Context and Character in Fiction / R.J. Jacobs

Motive is the intersection of fiction writing and psychology. Authors and psychologists are interested in it for the same reason: we want a basis for understanding human behavior, particularly when it contradicts our expectations of the way that people might normally act. To construct a plot, an author must devise credible characters who behave plausibly. There must be reasons why characters do the things they do— without sound motives, the story suffers. It lacks the resonance of authenticity. It feels untrue.

This is especially the case when characters act aggressive or violent. Outside of literature, psychologists often are asked to speculate about the reasoning or mental state of criminals, particularly after a highly publicized crime. They’re asked to verify that someone was “crazy”, not only to better understanding the event in question but for reassurance, as if a binary distinction between “crazy” and “not-crazy” could make malicious intent easier to spot.

If only such distinctions were possible. It turns out that we all (authors, too) commonly commit what is referred to as The Fundamental Attribution Error, which means we tend to underestimate situational influences upon others’ behavior while overestimating the contribution of their traits or disposition. In other words, we focus on who someone is, rather than on their circumstances. A wealth of social science literature suggests that this process, while intuitive, is inaccurate.

So why does it continually happen? A lot of data exists on that as well. Essentially, this tendency exists because we tend to observe others from a different perspective than we observe ourselves. When judging our own behavior, we observe the situation, not our own person. We might say, “Everything was happening at once,” because our attention focuses on our surroundings.

At the same time, an outside observer would see things differently. Their attention is centered on the person causing the action. They might say, “He seems like an angry person.”

Each person’s behavior tells his or her story, and behavior is contextually elicited. But conceding the influence of circumstance is not to disregard the potential for an individual to be pathological. To be sure, some mental health conditions are characterological. Certain people, for example, harm others for their own benefit. Some people have no moral directive. The vast majority of violent behavior, however, is not executed in so wanton a fashion.

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Is explaining behavior through situational dynamics the same as making excuses? What about personal accountability?

Feeling states and behaviors are natural consequences of our environment. In therapy, I’m sometimes surprised when people expect to feel good despite the circumstances of their lives. Sometimes, I want to ask, “How did you think you could live that way and not feel anxious?”

In some ways, the notion of a person adapting to the environment is so apparent that it’s taken for granted. One simple example is the shift in style between a person’s home and work environments. If an effective litigator, for example, maintained a professional style with her children or in a leisure setting, most people would view her as socially inept. Given the role expectations of each environment, her behavior would naturally shift. The pace of her speech, her body language, and tone of voice would all adjust without her thinking about it.

A patient recently told me about going through with her wedding despite numerous reservations: “I was twenty-one. What does anyone know at that age? Three years before, I was in high school. I should have known that taking two Xanax meant that I shouldn’t go through with it. I was such a zombie, two of my bridesmaids were making bets on whether I would fall over. I knew I wasn’t in love with him the way that most people are when they get married.”

Her tremendous insight into her own feelings, even at the time, couldn’t dissuade her from proceeding. When I asked what made her go ahead with the ceremony, her response was clear and immediate: “I didn’t want to disappoint everyone. Growing up, I’d told my family that I wanted a big wedding and they had gone out of their way to make everything perfect. There were five bridesmaids, a huge reception already paid for; people from all over the country had made travel arrangements. There was no way I could back out.”

She knew the wedding was a bad idea, but the situation dictated her behavior.

Understanding the external pressures on a person in her position is easy. What would be harder to understand, for example, would be the preternatural self-possession of a twenty-one year old halting her wedding in the face of extreme expectations.

Perhaps the study most notable for investigating the power of situation versus character is the famous Stanford Prison Experiment, conducted by Phil Zimbardo in 1973. (Social psychologists have a reputation for playing tricks on people and then publishing research). By randomly assigning participants either to play the role of prisoner or guard, Zimbardo hoped to shed light on the nature of brutality. Was it the product of evil, sadistic people, or were the institutional roles responsible for the behavior? Or, put another way: Did people make the place violent, or did the place make people violent? He converted the basement of the psychology department’s building into a mock prison and simulated a penal environment where the “guards” were instructed to treat the “prisoners” with standard criminal procedure. They were fingerprinted, booked, stripped naked and deloused while the guards carried whistles and billy clubs. Prisoners were given prison clothes and bedding. Zimbardo found that almost immediately, each group adopted behavior stereotypical for its role. Everyone, including the experimenters themselves, became caught up in the situation. The students assigned to be guards began to taunt and act imposingly, while those assigned to be prisoners began to break down and to rebel. This became something like a feedback loop, in which submissive prisoner behavior seemed to further elicit aggression from the guards. Originally planned to last two weeks, Zimbardo concluded the experiment after six days as a result of extreme behavior on the part of the participants (several left the study even earlier) and because of ethical questions raised by colleagues.

So which specific factors increase the likelihood of aggression?

Aversive experiences such as pain, uncomfortable heat, an attack, or overcrowding all heighten arousal. When hostility is sensed within a group, the group is seen as even more hostile when the space is crowded. In stressful circumstances, aggression cues (the presence of a gun, or witnessing a violent image) can function to ignite hostility. When people’s motivations are strong, and they expect to meet their goals, they become frustrated when their wishes are blocked. Add in an aversive experience and an aggression cue, and a stage is set for violence.

It’s comfortable to believe we are in control of ourselves. We all maintain a self-concept and we tell ourselves that while we might be capable of some things, some behavior is beyond us. Writers develop our characters in the same way: by focusing on their traits. Then, we develop histories to explain them. We ask ourselves: Given who this person is, what would they do in this situation? But the opposite question may be more correct: Given the dynamics of this situation, what would anyone do? Would a “good” person be capable of aggression? Violence? An atrocity? As writers, we have a chance to create resonant plots when we can hold character constant for a moment and consider how an accumulation of circumstances bears upon a particular opportunity to act.

R.J. Jacobs has practiced as a psychologist since 2003. He maintains a private practice in Nashville, focusing on a wide variety of clinical concerns. After completing a post-doctoral residency at Vanderbilt, he has taught Abnormal Psychology, presented at numerous conferences, and routinely performs PTSD evaluations for veterans.

His novel, tentatively titled: Broken Surface, is scheduled to be published by Crooked Lane in 2019.

He lives with his wife Rebecca and their two children.


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Thanks to Joseph Borden and publisher/editorial director Clay Stafford for their assistance in putting together this week’s editorial.