Do your characters act like people?

Wait–You mean my human characters?

It may seem like a stupid question, but it’s not. In the process of working our way out of caves and into cars, we have developed certain patterns of behavior which are common to all races and nationalities. The pattern I find significant, as it relates to storytelling, is how we respond to crisis. We’ve been doing it for a long, long time, and we do it the same way, over and over.two robots together

So, again, are your characters — fiction or non-fiction — acting like real people?

Need more detail? Imagine you’ve just been in an  accident, or you’ve received unexpected news (good or bad), or something else of significance has occurred. What happens next?

Here’s where the behavior pattern kicks in. It involves four steps which I first learned about in a blog by bestselling author Jim Butcher. They are:

  • An emotional reaction to what just happened, followed by,
  • A review and evaluation of what just happened, followed by,
  • The anticipation of a response to what just happened, followed by,
  • A choice based on the foregoing.

That may look like a heap of stuff, but taken a step at a time, it will feel pretty familiar. Why? Because this is how almost every member of our species reacts! For example:

Imagine you’re a male college student, and you’ve just learned that a female friend is pregnant with your child. (Change the background circumstances to see how it works with other dynamics in play.)Dollarphotoclub_63207821_text

1) Your first reaction is emotional. “I’m going to be a daddy!” Or, if this doesn’t come as entirely happy news: “I’m going to be a daddy?” Or, “Wait–are you sure?”

2) Automatically, your mind will replay events leading upDollarphotoclub_63207822_text to this revelation, and you’ll try to evaluate your situation and maybe answer some of the questions you just asked. “I’m pretty sure I was in Pago Pago at the time,” or “You have me confused with my roommate,” or “Finally–I have a purpose in life!” Whatever.

Dollarphotoclub_58282674_text3) After evaluating the situation, you’ll start figuring out how to respond, in other words, you anticipate what to do next. It could be a marriage proposal, or a name change coupled with relocation to someplace far, far away. It might even be a short, probably ugly chat with your current girlfriend. (See note about background circumstances above.)Dollarphotoclub_58594809_text

4) Finally, you’ll make a choice about what to do, and this translates into action.

This works equally well for fiction or non-fiction. The thing to keep in mind is the order shown here–it’s always the same. Some phases may be more involved than others, and much depends on the severity of the crisis. But these are the steps we always go through, and we always go through them in this order.

If the characters in your memoir or novel don’t follow this pattern, they’re just not acting like real people. [Please note: I have no formal training in psychology or the study of human behavior, but I know what rings true. And this does. How it relates to sociopaths and/or psychopaths is fodder for another discussion.]


About joshlangston

Grateful and well-loved husband, happy grandparent, novelist, editor, and teacher. My life plate is full, and I couldn't be happier. Anything else I might add would be anticlimactic. Cheers!
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5 Responses to Do your characters act like people?

  1. I’m chuckling a little here….I think I might be evaluating some of the couples I see in therapy according to the above test for humanness. There can be many reasons why something feels “off” but when it is really off, one party is usually covering up an affair. Interesting.

  2. joshlangston says:

    OMG — You’ve just opened up a world of possibilities for potentially “interesting” scenes. [huge smile] Thank you for that insight!

    • In reference to my first comment above…it is hard to describe, but it is as though their back story has been artificially “wiped” in their attempt to protect themselves–so they do not have the demeanor of someone who is responding authentically: making the facial responses, body gestures, etc., of someone who is accessing that back story. They have a blank spot, in a way. To access the true back story would make their deceit obvious. At least, after trying to figure out why I responded that way, I come to that way of describing it. In the moment, it is just an intuitive leap on my part.

  3. PS, If you comment, I will not know unless you reply to my specific comment. I only saw your comment b/c I decided to return to your blog and re-read the piece.

    • joshlangston says:

      I should know this by now. You’d think so, anyway! I still appreciate the insight, and I can see myself adapting it in the future for a story I have in mind. I usually pick on college professors. I may have to shift a bit and employ (Abuse?) a therapist or two….

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