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Plausible Motivations

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Here’s the thing.

When you write a murder mystery, or any kind of fiction, in any kind of medium, your characters have to have plausible motivations for the things they do.

That’s a given, I’m sure, for any kind of writing.  Even the absurdist stuff from between the wars tended to give plausible motivations of some kind.  Even Camus’s Stranger had one, although he was supposed to have none. 

I think it may be impossible to write successful fiction–successful being used here in the sense of a work that finds readers–without a plausible motivation. 

And the thing about plausible is this:  it’s almost always proportionate to the act.  When Sally kills Judi, she does it because Judi is having an affair with her husband, or because she wants all the inheritance she and Judi would otherwise share, or because Judi is about to ruin her career by outing her as an embezzler.

In real life, on the other hand, motivations are only sometimes proportionate.  At least from the point of view of others looking in from the outside, an awful lot of crime gets done for reasons that seem pitifully trivial and uncompelling.

And it’s not only crime.  People seem to be capable of doing enormous harm to themselves and others for reasons that are not only trivial but downright negligible.  I have to assume that they are not negligible to the people who commit the acts in question, but they run up against that plausibility thing.

If I write a book in which Sally kills Judi because Sally thinks she thinks Sally gets all the attention and she wants some herself now–well, if I do that, I’d better make sure that Sally is obsessed, or otherwised psychologically skewed, or it just won’t work.

Under certain circumstances, and with a certain readership base, a writer can resort to relying on “psychopathology,” which is code for “we’ve got no idea why this person did this, she must be a nutcase.”

It’s probably going to be psychopathology writers rely on when they write about the Amy Bishop case.  Murdering two people because you weren’t granted tenure–well, there it is, that plausibility thing again.

But I’m not actually thinking about murders this morning, I’m back on that “why don’t they believe dictators when the dictators say they’re going to go to war.”

And it’s not just a case of not believing. 

Somebody said here a few days ago that most of us will never have much influence on our societies, no matter how intellectual we get.  I don’t think that’s quite true.  In democratic societies, public opinion counts, although it doesn’t count in the way it’s usually said to count.

The way I used to put this, ages ago, is that climate matters.  The cultural climate of a time and place matters.  It matters in little things–whether the ambitious young man actually gets up and leaves his family for the big city–and it matters in big ones. 

Every time I read a book by somebody on one side of the political divide about the other side of the political divide, I get a little raft of plausible motivations–reasons why X thinks Y is so benighted as to believe as he does. 

These plausible motivations are meant to cover the public face of whatever movement is in question, but they’re also meant to apply to the rank and file, the everyday people who take up the same cause and proclaim the same principles.

Sometimes you get what I call the Cynical Option as a plausible motivation for leaders–they don’t believe any of that, they just know people will follow them if they say those things, so they say them.

All that does is to push the problem back a step.  It’s an admission that the writer can see no really plausible reason why his opponents are doing what they’re doing, so he divides them into what are almost literally different species–the leadership, who thinks like the rest of us but pretends not to, and the following, who are like space aliens, totally beyond our ken.

There are also a set of stock motivations that are dragged out in emergencies, supposed to be plausible but not really so:  the Islamic Fundamentalists “hate our freedom,” the people who don’t like the new health care bill really don’t like the fact that our President is black.

There are a lot more, and on both sides of the spectrum, but you get my drift.

More and more, though, it seems to me that the reality is something else.  People do what they do because they do it, and their motivations for doing harm are almost always trivial.  I end up back in that places with Yeats ago, or Eliot.  It’s early in the morning, and I can’t remember.

Very early.  Just after four.  Don’t ask.

Well, what the man said was the most of the evil in the world was caused by people trying to be important.  It covers the people who make Thomas Sowell appalled and the people who make Katha Pollit appalled.  It covers the Nurse Ratchetts of this world.  It covers Ray Nifong and Pol Pot. 

But it’s not really a plausible motivation, given the harm that gets done. 

Written by janeh

March 1st, 2010 at 8:54 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'Plausible Motivations'

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  1. Eliot.
    In addition to culture, politics and history, what about physical climate and its effect on behavior? That probably sounds off kilter. There’s probably not a lot of research to back that up.
    Public opinion does count. Would Hitler have achieved the extreme power that he did without public opinion on his side? Oswald Mosely and the British Union of Fascists failed to succeed in Britain in the ’30s due to lack of public support.
    I don’t know enough about the Afghanistan situation to form a solid opinion. But I do think threats by any country, particularly as powerful as Iran, that they will go to war should be taken seriously. Whether any negotiation would work, I can’t say.


    1 Mar 10 at 11:13 am

  2. If we are talking about Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot, perhaps we should note that they carefully did not talk about killing people.

    Hitler talked about killing subhuman Jews. Stalin was killing counterrevolutionaries. And Pol Pot was killing the bourgeois.

    As for Iran, notice that they never refer to Israel, its always the Zionist Entity.


    1 Mar 10 at 2:29 pm

  3. I’ll stick with my observation that there is a VERY strong human bias in favor of believing what the person would prefer to be true. Admiting a mortal threat would then require logically doing many distateful things, while denying the threat permits one to go on as one pleases. I try always to pay particular attention to people who would in fact prefer not to believe what they do–whose interests and inclinations would be better served by something else. Consider a five-star General and President (Eisenhower) saying our military build-up needed to be watched, or a liberal newly elected as President (JFK) saying our taxes were at unsustainable levels and had to be cut.
    But there are seldom many public figures like that.

    On the more general question of motivations, maybe 10-15 years ago I started noticing popular fiction in which the behavior of the leading characters was incomprehensible to me. I privately refer to them as “Martian” novels, which perhaps wrongs Leigh Brackett and Edgar Rice Burroughs.
    But if I can’t understand why the main characters are behaving as they do, the novel does not come home.


    1 Mar 10 at 5:40 pm

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