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


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

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
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

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.


This blog is supported through Patreon. If you enjoy our content, please consider becoming a Patron. Every contribution helps keep us online, and writing. If you already are a Patron, thank you.