Most writers concern themselves with establishing the consistency of their characters’ motivations and preferences, but mature writers know that human nature is much more complex than a consistent set of motivations. Why? Because real people do not always know themselves as well as they think they do.
How often have you done something, believing your motive to be one thing, and discovered later that your real motive was something quite different? Truthfully, we do not know ourselves very well, especially at moments of crisis. We posture, pretend, equivocate, and deceive even ourselves.
Example One: Mark Studdock from That Hideous Strength by C. S. Lewis
Observe Mark Studdock in the following dialogue from That Hideous Strength (C. S. Lewis). Mark is in the “inner circle” of an organization whose intentions are deadly. He is torn between his desire to not be an “outsider” again (even of such an evil organization) and to leave while he still has a conscience.
“I can offer you no security,” said Dimble. “Don’t you understand? There is no security for anyone now. The battle has started. I’m offering you a place on the right side. I don’t know which will win.”
In this short dialogue, Mark thinks he is being reasonable in “thinking it through” thoroughly but in reality, he is unwilling to commit. But admit his hesitation to himself? Never! So Mark deceives himself about his motivations. The final sentence of the excerpt is brilliant. Mark says he wants to think, but actually, he wants not to think, and to turn to his favorite “comfort” habits. That is human nature: the desperation to ignore the two uncomfortable choices before him and to soothe the body before soothing the conscience.
Example Two: Theo from The Kestrel by Lloyd Alexander
The second excerpt is from The Kestrel (Lloyd Alexander). Justin and Theo have just discovered that the Regians have slain one of their best friends. Observe what Theo thinks of himself as this description unfolds.
Justin had come beside him. His face was white, the scar working and twitching. He was talking, as far as Theo could understand, about animals.
This description is masterful in two ways. First, the writing shows an odd detachment in its clipped sentences and in Theo’s confusion about Justin’s mention of “animals.” This hints that Theo is not in full possession of his own mind. Second, Theo’s confusion is followed by his misunderstanding of his own actions and motivations. He thinks he is being reasonable and calm; in fact, he is losing his grip on reality and he is screaming. Theo has reached a crisis point, and he no longer evaluates himself accurately.
Again, this is human nature at its rawest: the bare self-deception of one for whom reality has become too overwhelming.
Take the time to observe the inconsistencies of human nature. While smart writers do not confuse readers with too many nuances, they also do not forget the complexity of real life. Capture human nature—and you capture the reader.
In what other ways is real human nature complex?
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