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A Character's Free Will

Tantz_Aerine at 12:00AM, June 20, 2020

Whether we have free will or not is a philosophical, existential and psychological conundrum that will forever tease and challenge us. While I can't speak for philosophers, I can for psychologists:

Behaviorists will tell you it doesn't exist (look up Skinner); Cognitive behaviorists will tell you it's mostly elusive, except for some times (soft determinism a la Bronfenbrenner). Humanists will tell you that you have to work to acquire it, but it's there for the taking if you really want it (look up Maslow and Fromm).

Just so that it's clear where I'm coming from, in the discussion that follows, I stand somewhere between Bronfenbrenner and Maslow: my estimation from my studies and experience is that we are to a substantial extent the sum of our learning experiences and social interactions, as well as the impact of the historical times we live in, society's forces and the interrelationship of the people that form our network, close and extended. However, no two individuals will yield the exact (or even similar, sometimes) same behavioral patterns and personality if exposed to the same forces, experiences and influences.

Some argue that this is because tiny differences exist even when to a third party observer it is not evident, and others argue that this is the manifestation of a person's free will: their free will to interpret, take initiative, create motivation, and opt to have one reaction rather than the other.

I fall in with the ‘that’s where free will manifests' crowd.

And that's how I write characters and their free will:

For a big part, a character will act as a sum of their background- their experiences, the historical times they live in (real or fictional), the dogmas they grow up in, the society they're part of and their social networks, core and extended.

But, I also allow for a fraction of unpredictability in them. I mostly know how they will act and react in the story (and thus I also know where the story will go) but I always give myself a fraction of a doubt. That at any important junction when things are unusual, dire, unprecedented for that character's general experience, he/she might act in a way I hadn't originally intended.

And that means that they may cause the plot to take a detour, or need others to step in where I'd planned for them to act.

And I have to be prepared to let that happen.

That preparation often means that I have other characters ready to step up should that be necessary, or other ways the story, despite the detour, can get back on track. Or if the choice might be such that the story cannot get back on track, then I have to be prepared to know where the story is headed on its new trajectory.

(this is especially hard when writing a historical fiction where history has already determined how main events go… but it's doable)

To me as a creator, that slight degree of uncertainty keeps the story fresh and gives me a thrill every time I write ahead. And for the audience, it makes the characters seem and feel like real people, people who could have existed.

Because what makes you more alive than experiencing free will?

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cdmalcolm1 at 8:55AM, June 22, 2020

I agree with Banes as far as writing tactics. I do the same thing. I write out my out line from start to finish and carry on the characters antics. The free will of my characters style is more Dependent On the dialogue. What will come out the characters mouth. I would play The scenario over and over again on what should they say in a particular situation as that character. The choice wording and actions I freestyle the dialogue aloud to hear a rogue statement then write it. I guess what I’m saying is the free will of my characters comes when a stressful point is happening. How would they handle this or that while this or that is happening?

Banes at 7:09PM, June 20, 2020

I usually outline my stories and revise the outline several times - and to one degree or another the characters do their own thing. In my newest episode I had a couple things I wanted to happen, then had to think pretty intensely about the characters and how they would go about certain things. In the end of that I knew the bones of it, and the characters still surprised me a bit in how they handled things. It's one of the strange and fun things about writing, for sure!

Kou the Mad at 12:36PM, June 20, 2020

I've been toying with the concept. The main profession in the setting I've been writing in my head, Voidwalkers, have them work for very powerful beings that directly hold their souls as proof of their contract. They still have free will, they can rebel, it won't end well though. The idea in question basically being "What would happen if you try to restrict free will on people who naturally have it?".

marcorossi at 5:38AM, June 20, 2020

My characters don't have free will. How would they dare go against me? How would they?! AAARGH! I CREATED YOU AND I CAN DESTROY YOU!!! But apart from this, if you by "free will" mean a choice that is not bound to previous factors like knowledge you just reduce it to chance, it wouldn't be free will anyway (it's the same problem of Epicurus' clinamen).

usedbooks at 5:04AM, June 20, 2020

Also, my characters' true nature motivates them, but the readers' perception of the characters might be different. My writing is dictated by my characters' motivations and natural reactions. To my readers, something may seem unexpected, but it's really just a character revealing something about his true nature that the readers (and possibly even the character himself) doesn't realize exists. For example, my character Raidon has very egocentric motives that cause him to apparently "betray" people on "his side" from time to time. He also "helps" apparent adversaries if it is advantageous to his plans. This surprises my readers practically every time. But he is acting very much in character.

usedbooks at 5:00AM, June 20, 2020

If free will didn't exist, choices wouldn't be so damn hard!! But in terms of writing, my story plans alter because of the opposite of free will. I try to steer the plot, and it doesn't seem to work, and the reason it doesn't work is because my characters would absolutely not allow it to work that way. I find time and again that writing blocks are a result of me ignoring characters' natural responses to things. I cannot force them to be "out of character." Either their response needs to change (altering the course of the story) OR I need to alter their motivation to get them to respond in the way I want. In his Gravity Falls commentary, Alex Hirsch stated what was required for Dipper to make a deal with Bill without breaking his character (in this case, it was a high reward at stake and a ticking clock -- along with some deception from Bill). It helps me to always consider things like that.

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