour... let’s hie ourselves over to the real point of today’s epistle, shall we? Something every writer would do well to at least consider, for both protagonists, antagonists, and assorted other major characters. At least, if they want to do justice to both characters and story and produce something of any literary merit.
Here it is: backstory.
It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking good guys or bad guys, you need to have an idea where the character is coming from so that you can account for his or her behaviour. People do do stupid things (for which just about every writer breathes a silent prayer of thanks, because stupidity explains or at least justifies a great many otherwise unbelievable actions), but their actions are, in large part, governed by their past experiences. How did Orwell put it? "Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past." Well, with sincerest apologies, George, the literary equivalent paraphrase of that is, I think: writers who want to control their character’s present will make sure they control said character’s past. And that will determine the character’s future. (At least as much as it’s possible to do so --- I have said in previous posts that, as a writer, you know you’re onto something when characters suddenly stand up in the midst of your narrative, give you the buffalo eye, and tell you flatly that they’re doing something quite different from what you had in mind for them, thank you very much, and if you don’t like it you can take a flying leap. And that’s not a bad thing; actually, it’s very exciting --- if a little shocking at the time --- because it means those characters are alive.)
Case in point: in Gryphon’s Awakening, the sequel-in-progress to my first novel Gryphon’s Heir, my protagonist is periodically bedevilled by an attractive young woman identified as a Fallen One (which makes ‘bedevilled’ an excellent choice of word, if you get my drift). But I’m keenly aware that, unless I want her to be just another cardboard cut-out villain, we need to understand something of her past in order to understand why she undertakes the malevolent things she’s doing --- or trying to do --- to my protagonist in the here and now.
And as I said, this doesn’t just apply to antagonists. I’m also keenly aware that at some point in my narrative, I need to explore why my protagonist suffers from a sometimes almost crippling lack of self-confidence in his abilities (to the utter exasperation of his friends).
Now, this doesn’t mean you need to provide your readers with detailed life CVs for everyone in your tale. Some of the details and incidents you develop for a given character may never make it into your narrative. Nor should they. You’re not writing a biography, for crying out loud. Your readers don’t need to know every last detail about every character. Nor do you, for that matter.
But you really need to know what makes them tick --- which will also help you understand what the hell is going on when they do unexpected things that leave you staring at the page, thinking to yourself, “What just happened here? I did NOT see that coming.”
‘Cause people are funny that way, aren’t they?