I examined the choice of Joel Miller, smuggler/survivor extraordinaire, in the post-apocalyptic, plague-infested world of The Last of Us. His decision to save Ellie Williams, who’s become his de facto daughter, from the desperate clutches of a group trying to get a vaccine from her --- a move which will save humanity but simultaneously bring about her death --- is a mammoth decision and, as I explained, one he only has seconds to make… truly a tragedy, given the far-reaching consequences of whatever he decides. So… yeah… time, or rather lack thereof, is certainly a major reason why we often make such poor decisions. But there are others, too, so today, for your entertainment and edification, I’ll look at five --- by no means a Compleat Liste, but certainly prime, enduring culprits. In no particular order, here they are.
The first big-ass factor is ignorance/rationalization. My God, our species has a spectacular --- well, I was going to say ‘gift,’ but I think ‘curse’ is a better word --- to rationalize decisions which fly in the face of all reason and logic. People go to unbelievable lengths to ignore inconvenient facts/situations they don’t like. We’re past masters at it. You need look no further than the entire COVID experience for proof… gads, it certainly destroyed any lingering faith I had in humanity. Perhaps the best meme I saw relating to COVID was “we’re going to have to retire the phrase, ‘avoid it like the plague,’ because apparently people don’t do that.” I’m still shaking my head.
Another factor is duty. We make bad decisions because we feel a sense of obligation, of duty. (Less so nowadays in our juvenile, narcissistic society than in times past, perhaps.) Frodo agreeing to take the Ring to Mordor is an example. It’s a terrible decision, because everyone in the room knows perfectly well it’s basically a suicide mission, but he wearily raises his hand to volunteer regardless because, gosh-darn it, someone’s got to win the booby prize, and he’s brought it this far, and it was a family member who dredged it up in the first place, so...
Fear is another biggie, probably one of the dominant reasons why we behave as we do. We’re biologically programmed to very sensibly shy away from danger, because, despite the cartoonish violence we’re bombarded with on film --- and in literature --- humans are remarkably fragile organisms in a world full of terrors. But sometimes we allow that fear to overwhelm us into making really bad choices. It’s no coincidence the Litany Against Fear in Frank Herbert’s Dune included the lines “Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration” because it does. Fear clouds rational judgement, reducing us to gibbering idiots who dash from one danger right into the path of oncoming traffic. Splat.
Then there’s anger and its close relative, jealousy. Like fear, when we become angry, rational thought deserts us and we do/say really, really stupid things which later, when rationality has returned, we can’t believe we did/said. It’s hard to focus on stuff when we’re viewing it through a fine scarlet haze and we want to just reach out and crush, maim, kill, and in general be unkind. I lump jealousy into this factor because it’s similar: our anger/disappointment/resentment causes us to commit all sorts of violent, sabotaging things. Many people say Shakespeare’s Iago does what he does out of jealousy.
Finally, people make really bad decisions because of love, which seems a little paradoxical until you realize that love frequently does pretty much what fear, anger, and jealousy all do: rob us of our ability to be calm, rational, and objective. Crap, does it ever. The drive to reproduce is also biologically programmed right into us --- only just behind the drive to survive --- and my God, we are absolutely enslaved to it. People in love do all sorts of crazy things.
However, ultimately, as writers, it’s a good thing characters do make terrible calls and bad judgements; if they didn’t, if they were all calm, rational, objective folks who do and say the right things all the time… well, aside from the fact they’d be irritatingly perfect, pretentious, and tremendously boring, it would make it harder for us as writers to craft interesting stories. Internal conflicts arising because of various emotional states --- that roiling cauldron of human feelings --- is often far more interesting than merely outside forces casting, as Will says, the ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’ at our characters.
I find it really amusing when readers/viewers say characters in this or that tale are behaving unrealistically because their actions are too unbelievable, too ridiculous, too stupid. Folks, I’ve got news for some of you: ain’t no such thing. People are stupid. Humanity routinely makes terrible decisions, really, really bad calls. All. The. Frigging. Time. Individually and collectively. Where’s my proof for that, you ask? Shucks, how about five thousand years or so of recorded history? There’s one unbelievably big-ass catalogue of stupid decisions right there at your fingertips… for your perusal, as Rod Serling might say --- a writer who was a keen observer of humanity’s foibles. And that’s before we heard about people eating Tide detergent pods or drinking battery acid. Like, come on, people.
Some years back, the popular musical group The Arrogant Worms wrote a hilarious song entitled “History is Made By Stupid People,” and all humour aside, they make a pretty valid point. I guess that’s what writers do: we revel in people’s stupidity, their bad decisions.
So… yeah. Revel on, writers. Cultivate the cruelty. Encourage the enervation. Illuminate the idiocy. Massage the mendacity. Your characters have nothing to lose but… well, nothing to lose but their common sense and quiet good judgement.
Which makes for more interesting stories.