For writers: do your characters have a philosophy?

As Nanowrimo approaches, lots of budding writers are hastily scanning their notebooks for something to write about. Something literary? Or something more ‘genre’? Or what about something which is actually fun to read (so ‘genre’) but also worth reading (so ‘literary’, in as much as the term means anything).

I love Dickens and I love George Eliot, but for different reasons. Dickens is an exciting chase of plot twists, enormous personalities, intricate descriptions of humungous proportion, and reality stretched to its breaking point without actually becoming fantasy. You could never actually visit a Dickensian world. Many of our notions of the Victorians (squalor, hypocrisy, cruelty) are Dickensian rather than real. Eliot, on the other hand, comes to literature from philosophy 1. Her characters are realistically painted, even in Adam Bede which has more of an adventure ending than Dickens ever contrived.

If your characters are in danger of becoming caricature (and this troubles you), it might be worth taking a leaf out of Eliot’s books, rather than Dickens. Although we know more about even the most minor characters in Dickens than we know about any character in, say, Camus, they are often drawn without any particular psychological insight. Why is Uriah Heep so obsequious? We don’t know. Dickens is thrilled by (and thrills us with) the surface of Heep, and his impact on the other characters, but he doesn’t particularly want to delve into him. Eliot, on the other hand, is fascinated by the inner mind of everyone she draws to our attention. Her characters represent genuinely different outlooks on life. Dickens’s characters live in the ear and the visual imagination, but Eliot’s live in our minds.

So, do your characters have a philosophy, and should they?

It’s a truism that a villain is merely a hero in the wrong story. Every character makes sense to themselves, even if they are doing things which are nonsensical, self-destructive, or, simply, evil.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs makes for a depressing analysis of the human condition. Until our basic hungers and thirsts are met, we care little for future safety and security. While these are threatened, love and belonging seem unimportant. Only when love and belonging are satisfied do we seek esteem, and only after that self-actualisation. Maslow’s hierarchy is accepted as a psychological base point, though, in fact, experimental evidence is really rather lacking. It is popular because it is popular, rather than because it is proven.

Nonetheless, for a character in a story, it is entirely plausible that they are acting purely selfishly (Maslow’s hierarchy is a hierarchy of selfishness, ultimately). Even so, their actions still make sense to themselves, which is to say, they can still explain them in ways which are socially acceptable. Although all of us are blessed with a conscience, in many cases what we mistake for conscience is merely doing what society finds acceptable — as Lawrence Kohlberg maintains in this stages which are almost as popular as Maslow’s.

The way characters make sense of their actions in terms of their socialisation (or, in English, how they keep thinking well of themselves even when doing bad things) is their philosophy. All characters in adult novels have them. One of the peculiar delights of children’s fiction is that characters don’t have to have philosophies, and can be genuinely mortified when they have done something they shouldn’t.

By philosophy I don’t mean that they should be reading Quine or Plato. They don’t need to justify themselves in terms that Ayer would understand, or even to Aquinas. Their philosophy, often expressed in just one or two maxims, is the rationalisation of what they do. If they are particularly pompous, they may call it their ‘principles’, but even the most (apparently) unprincipled characters have their maxims.

At the moment the most overused one for villains is ‘I did it for the greater good’. This we know from JK Rowling, but she didn’t invent it. Now it seems to be a ubiquitous villain philosophy. That alone should make it suspect. In real life, I have yet to meet anyone pompous enough to claim that their actions are really ‘for the greater good’, which is merely a way of saying ‘the end justifies the means’.

There are plenty of others to choose from. Even the much maligned ‘because it was there’ is probably a better choice than ‘for the greater good’.

If you want to uncover the philosophy of your characters (or create it), simply pose them this question (or have an angry person who they like and want to be respected by in the story pose it): “What gives you the right to do that?” or, from a slightly colder, more mafia-like stance “What business of yours was it to do that?”

This is not just for villains, and it is not just for bad things. One of the classic dilemmas facing a hero is when duty conflicts with what is right. A soldier is sworn to obey the king, the king orders him to kill his prisoners. A Fluellen replies in Henry V: “Kill the poys and the luggage! ’tis expressly against the law of arms…” Fluellen’s philosophy is one part duty to the king, one part duty to the law. Shakespeare contrives a situation where the two are tested against each other.

Very few books will test all of their characters (Middlemarch is amazing because it really does do this), but even the most one dimensional bit-part character can benefit from a personal philosophy. A thief steals your protagonist’s watch. Why? Because they are a thief? That is probably a satisfactory explanation for a piece of scenery or a prop (why did the gun go off? because that’s what guns do when you pull the trigger), but no real thief is so one-dimensional. Because they were hungry? They might be more inclined to steal a sandwich than a watch. What gives them the right to do it, in their eyes? Possibly they think that nothing gives them the right, and they are the lowest of the low in their own eyes. This can lead to a rich denouement later on, when the thief finally turns on himself (or looks like he will, but does not).

A man once came to my door who had stolen some money. In the two hour conversation that followed, he repeated again and again ‘I am not a thief’. Being a thief was not part of who he saw himself. In that conversation I gleaned enough rationalisations and justifications for a hundred minor characters. A man may steal your watch simply because he wanted it, but when he justifies it to himself later, his justifications might be ‘He should have taken more care of it’ (i.e., I’m doing everyone a favour); ‘that watch was too expensive’ (i.e., all property is theft); ‘he thinks too highly of himself’, and so on. It is the in-brackets bits which are the philosophy. Very few people are fast enough on their intellectual feet to come up with an endless string of rationalisations, and they quickly turn to repeating the same ones—especially if their fellows seem to accept them.

Stealing a watch is an easy and obvious one. What about other unconscionable things that otherwise nice enough people do? A woman stamps on another woman’s hand in a frenzied rush at the start of the January sales. Later, how does she explain this to herself? A man regularly orders ten pens at work and takes nine home, even though his house is already full of pens. How does he justify this?

Simply knowing a minor character’s justification for what they are doing is enough to lift them from a Dickensian surface-character to a George Eliot deep-character. We hugely enjoy Dickens’s minor characters but, ultimately, they are circus performers with their catch phrases and odd appearances. We no longer go to literature for such people: we have television for that. If you are NanoWrimoing this year, it’s something worth thinking about.

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  1. I read that somewhere thirty years ago and can’t place the reference

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