One of my favorite pieces of writing advice came from Charles Baxter at Bread Loaf some years back. He spoke about character motivation.
There had been a magazine editor at the conference earlier in the week who had listed out twenty mistakes writers make and included in her list that new-ish writers spend too much time explaining character psychology.
Baxter went beyond this. He said that one mistake writers make is to think it is their job to explain the reason characters do things.
He pointed out that people are not generally all that logical. He pointed out the number of ways that people’s lives come about through a series of coincidences and unplanned events. That people make even major decisions or engage in life-defining actions for relatively impulsive, spontaneous, chaotic reasons. I remember it to myself as Baxter’s chaos theory.
This stuck with me and inspired a pair of stories I drafted on returning from the conference (Slugging Dane, and later Hair of the Dog).
Several years later, I was especially impressed with Baxter’s chaos theory in researching war. He came back to me as the storylines of two of my in-progress novels (Rajeed’s Wife and Beyond Grieves) unraveled themselves for me.
I began reading extensively about military actions in Afghanistan and Iraq when a friend’s only child deployed with our military a few years back. I had already been looking into political history of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh; I had spent years writing about conflict in Cuba (inspiration for Breathing Water), and later ended up exploring first and secondhand accounts of conflict in the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland over the past hundred and thirty years.
While the motivation for each interest arose without connection, I found in them a serendipitous consistency: I was surprised at the number of universal truths that held consistent in the patterns of hatred, hunger and fear between ‘tribes’ from culture to culture.
Thinking back on history classes from my school years, I could hear the way history books assigned high and mighty philosophies to why historical leaders and revolutionaries took the actions they did, as if certain men were born wanting to redefine a more perfect (or more exploded) world.
It is easiest and most dramatic to see in studying terrorism — in the Middle East, in southern Asia, in the Irish isles, in Colonial America (for we were once terrorists, truth told — only history decides our intent was worthy, so tags us revolutionary).
Go to firsthand accounts. Read what the revolutionaries themselves had to say of it. Rarely would historical forefathers have written out a manifesto outlining what was later credited to them.
So often it was as simple as: my son needed shoes, the army would pay me. Terrorist manifesto: I was in love and would have joined anyone who promised to protect her.
Embrace chaos. It is at the feverish heart of why we do the things we do.