A writer is constantly faced with a variety of tasks, but one of the most difficult is to look at a character and ask, "Why in hell would he do such a damn fool thing"
I've written before that one of the problems with evil is that it is, by any reasonable definition, quite mad, and that logic needn't apply. However, you can't break a story down into people who are sane and people who are mad and stay convincing.
Because one man's madness is another's passion.
Which brings us to the question of addictions. Additive behavior is just one step over the line from habituated behavior, in my non-scientific opinion. Habits may be difficult to break, but they can be, while addictions are a bitch. I know because I was a smoker from 1964 to 1981. Three packs a day at my worst.
And I tend to habituation. Most particularly to fine wine, watching football [gridiron for those of you Across the Pond or DownUnder], enduring really old cheesy sword-and-sandal flicks, enjoying as much time as possible with really beautiful young women, and gambling. I don't include spending time with my kids, because that's not a habit, but a privilege. They grow up way too fast and I know they're going to be out on their own all too soon.
All these habits have one thing in common, a quality that I'll call "peak emotional moments." There are times, for example, when a glass of wine can stun you with unexpected rewards, just as a highly touted wine can disappoint if it's past it's prime or has been stored improperly. Any fan of a professional football team knows the ups and downs, the emotional roller coaster, of watching they succeed or fail. Really bad films can provide unintended hilarity, odd pathos, and occasionally a rare insight into what a storyteller was trying to do as he missed the mark. And entire libraries have been devoted to experiences with beautiful women, approximately half of Western Literature is my rough guess. And the "rush" or "tilt" of gambling has likewise been well documented.
At what point does habit become addiction I think we can safely assume for this discussion that it's the point where you can't walk away. Denial is a hallmark of the addictive personality, whether it's drugs, alcohol, sex, relationships, shopping, eating, or, I guess, clog dancing. "I can quit whenever I want to; I just don't want to," is a clarion of denial.
So what's all this got to do with writing
This is one of "Ray's Axioms," close to Number One (someday I'll put them in an order), and certainly top ten:
It doesn't matter if what your character does makes sense to the reader, as long as it makes sense to the character.
What's that mean
If you haven't seen the wonderful film, The Magnificent Seven, John Sturges' brilliant western retelling of Akira Kurosawa's brilliant Shichinin no Samurai, go out and watch it right now. I'll wait.
OK, now that you've seen it, remember the scene where Calvera (Eli Wallach) has the drop on Chris (Yul Brynner) and Vin (Steve McQueen) and says, "If God had not wanted them sheared, why did he make them sheep," and asks why the Americanos have come to this little town. Vin answers.
I'll paraphrase, as I can't quote the entire scene, but what he says goes roughly like this:
There was this time in Texas when I was ridding along and found this fellow lying naked in a bed of cactus. I asked him, "Friend, how'd you get into this state" He looked at me and said, "Well, I was just ridding along and saw this bed of cactus so I just took off my clothes and jumped right in." So I asked him, "Why'd you do that" and he answered, "I don't rightly know, but it seemed like a good idea at the time."
And there you have it: it seemed like a good idea at the time.
You character can be the smartest woman in the world, but you can have her be dumber than dirt if what she does at that moment seems like a good idea at the time. Now do you see where addiction starts to play She thinks it's a good idea to go out and be seriously stupid because she's so in love with a bad man she'll do anything in the world to keep him. Or the world's smartest man has to knock over that bank so he can hit the card tables one more time and win back the company pension fund he looted the week before.
In other words, you have to have compelling reasons for your characters to act, else the reader/viewer will have none of it, and if they don't get what motivates your characters, you'll lose them.
Really smart people can do really dumb things when they refuse to consider unexpected consequences. "I didn't mean for it to turn out this way," is often a line used in TV cop shows where the otherwise solid citizen is admitting that a little larceny turned into a mass murder because he/she didn't consider one thing or another.
So what's the common cold got to do with this
I don't know about you, but when I get sick, I just don't give a spit about much any more. I lie in my bed of pain and just don't care about anything. I was involved in a very messy emotional wrangle with one of the afore mentioned beautiful young ladies over a year ago when I got pneumonia and within two days, she could have caught fire and I didn't care. If you see where this is going, feel free to stop reading.
A character who has no concern for consequences is the flip side of the addictive personality. Let's talk about the classic revenge rift, the person who "has nothing to lose." Marvel Comic's Frank Castle, AKA The Punisher is an iconic version of that character. His family gets blown away at a picnic and from that point on he starts killing every criminal in the time zone. He's a nifty character because he's not about revenge, though that's his starting point, or about justice. He's about punishment. And he has nothing to lose, because he's already lost everything he holds dear.
The character with no clear cut motive is as difficult for the reader/viewer as the character who makes dumb choices for no apparent reason, until you demonstrate the character is acting with purpose. The reader/viewer will accept the character has purpose even if you don't explain what it is. You can read a lot of Punisher comics before you discover the backstory of why ol' Frank is blowing away bad guys right, left, and center.
All characters must have a reason for what they do, even if that reason isn't obvious at first, or doesn't make sense in a first-hand experience way to the reader or viewer. At some point if you have your character doing really strange things, ala Kill Bill: Part I, you better hit at purpose, and as we saw in Kill Bill: Part II, you better deliver on what that purpose is. It might not be my first choice or yours as to what the action is, but you need to make it make sense within an understandable context.
"He was just a poor lad abandoned by his parents who had to constantly struggle to survive," is a great back story to tell the tale of a successful industrialist, or a mass murderer, or a crime boss, or a saintly priest. It doesn't have to be something the reader or viewer experienced, but something they get.
Else your character is lying naked in a bed of cactus and knew it was a bad idea before he jumped.
Copyright Raymond E Feist 2005
No reproduction without permission