Sometimes we have to cut the crap and get down to business. Making educated guesses about people so that we can predict their behaviour is one of the most important things we do as social animals. Even something as tiny as having visible pupils on white backgrounds in our eyes give humans an advantage over other creatures. If I’m sizing you up for fighting or fun for example I want to know if, and perhaps more importantly how, you’re looking at me. If it were all that simple though, we’d all be Derren Brown with our ability to 100% understand each other. Imagine that world!

If someone scratches their head, then we can assume they have an itchy head

We make it complicated for ourselves because we are also nuanced creatures. The behaviour we display is sometimes clearly, even boringly revelatory. If someone scratches their head, then we can assume they have an itchy head, not that they’re about to attack. What if they were about to attack? What if it was a distracting move? Humans lie, humans mask their feelings and humans deny their own senses. Humans can also learn to read behaviours in clusters and see through the bullshit. What if whilst the person in front of us is scratching their head, we also notice their stance change subtly? It could be the observation that makes the difference between a whistling noise and bloody nose.

These situations are endlessly complex but their are a few principles that we can work with to keep us mindful of the fact that humans are complex. In my previous post No Such Thing as a Baddie, I said that no one is inherently evil because they all have a point of view. Whether the person in question is real or fictional, here are the things that we can consider to add depth to our lazier, mindless and self-centred observations.

  1. Everyone has an Objective and a Super-Objective. Think of them like the far shore on the opposite side of the river and the stepping stones to get there. They may not be aware of it themselves but if you get a sense of what people really really want, then you can make some pretty good predictions about their behaviour.
  2. Everyone has their own fears and things to avoid. Fear and desire are the two motivators of all behaviours so getting a good sense of both is essential in really understanding someone. If you know what they’re scared of then you can compliment or frustrate them in both glaring (chucking a spider at them) and subtle ways (behaving like their mother). Ill leave you to decide whether that last example is a kindness or not…
  3. Everyone has both root and contributory causes for 1 and 2. This is the realms of analysis over observation and you can get better at the guess work with a little training and a lot of practice. This really is the meat of the job of character creation in realist fiction. A character is never JUST a plot function. They have their own reasons for being there, doing their thing and behaving in the way that they do.
  4. Everyone has things about themselves that only their author could know. Make of that what you will in the real world but as characters they should never be aware of how their relationship with their father affected their dominance strategies in the workplace unless they’ve been to therapy or really gone to work on themselves. This rarely happens spontaneously to people.

So whether you’re creating your main character or a stroll on part, whether you’re trying to work out why your boss can’t be the person you wish they were or a partner’s behaviour is baffling, look to their fears and desires, the first causes, not the in-the-moment behaviour and always remember that although they’re a character in your story, they’re the hero in theirs.


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