You may remember an earlier post in which I said the nursery rhyme “Little Miss Muffet” was a good example of a story except that I would prefer to know why she was so frightened by the spider. In a nursery rhyme it may not be that important; but in a story, the “reason why” can be a major force in shaping the course of the story.
In his book Creating Characters, Dwight Swain calls this process rationalization. He defines it this way:
“Rationalize: to provide plausible (but not necessarily true) reasons for conduct. To attribute (one’s actions) to rational and creditable motives without analysis of the true and especially unconscious motives.” (p. 9)“Without analysis of the true and especially unconscious motives.” This is the key phrase here. When we rationalize, we make up excuses for why people behave the way they do... even though we have no way of knowing the real reasons. Their behavior confuses us, so we try to think up a reason that makes sense to us. That reason may not be their real reason, but it makes sense to us... so we accept it.
Swain says the same is true of fictional characters.
Since we don’t really know why our characters are doing what they do, we can just make up a reason that makes sense to us. And the beauty of it is that it’s perfectly alright to do so; just as different people might do the same thing but for different reasons, so might our characters:
“Not that any of these people’s beliefs, estimable or otherwise, were necessarily wrong, you understand; quite possibly they were right on target. It’s just that there was no way, no way whatever, that you could prove or disprove them. Indeed, it was entirely possible to advance other, equally plausible hypotheses to account for each individual's behavior... it meant that, within the bounds of my imagination, I was free to create any kind of character I wished, and have him do anything I might conceive, provided only that I rationalized the character’s behavior in such a manner that readers believed it.” (p. 10)When you create a character, any motivation is acceptable so long as it is plausible to the reader. Perhaps your character acts a certain way because he had a good childhood; then again, she may act that way because she didn’t have a good childhood. Either reason is acceptable as long as it makes sense within your story.
Don’t make the motivations of your character a sticking point in your writing. Just choose a reason, any reason for your character’s actions; all that matters is that it’s a plausible reason. If you find a better one later on, you can change it then.
After all, you’re the storyteller. And ultimately, that’s why your characters do anything at all.
This is going to be my last post for a while. I've got a lot of projects to finish -- not easy readers -- and something had to give, so I'm putting this blog on hiatus for a while. I plan to get back to it later in 2013. In the meantime, the existing posts should help you get your own writing in gear. And if you leave any comments, I've set up the blog to notify me. I'll answer your questions as quickly as I can.
In the meantime, write some good stories!