When Your Character Does Something They Regret

We’ve all had those moments where you act now, think later. Moments where you slam on the brakes when you see a Chihuahua on the road (which is technically illegal here in Australia seeing as the person behind you could be about to instigate a rear-end collision). You may laugh at something no matter how inappropriate the context (like the middle of an important staff meeting or Aunt Maude’s funeral). Some of us have smacked our toddler after they spilt their milk, even though we’ve openly stated we’re against corporal punishment. Others have kissed their married neighbour…

Every one of these situations is an example the power of our emotional brain to flood our system and completely overrule the rational part of our decision-making abilities. It’s a human behaviour we’ve all experienced in some form, and it’s a human experience many of us have woven into our stories. As with any human behaviour, the more you understand the what’s and the why’s, the more believable it will be in your story and the more your readers are going to be swept along for a heart-stopping or heart-breaking ride.

Without delving too deep into the brain science of it all (I’m going to assume that not everyone finds the nuanced relationship between the amygdala, the limbic system and the neocortical regions as fascinating as I do), what’s particularly relevant for writers to know is that our emotion-inducing grey matter developed first.

We explored this in Childhood Trauma and its Impact on Your Character, where I explained how our brain evolved in stages. First came the animal brain—the central region of our brain which we share with every other mammal. The animal brain is the area that fight, flight or freeze lives in, and is also the seat of our emotions. Evolutionary psychologists have extrapolated that emotions evolved because they guide us in facing tasks and challenges too important to leave to intellect alone; predicaments like danger, loss, overwhelming odds, or bonding with a mate. They developed first because the ability to make these choices was far more important for our survival than discovering how to slice bread.

The next step in our evolution was the smart brain, and it’s the part where all of our unique human capacities reside—the ability for abstract thought, for language, for problem solving. Wrapped around our emotional brains, it’s the grey matter layer that we use to consider our choices, our actions, and their consequences. It’s the part of your character’s brain which knows that kissing a married neighbour is not morally acceptable within our culture.

In moments tagged as having great significance, our animal brain hits a big red button, proclaiming a crossroads that we need to respond to NOW, recruiting the rest of the brain to its agenda. It seems its first developed, first served when it comes to these junctions, and the more intense the feeling, the more dominant the emotional mind becomes…and the less effective the rational mind is. Those are the moments which the emotional brain chooses to act now and process the details later.

The reality for us now is that we face modern dilemmas with the emotional urgency tailored to the days our ancestors lived alongside constant threat of death. You had to ensure your survival and ensure you passed on your genetic blueprint, and if you could have a good LOL whilst there, even better!

So now that we’ve had the biology-psychology lesson, how can you use this in your writing? Well, now that you understand the mechanics, it’s time to put this knowledge to good use. Having a protagonist do something that’s out of character and irrational (and probably unhelpful) is a wonderful way to kick start your character arc, get your character in a pickle, or demonstrate how emotive something is to them. When weaving an overwhelming emotional response into your story, consider the following:

What’s the trigger?

Whatever has triggered your character to respond in a haze of emotional chemistry needs to be planted deep inside their animal brain. For this to happen, it needs to have had a profound emotional impact. Classically, these triggers were seeded in childhood, the stage in our life when we are particularly helpless and dependent, and may also lack the language or cognitive capacity to understand it. But not all emotional responses date back to our vulnerable years. Any circumstance that has left an indelible imprint is going to be trigger, e.g. being cheated on; letting down a loved one; being hit by a car, a tsunami or a werewolf.

Are there compounding variables?

Is your character exhausted after fighting orcs for three days straight (or the equivalent—a sleep deprived toddler)? Have they had a couple of shots of courage before heading to their ex-boyfriend’s wedding? Are they a regular marijuana user? Anything that compromises our capacity for rational decision making, like sleep deprivation, alcohol or drugs (prescription or illicit), is going to make it a whole lot easier for that emotional part of your character’s brain to take the helm.

What’s the aim of the behaviour?

In essence, emotions are impulses to act. Now that you’ve triggered this flood of neurochemicals (and know why), consider what the aim of the emotional brain is as it activates the need to respond. In behavioural terms, it will be either to move toward or to move away from the presenting stimulus. Our brains are fairly binary, it will want more of the same, or to do whatever it needs to do to end the current pickle. Is your character wanting to keep kissing the neighbour, or wanting their toddler to give them ten minutes of peace? Are they looking to stop the possibility of an doggy death, or enjoy the endorphins of a good old LOL (yes, at Aunt Maude’s funeral…remember, this part of the brain doesn’t think big picture, it wants something in the here and now).

Keep those points in mind, and you’ve got yourself a character that’s behaving in a way that reflects their emotional response, not their rational response. Usually, it’s a decision that they’ll regret. Excitingly, you’ll get to milk that, possibly for an entire book!

What do you think? Is there valuable information in here you could mine for your story? Has your character blown a gasket or kissed an alien because they were swept away in the moment? Comments and feedback are always appreciated. Connecting with others is why I write. You can comment below, or connect with me on Facebook or Twitter.

Have a wonderful week,

Tamar

PS Keep an eye out for a bonus post tomorrow – I’m taking part in a an exclusive offer you don’t want to miss out on!

8 comments

  1. Er, my character wants to keep kissing the stimulus/neighbor but they reign in those impulses, he more so than she, most of the time…but their impulses create the problems, and the antagonist is all about emotional reactions. Nice post with great info–goes right along with discussions about mindfulness, awareness, being evolved, “woke,” and so on.
    I just finished Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (fabulous), and it touches on this topic, but sort of in reverse: The MC (a magician with actual powers) has to constantly stay in rational control and not respond to emotions (such as love or passion); if she does, chandeliers shake, among other things, and can result in disastrous consequences. not just for her and her beloved but the entire circus. It’s all fascinating to me.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Poor Chihuahua! To heck with the tailgater! And relations with Mexico are bad enough without running over their dogs. Oh wait, you mean Australia. And what about the back of my car. And/or neck? Dilemmas!

    “…the nuanced relationship between the amygdala, the limbic system and the neocortical regions…” Actually, the more I read and hear about the brain from the ‘experts’ the more it sounds like a very badly-designed pocket calculator with low batteries. Like many people, I do hope the MIND is more than the brain, though it may be impossible to prove that, even to myself.

    But I reread your excellent Childhood Trauma article too. Thanks for it and this, Tamar!

    Liked by 1 person

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