Why the hell did they do that? or How to Understand People and Your Fictional Characters

Inside

This entry applies to writers and general audiences. For writers, you can use this blog to think about how your characters make choices. For the general populous, you can consider how conflict and misunderstanding arises and perhaps consider some of this to help in your daily life.

When I teach anthropology I have a saying that I drill into students heads.

You don’t have to like it, but you do need to try and understand it.

This is the essence of what we call cultural relativity. There is a lot of misunderstanding about this topic. For example, if someone tells me that cultural relativity is postmodernism, or that it’s ‘poison’ or that it means anything goes, I know they have absolutely no clue what they are talking about.

I wrote an answer on cultural relativism on Quora on this question a while back so I am not going to go into detail here but in short, if you want to understand someone’s choices (especially if they are in another culture) then there are three things you need to consider to begin that understanding, context, conditions, and choice.

I am going to tell you something that is really really hard for many us raised in the Western part of the world to understand. You are not an individual. This doesn’t mean you aren’t responsible for your choices, but if you want to understand how the world works, put that idea aside for a moment and consider the following.

1. Context

You are contextual. What do I mean? Well, you live in a particular culture at a particular moment in history and you speak a particular language. In some cases even being born a few years earlier or later can radically alter the course of your life. Think of people who were born just in time for the Vietnam War and were then selected in the draft versus someone who missed the war by a year or so.

This body of knowledge (as some of us social scientists call it) is so vast that we spend years growing up and learning all about it. This process is called Enculturation and is largely what institutions like elementary school is all about. Primary school is far less about learning facts, and more about learning how to behave in your given society. Every culture has their version of passing on their culture, though it varies.

Every culture is holistic. Each facet of your context is an integrated whole. Technology, economics, religion, etc. All these things can impact the entire culture. For more on this read my past blog on Worldbuilding Part 2 Anthropology and Key Elements of Culture

Of course, history is a big part of this. What has been happening for the past few decades or even centuries before your birth directly impact your experience. You, as an individual are not free of a cultural and historical context. Change that context, and you also change. Remember, no matter what you do, your culture and history is constantly changing all around you. Life is a dance of constant change and movement. No matter how tightly you clamp down on something, it still changes.

2. Conditions

Embedded within context is your particular experience. Let’s get specific. Let’s assume that two people grew up in or around Denver, Colorado. One grew up in a wealthy area that is heavily Protestant and the other grew up on a poor neighborhood that is heavily Catholic. Their cultural context is pretty much the same. They grew up at a particular time period in a particular culture but the conditions of their lives are different and thus their experience will be different. Their gender, the color of their skin, the religion they subscribe too, even the block they grew up on, changes the conditions of their lives and their experiences within the cultural context.

This is why you get an extraordinary amount of variation within a particular culture in a particular part of history (have I said particular enough for you yet?). Even something as simple as catching the last bus versus missing the last bus to make it on time to work can radically change your conditions. Maybe you got fired from your job as a result or perhaps you got a promotion as a result. Perhaps you are diagnosed with a chronic disease or maybe you won the lottery. Your conditions are constantly changing within the context of your culture. Change really is constant.

3. Choices

Okay, now we can talk about choices and free will. Your ability to make choices (or your agency) is impacted by both your context and your conditions. Your choices are not limitless and you certainly can’t make a choice that you don’t know exists. There are also laws, taboos, and social pressures that influence how we choose and move through the world.

But we certainly aren’t passive actors either. Individuals can cause massive changes to both their own conditions and their cultural/historical context. Even minor figures in the historical records influenced small things in ways that may or may not have had a big effect on that particular cultural moment.

Why should you care?

Well if you are fiction writer, this may help you to flush out character profiles and understand the choices your characters make. I talked about this a lot in my third part of World Building.

If you are just someone trying to get through their day, and your boss is a total asshole, sometimes a little understanding can help to dissolve conflict.

But honestly, the real core of this is this is how we can solve big problems. 

If you can take Context, Conditions, and Choices and use these three to analyze someone or something, you can understand it’s source and how it persists. You can see where big and complex problems arise from and can in turn act to address them. Of course, it’s not always so clear or so simple, but without understanding, you can’t even really begin. Honestly, this is a huge reason why people who, have nothing but good intentions, go out into the world to solve an issue, and it backfires and makes things far worse.

Let’s go an intense route for one moment. What about suicide bombers? Anthroplogist Nasser Abufarha asked this question in his book “The Making of a Human Bomb: An Ethnography of the Palestinian Resistance” 

Now this guy has got some guts, he did his research with some pretty scary folks. But in his research what he did was examine context, conditions, and then the individuals (the agents) who carried out some of these attacks. He talked to leaders of these terrorists cells and tried to form a picture of why they do the things they do. Their answers? Well I will let you read for yourself if you want to dive in, but let’s just say quickly that violence begets violence.

You want to understand the rise of Hitler? Context (The history of the interwar period in Germany and of antisemitism) Conditions (The experiences of Hitler’s life that made him such an angry asshole) and Choices (The genocide of six million Jews).

If you can understand some of this stuff, you can solve all manner of problems. Of course, even if you have the answers you still have to contend with political bodies and economic interests who may or may not want things to change, but that is an entirely different topic.

Seeking understanding, and information of the experiences and context of your fellow human beings can change the way you think or behave forever. Sometimes understanding can illuminate our experience and in that light, perhaps you can see an easy way to dissolve conflict.

Look, I get it, you might be thinking right now (if you made it all the way through) that this seems like an awful lot of work. You’re right. It’s a lot of work to be an informed citizen, to know the history of our own country, let alone other’s. But consider this, maybe if you aren’t sure about something, consider withholding judgment. Instead, find an expert or pick up a book on the topic before you decide that one particular group of people is evil, or that a singular event is an anomaly. History and Culture are really messy things, and it’s rare that there are clear black and white answers.

The world really is an amazing place and a little patience can make it all the more beautiful. People are just so damn interesting if you let yourself see it.

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