Sunday, February 27, 2011

Characters and Aristotle's Seven Causes of Human Action

Lately, I've been thinking a lot about characterization so this Sunday's Pondering is more craft-related than philosophical, even though it's inspired by Aristotle.

When I develop a story it's always the main character who comes to me first. Out of the blue, he pops in my head and starts talking. I pull out character development worksheets, personality trait grids, interview questions, family and medical history questionnaires, and anything else I find that will help me actualize who this figment is, what makes him tick, and what he wants to accomplish.
(c) Marie-Lan Nguyen/
Wikimedia Commons

I've also come to realize that if I want my characters to connect to the reader like a real person, I must learn to incorporate what Aristotle's identified as the seven causes of all human action. 

CHANCE:  action based on luck or fortune, risk or hazard
NATURE:  action based on inherent qualities or personality traits
COMPULSION: action based on irrational, irresistible impulses
HABIT:  action based on customs or practiced behavior
REASON:  action based on a premise or cause in a belief, action, or event
PASSION:  action based on a strong emotion, motive, or sexual desire
DESIRE:  action based on a longing, craving, or want

The thing I need to remember when using any of these seven causes is to remain consistent with my character's personality. I can't force an action that isn't natural for the hero, or the heroine. For instance, if the heroine truly believes her brother was savagely murdered by the hero, she isn't likely to eyeball him passionately and swoon at their first encounter. Although she has REASON for action, PASSION of a sexual nature at this juncture isn't credible. Now, if the heroine ran toward the hero with the intent to scratch out his eyes, her PASSION for justice or revenge works in tandem with her REASON and creates a believable action.

I've also discovered that the causes can be used in opposition to create conflict that moves the story forward. In my current WIP, a widowed werewolf believes (REASON) that he can't fall in love again because his kind mates for life. It doesn't matter that his mate is dead. He's still alive and holding to the promise he made because it's his NATURE to be loyal. However, the poor guy is so tired of being lonely that he let's his guard down around the heroine. Pretty quick he realizes that he doesn't feel so achingly empty around her and he begins to crave her company. No longer able to suppress the DESIRE to not spend the rest of his life celibate and alone, a PASSION for the heroine ignites. Now he's in trouble. He can't turn his back on the past because he believes that would be disloyal but he can no longer bear the thought of a solitary future either. 
But, pitting his REASON and NATURE against his DESIRE and PASSION  drives this character's story only as long as his actions remain consistent with his core self. That's the tricky part. He can't simply say in Chapter Six "Oh well. My wife's dead and I'm a free wolf, now" and jump into a long-term relationship with the heroine without consequence. For one, that would be out of character for his NATURE. Two, that would make for a very short and boring story.

Characters' actions need to be genuine and representative of who they are. Grounding their motivations in one or more of the seven causes of human action will bring life to a figment readers will love.

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Trisha said...

Usually the main character comes to me first too, but there have been exceptions. ;)

Adriana said...

Well done! My husband and I write together under our pen name, and we always start a new work with meeting our characters. This may take days before we start actually writing the book. Some of what we learn never turns up directly on the page, but it always shapes who the characters are and drives what they do.

Rachel Morgan said...

Very informative, thank you! I shall write down those seven causes.... And I think I need to make more of an effort to get to know my characters in the beginning rather than along the way!

Deborah Walker said...

This is wonderful, Kristal. I can really see who conflict can be shaped out of characters. Thank you, and thank you Aristotle.

Anonymous said...

Ooooh, interesting post! Nice!

Lucy V Morgan said...

Hi -- I'm in one of your Crusade groups [waves frantically]

I love paradigms like this for building characters. It's strange -- I never think about these things consciously -- but when I edit, I can peel them back like layers.

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