My last entry, Characterizations, is a logical lead-in to this one. Why and how do an individual’s characteristics make him/her unique for the purposes of a particular story?
While each of us has a different life experience, a piece factual reality can be known by both of us. That knowledge is something we have in common, but how we act because of it, or in spite of it, defines who we are as individuals. This creates our distinct emotional makeup, beliefs, and psychology that emerge from the variants in our core experiences. These manifestations must be portrayed in a story’s characters.
An individual’s beliefs and opinions usually aren’t etched into the archives of history, and certainly aren’t unequivocal (despite his narcissism or megalomania). They are, though, what make me me and you you, those ingredients that Nature, accident, self-delusion, good luck, bad luck, and all other dynamics of our lives have blended together to form us. Infinite combinations have made us a race of individuals—and as loony as a dozen monkeys in Santa suits.
We are not always rational beings. In science and math, repairing bicycles, writing rules on rearing children, yes, we look like logical creatures operating from predictable bases of cause-and-effect. We can be, too, but mostly we’re not, especially in our choices and actions. Mostly we’re driven by hot masses of juiced-up neurons pretending to be intelligence. Twenty years ago, I couldn’t, and wouldn’t, have made that claim. Today we can’t avoid it: Most human choice and behaviors are from activity in the brain’s (and the mind’s) emotional centers, and a writer’s characters must reflect this.
If you need proof of this brain function, tie me down, wire me up, and watch my brain on a computer screen. The emotion-based “campuses” in the brain (and of the mind)—the limbic system, amygdala, hypothalamus, and others—are where the action is when we’re choosing. The analytical centers (the places where we think we think) slice and dice the data we take in, blend it with all our other information, and try to give us the rational guidance on what are, or ought to be, correct choices for the problem(s) at hand. Yet, when the time to choose and act comes, we often override our thinking brain’s advice and go with the ravings of our emotional centers. We choose the “truths” preached by our beliefs over the “facts” in the knowledge. So should a writer’s actors when accurately characterized.
When stress arrives, rational choice usually goes out the window. Artifice is driven away by the fear of injury. Survival, a lust for vengeance, or the threat of losing everything can supplant cogent analysis. Characters in three dimensions have always demonstrated a full range of human behavior and, under stress, that behavior is often irrational.
So characterization is in large part portraying how a character will behave, and what he/she will do when the pressure is on, when emotions are running high and the risks are accelerating toward the action.
Characters, of course, should mimic real life, but many (most?) of us don’t like knowing that, in real life, we often ignore the facts. It doesn’t “make sense,” and we don’t want to believe it, to accept it as our “behavior reality”, but today’s neuroscience shows it clearly.