Characters Cause Their Own Problems

426 words

One quality of an effective story is that the characters are to blame for their own problems. They might make reasonable and forgivable decisions, but the story achieves greater impact if it is the decisions of the characters that are the final cause of what happens, and not external circumstances.

This reminds me of the Heraclitus quote “character is fate.”

When the characters’ own actions determine the events, it increases the fatalism of the story. It builds a stronger sense that the story had to happen this way. If it is instead the circumstances that cause the story to happen, it tends to feel too arbitrary and meaningless. Events in real life often feel like that, but it is not the main element of the best stories.

An example could go like this: a character should phone a girl with whom a relationship might be beginning, to apologise for being too distracted last time they met. Instead, he lets himself get drawn into a night out drinking with a questionable friend, probably to avoid facing the difficult conversation. The decision has consequences for the budding relationship with the girl. This seems like a more impactful fulfillment of “character is fate” than some external force preventing him from contacting her, such as the payphone in his dorm being damaged or another innocent explanation. If the payphone is damaged, then we should see him attempting to deal with this situation so that it’s still his own actions that determine the events in the end.

This also reminds me of the attribution bias. We see our own successes as the result of our innate qualities, and our failures as the result of external circumstances. The perception is reversed for others: they succeed by chance and fail for a reason. Maybe in story-telling, it’s most satisfying when as much as possible is attributed to something innate about the characters, as revealed in their actions.

It seems that this is a quality that has developed over time in the history of storytelling. Older stories, such as myths and fairy tales, seem to feature the force of circumstance more heavily than modern literature. It also feels like a pattern in stories that children write – random events occur one after another and the characters react to them. This can be quite enjoyable and is a straightforward way to explore a fictional world, but it does seem that the most memorable and impactful stories centralise the actions of the characters and their consequences with only limited reliance on circumstance to move the story.