I was having a discussion on writing with a friend of mine who studies psychology and therapy and he told me something profound about characterization:

“Everybody’s always rational.”

I know your first instinct is to protest this claim but upon reflection, you will see (as I did) that it is quite true, and should always be kept in mind when writing a character.

Let’s define terms first: “rational” in this case we’ll use to refer to a person’s thought process and logic. “Reasonable” we’ll use to refer to the facts of reality. Thus we say, a person is always rational, if not always reasonable.

A thought experiment: Imagine that you are given enough evidence to convince yourself that aliens exist. You also find out that they are attempting to take over the world through a subtle, mental enslaving process. If, all of the above is real, what is your response? Covering your head with tin foil suddenly seems like a good idea. This is what we mean by a person is always rational. Objectively, there might be no aliens at all and thus, the person is being unreasonable.

When writing, you should always keep these two factors in mind: what is the data set of reality, and what is the data set any character is acting on. The first sign of a Mary-SueTM is someone’s whose data set is always in tune with the reality of the story. Which almost never happens in real life (no matter how much we fancy that it does). Our brain is constantly receiving more information than it can process, so there’s always something we’re missing in the thinking process. This doesn’t mean your characters have to be constantly wrong either; instead they should have a mix, even some lucky breaks (where they reach the right answer with the wrong solution).

Even a person who’s “crazy” is rational from the data set they are operating with. Having a character just do whatever the plot requires and then justifying it with the excuse “He’s crazy!” is the worst of lazy writing. So what if he’s crazy? Why did he do what he did? Does he believe the squirrels are plotting against him? Is the voice of one or more gods commanding him? Does he believe the target killed his father, even though it’s all a misunderstanding?

You don’t have to spell out every justification, but do spend some effort showing the reader the thinking process. Or make it clear enough in your work that the reader can put themselves in the character’s shoes and see the logic from that perspective. This is the most important and fundamental aspect of real, living characters.

May you write well…

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  1. LucyWannabe on 13 January 2009, 11:00 said:

    Very nice! It touches on a pet peeve of mine when I’m navigating the minefield known as fanfiction—you often have characters that don’t react to things the way a normal person (for that world) would. I’ve seen fantasy stories where nobody bats an eyelash at seeing a dragon for the first time. Sure, dragons are common in fantasy stories, but they’re not something people in those worlds commonly see. And really—if this great beast that you grew up only hearing about in stories was suddenly raining burnination down on your village, would you just stand there and go: “oh. It’s a dragon. Joy.” Personally speaking, I’m fairly certain my own response would be: “AAAAAAAAAAAAAH!” Runs (Caveat: unless you’re a dragonslayer, in which case, you’re used to the sight of them).

    Huh. That rambled. I’m not even sure if I was trying to make a point or not. Blargh. :P

    Anywho, good work!

  2. SlyShy on 13 January 2009, 12:35 said:


    Yup, this is exactly right. This is also why I hate the idea of “absolute evil” characters. Your antagonist still operates in a way he finds logically, he just happens to take a different view of issues than the protagonist.

    I feel like having an enemy that is “insane” is a cop-out because it is sending the message that the enemy’s viewpoint is so deranged it couldn’t possibly right on any objective level, and that the protagonist is absolutely correct. This is a naive view of the world.

    However, it is alright if your protagonist thinks the antagonist is crazy, when in fact, he isn’t.

  3. Nate Winchester on 13 January 2009, 13:32 said:

    Too true SlyShy. However like I said, even “insanity” is done wrong. Too often people have a character doing ANYTHING (i.e. shove a cabbage in their ear) under the label “insane” without realizing that insane people are still logical, they are just operating under a different data set.

    You can still have an insane antagonist, but he/she still has to act rationally within their own system.

    One of my favorite interpretations was Order of the Stick when it was revealed that the “insane” king of a city was only pretending to be insane in order to make controversial decisions. (site appears to be down, will post link later)

  4. Krista on 14 January 2009, 01:32 said:

    Very important information.

    This article reminds me of a quote but I don’t remember the source.

    “It is only when the characters disobey us that they truly live.”

    When writing, if you never reach a point when your characters refuse to do what you need them to do, you should worry that you are forcing your characters to behave unnaturally.

    Your characters should always behave rationally and be consistent.

  5. Artimaeus on 14 January 2009, 18:05 said:

    On the other hand, it can also be frustrating if a character’s stupidity is used too often as a plot device. (Case in point: Brisingr. “I just passed out while trying to cast a magical spell, letting the enemy escape, and nearly killing my battalion of elves. If only I remembered the super mega power ring I had on me… Then this plot might have resolved itself a lot faster.”)

    While realistic characters are wrong from time to time, you it’s not good if you have to rely on a character’s stupidity to keep the plot running.

  6. Krista on 14 January 2009, 20:06 said:


    I would argue that the character is being forced to be stupid to further the plot, to allow Murtagh to escape. Eragon is supose to be intelligent, but CP often makes him do stupid or contradictory things for the sake of the plot. This is what makes Eragon feel so inconsistent that I have no sense of who he is.

  7. Nate Winchester on 14 January 2009, 20:14 said:

    Artimaeus, Krista, the technical term is “Idiot Plot”.

  8. Lionus on 14 January 2009, 23:37 said:

    I think the truly horrifying villains/antagonists are ones that are very similar to us, and yet still commit despicable acts. People tend to say that those who do these things are “insane”, but I think that there is another explanation: they are evil. The people we see as insane are very often just like us.

    Just a thought, consider the Joker in The Dark Knight. Everyone would say he won in the movie, right? Harvey turned bad. But he also drove Heath Ledger to a depressed state and, because of this, the actor overdosed and (intionally or unintentionally, I don’t know) killed himself. Maybe the Joker won in real life, too…

  9. SlyShy on 15 January 2009, 00:46 said:

    Well, from a psychological stand point I’m not really that big a fan of the Joker. His motivations are too clouded for my tastes.

    However, Darth Vader, I think makes a compelling villain, because he is deceived into think he has been doing the right thing by demolishing the Republic.

  10. Nate Winchester on 15 January 2009, 09:38 said:

    Someone needs to read C.S. Lewis over his point “no one’s evil for the sake of evil.” (hmmm… followup article? do we need one?)

    Anyway, comic villains motivations really depend on the writers. The Joker’s pretty much insane because so many different people have written him over the years.

    At any rate,
    “I think the truly horrifying villains/antagonists are ones that are very similar to us, and yet still commit despicable acts. People tend to say that those who do these things are “insane”, but I think that there is another explanation: they are evil. The people we see as insane are very often just like us.”
    Keep in mind that no one ever really thinks of themselves as evil. [at the risk of invoking Godwin’s law] Can you find any reference in Hitler’s words that he thought of himself as evil? Evil people always think that what they’re doing is right. It’s just everyone else disagrees with their methods. And that makes for the most terrifying villain, because then we can see ourselves in those people… how do we know that we’re not evil…?

  11. Rand on 15 January 2009, 23:03 said:

    Quote:Someone needs to read C.S. Lewis over his point “no one’s evil for the sake of evil.” (hmmm… followup article? do we need one?)

    Except wannabee teens.

  12. Addie on 16 January 2009, 02:02 said:

    “The we can see ourselves in those people … how do we know that we’re not evil … ?”

    That’s the scariest thing!

    Most of us are completely sure of our values and morals, etc. We know what’s right (that is to say, we think we do) and we do it.

    But so many villains are sure they know what’s right, too. Just like us. They’re sure of it. And they have no clue they’re wrong.

    It’s scary, because it brings the surety of any given person’s values into serious question.

    At the same time, though, I have to say I’m not sure “mistaken” makes for the most complex type of villain. Although, I suppose, you do have to have mistaken to some degree or else it doesn’t work …

    But again, “mistaken” can be an uncertain thing.

  13. Jeni on 16 January 2009, 10:23 said:

    Mr Scruffy!

  14. Nate Winchester on 16 January 2009, 10:27 said:

    Ok ok… everyone’s convinced me, I’ll do a sequel to this tip on villains specifically over the weekend (and have it up before Tues).

  15. The Wanderer and Fan on 19 January 2009, 22:02 said:

    This was an excellent article.

    I’m also pleasantly surprised that you lot know the Order of the Stick. :) It’s nice to meet fellow readers.