It's been snowing like crazy in Denver for the last several days. Having grown up in Iowa and gone to college in Utah, I used to drive on snow frequently, but seven years in North Carolina have made me rusty.
The other day, I decided that I (a) needed some snow-driving pratice and (b) had to get out of the house. So off my car (affectionately known as the Batmobile because of the first three letters on the license plate) and I went.
The roads were worse than I'd expected. Because it'd been snowing almost constantly since the night before, a lot of streets hadn't been plowed recently or at all. I did a lot of driving slowly and plowing through slush. A bit stressful, but a good refresher course.
A few errands and explorations later, I came to a stoplight. I was behind another car in the left-turn lane, and ahead of me, a car in the right-turn lane caught my attention. For some reason, the driver (whom I'll call Tom for ease of reference) had opened his door. At first I thought he was looking for something he'd dropped. But then Tom flipped the bird to the car ahead of me and yelled at its occupants even as he was turning and they were turning in opposite directions.
I thought something like, "Seriously? You're opening your door on a slushy, slippery road in winter--while you're turning--for that? Go away!"
It made no sense to me. Why would Tom risk his own safety (and comfort/cleanliness, considering the state of the road) just to be nasty to someone?
The thing is, humans sometimes do things that don't make sense. But they always have reasons for their behavior, even if they're the only ones who know those reasons or if most people would disagree with those reasons.
This is an important factor in writing about people, whether they're fictional or real. It's not enough for the reason behind a behavior to be "This character has to do this to move the story forward" or "That's how it really happened." From the time we learn to talk, we humans always want to know "Why?" (as anyone with a two-year-old can attest!). And we get frustrated or lose interest if we can't make sense of the behavior of the people we're interacting with or reading about.
Granted, you don't always have to immediately reveal the reasons why a character or a real person does what they do. In the case of a real person, you may not be able to conclusively determine what those reasons are. You also don't have to agree with those reasons. But to write clearly and credibly about someone's behavior, you do need to know (in fiction) or at least have an educated guess about (in nonfiction) what their motivations are. Otherwise, your audience will have a hard time suspending disbelief or accepting your argument.
Take Tom the driver from earlier, for example. What I witnessed was his behavior: opening his door on a slushy road and flipping off and yelling at another driver as they both started to turn. I don't and can't know for sure what Tom's motivations were, because I didn't talk to him about them. However, I can make an educated guess from past experience. That knowledge suggests that Tom was probably angry at the other driver over something I hadn't witnessed. I don't agree with Tom's actions, but based on my educated guess, I can at least understand why he did what he did.
Hashing out someone's motivations can be tough. I've done it both for characters in my fiction and for real people in school papers. And I can help you do it, too. Click here to book a call for us to "interrogate" your characters so you can do their stories justice.
(Thanks to Alexander Dummer for sharing their work on Unsplash.)