Tag Archives: once I learned about confirmation bias I started seeing it everywhere

Q&A: Character Motivations

Do you have any advice on subtly guiding readers to villainize a character so that they dismiss the character’s legitimate concerns over another person’s trustworthiness? I am hoping the perceived personalities will help, but I don’t want to rely on them alone.

Well, you hit on the answer: Make the concerns legitimate. Not just the concerns you want to discredit, but also the reasons your other characters have to discount their observations.

When you’re writing it can be very easy to get tunnel vision and view the world through the lens of your protagonist. Your audience will gleefully follow that cue in turn. It’s part of why there are a lot of novels with the protagonist acting in egregious ways, but fans will (and do) disregard it, because the protagonist thinks that behavior’s fine.

This is how characters like Harry Potter function. The character operates from a limited perspective of the world, makes snap judgments based on their perspective, and as a result, devalues legitimate advice and insights from people who know what they’re talking about. I’ll stress, there’s nothing wrong with a character having this kind of an approach, so long as the author understands that this is a flaw.

There is nothing wrong with having a character say, “yeah, but that’s just Steve, and we all know what an idiot he is.” So long as you remember, as the author, that Steve may have a point, and licking that light socket was probably not a great idea.

So, let’s step back for a second and start over: As the author, you control the game board. That’s your job. You set up the characters, the arena they operate in, and direct them. You know that the sky is going to fall in six minutes, and that poking the toad over there is a spectacularly bad, idea. But, your characters don’t.

In a story told from the position of one character, you’re presenting the narrative from a limited perspective. You need to understand the entire situation, but your character doesn’t, and shouldn’t. They see and react to the information they have access to.

Now, the hard part, staying within this weird little metaphor, every other character in your story is another piece on the board. Looking at the information they have, and acting accordingly. Everyone has their own goals, and perspective. Just like your character, their perspective is limited. They may have more information. They may have less. What they know shapes their opinions and perspectives.

AND. THEY. REMEMBER.

The simple answer is to go back and ask how does your protagonist feel about the character. If they like them, and have had positive experiences in the past, they’re more likely to accept that character’s viewpoint. If that character has betrayed them in the past, or worked against them, then they’ll discount the value of their advice.

Past actions are incredibly important factors if you’re dealing with characters who’ve changed loyalties. It’s entirely plausible your protagonist would hold a grudge against a former foe, who’s switched sides and is working with them now. Conversely, if the protagonist has had a change of heart, then they’re more likely to face distrust and opposition among their new allies.

Okay, so, maybe someone does know that the sky is going to fall if you poke that toad. Maybe they didn’t make that information clear because, “NO! AREYOUOUTOFYOURGODDAMNMIND!? DONTDOTHAT; THEFUCKINGSKYWILLFALL!” Maybe they’ve cried wolf before. Maybe your protagonist thinks poking the toad is a key to immortality and Steve just wants that for himself.

You’re correct, personality does matter. It affects prejudices, and how we weight information. Some of this is subconscious, but it works. Consider which you find more credible, some Rasputin looking homeless dude raving about the end of the world, or a composed academic? Personality and presentations matter, particularly during first impressions. Even if the Rasputin looking fellow comes back, shaved, with the crazy toned down, they’ll still be weighed against their previous iteration, by characters who originally met them in that state.

Confirmation bias is another relevant factor. This is the drive to actively seek out information that supports your understanding of the world while actively discounting information that contradicts it. If your protagonist really wants to believe that toad will give them immortality, they may very well ignore the advice of people they respect, and normally agree with, when they’re told it’s really an amphibious button to initiate the end times.

The really important thing to walk away with is the idea that you don’t need to vilify other characters’ positions. If your character has a legitimate reason not to follow it, then that’s all you need. Trust your audience make their own decisions on who they should be listening to.

-Starke

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