What Writing Fiction Taught Me About Human Nature

I used to think I knew all about right and wrong, good and evil, heroes and villainsIt was all black and white to me. When I bothered to think of it at all, I pretty much knew how to bucket things and, I’m sad to say, sometimes people. Then I started writing, and I figured every character central to my plot would be a good guy or a bad guy, an ally or an obstacle. I quickly learned that wasn’t the way to build a character-driven novel. All-good or all-bad characters are flat, boring, and unrealistic. No one wants to read about them, and it wasn’t fun to write about them, either. I realized, like real people, characters must have a little of both in them.

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This concept was easier for me to grasp with my heroes. After all, if a hero doesn’t start out flawed in some way, how can they ever hope to grow? This was something I embraced early on in my writing. The fundamental change that occurs when a hero is tested through a series of internal and external obstacles is half the fun of writing, in my opinion. The villain was a bit trickier. Even understanding no one is perfect, it’s easy to fall into the trap of pointing a finger at a blatant wrong-doer and summing up their person as ‘bad’.

As I spent more time delving into the psyche of my villains before casting them in a story, I realized who they are is more than what they want, their flawed reasoning or perspective, and even what motivates them to do the terrible things they sometimes do. Villains, like real people, can have a backstory wound too.

What is a backstory wound?

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One of my favorite resources for character-driven plots comes from Martha Alderson, often referred to as the Plot Whisperer. A backstory wound can be anything impressionable in the character’s past that interferes directly with their success at achieving their goal. It’s worth pointing out this isn’t always something you’ll reveal to your readers, but it’s something the writer should know. Essentially, backstory wounds are how characters sabotage themselves, whether they’re aware of it or not. Heroes have them, and villains have them. (Don’t we all, really?) The main difference is, at the end of the story, the hero has changed somehow to overcome their backstory wound to the extent they can achieve their goal, whereas the villain hasn’t.

But they could.

Villains have the same capacity to grow and change as heroes have.

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When I realized that little nugget, I was able to start writing better villains, and I also had a slightly altered view of human nature; I became a little more understanding. Like our characters, real people face conflict and make choices every single day—choices often colored by their own backstory wounds. The fights we pick, the words we say, the grudges we release, the big dramas and little thoughts and actions that shape us every day—these help us grow in character…or not.

I still have my views on right and wrong. However, now I try not to assign those characteristics to people, but rather to their behavior at any given point in time, often framed by the choices available to them.

What about you? What has writing (or reading) taught you about human nature?

11 Replies to “What Writing Fiction Taught Me About Human Nature”

  1. This is a really good topic and your question: what has writing taught you about human nature? is a good one. I really hadn’t thought about it the way you wrote about it today. Normally, I develop characters based upon their motivations, purpose in the story and then a personality that supports the qualities and motives their personalities are run by – with room for context etc.. I suppose, writing fiction is really ‘what if’ done in a complex manner. There are times when I am genuinely surprised by a character’s behavior or plot line even though I am the author. That makes it fun but is also ‘odd’ – at least compared to even. Here and there, one can get insights from writing both fiction and nonfiction – because the thinking about a topic or process or POV suddenly causes a ‘click’.

    1. All good thoughts. I love it when my own characters surprise me, it’s one of the things that makes writing so much fun. (:

  2. Good fictional characters, like all real people, bear what Genesis describes as “the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.”

    Good post!

  3. Wise post. I love novels with well-rounded villains. The stories are far more interesting than those with flat or stereotypical villains.

    One thing I’ve learned from writing fiction is viewing life from a perspective other than my own. Seeing incidents, ideologies, etc. from a different angle has made me a wiser and more compassionate person. The world isn’t nearly as black and white as I sometimes make it out to be.

    1. Great observation. Looking at things from other viewpoints makes such a difference. Thanks for sharing! (:

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