Today, I added the following exchange in my manuscript (edited to remove spoilers):
“I want to know why you keep messing with…me!”
“Do I need a reason?”
“Did the Nazis need a reason for what they did?”
“They had reasons.”
“No, they didn’t…”
When I wrote about villains, I said, “We want to be able to comprehend a person’s villainy and the reasons for it. We don’t like characters who are evil for the sake of being evil. (We may never understand the source of Adolf Hitler’s genocidal madness, but that hasn’t stopped biographers and historians from churning out tens of thousands of pages trying to figure it out.)”
In real life, people do things without an apparent reason. They may act in ways that oppose their best interests. Do people (in fiction or real life) always need a reason for doing things?
We have a few quirks when it comes to behavior:
- We do many things out of habit, from driving the same route to work to stopping off for a beer on the way home. Habits become so ingrained that we do things without thinking about them. Often, we do things because that’s the way we’ve always done them.
- We aren’t always conscious of our reasons. We may have deep-seated insecurities that came from our upbringing, prejudices that come from our culture, or irrational behaviors that came from a childhood trauma. Unless we go into therapy or have an experience that challenges these behavioral tendencies, we don’t know they exist.
- We can act (or overreact) in the heat of a situation. You may never hit somebody or use a racial slur, but a confrontation could cause you to act in an unexpected and inappropriate way. We may lie when confronted with an uncomfortable truth, or cheat when we are afraid of failing. It’s not an excuse for the behavior, but it is an explanation.
Although these are reasons, they don’t follow the simple “if X, then Y” behavior we associate with reason. Human behavior is complex and we don’t have simple reasons and motivations.
For example, why would someone get involved in one abusive relationship after the other? Is it because that person was abused as a child? Is it because that person gets some sort of emotional reward for being a victim and gaining people’s sympathy? Is it because the person lives in an economically distressed community where frustrations lead to abusive relationships? Or is it a combination of all of these things? Or nothing except a matter of chance?
In fiction, we would like to have some clear reasons so that we can understand a character and avoid having people who are evil for the sake of being evil. Real life is much more complex. The challenge in fiction is how to provide characters that readers can relate to and understand while providing the realism of complexity and motives that may be hidden from the characters themselves.