In which our Diva wears her geekitude on her sleeve
I had the weirdest thought in the shower this morning, and it's been circling around my head all day, picking up threads and particles of thoughts that weren't initially attached to it. (I was having a Monday disguised as a Wednesday at my day job, so it injected an interesting dimension into solving the various little crises that were pinging at my head.) It was a thought in my head, which is to say it doesn't necessarily fit in language very well, but it more or less boils down to "Character motivation is like quantum physics."
Don't get scared off by that. It's actually pretty simple (as long as you're not trying to do the math). See, it sort of came out of something I've said a lot lately in some pretty disparate conversations, which is that nobody ever does anything for just one reason. And this morning, that led to a wider "nothing happens for just one reason." Which led (because this is the sort of thing my brain does all day long, and actually it's on the more linear/sane end of the scale) to the principle that every particle of matter in the universe is subject to the gravitational field of every other particle of matter in the universe. From where you sit, of course, the overwhelming majority of the matter in the universe is too far away for its gravitational pull on you to be even remotely measurable, but it's not actually zero.
Even more fun, quantum probability says that there's a chance -- again, ridiculously, immeasurably tiny, but not zero -- that some particle waaaaaaaaaaay over there will suddenly decide to be right here instead. For no reason that we yet know of, with no way to entirely accurately predict it.
(The last couple paragraphs are a really really simplified version of ideas you can explore in all kinds of very accessible and readable forms. I'm partial to Brian Greene's The Elegant Universe and The Fabric of the Cosmos. They're clear, informal, and full of great analogies featuring everything from Bart Simpson's skateboard to Fox Mulder's "I Want to Believe" poster. I'm not even kidding.)
Which brings us back to the shower this morning, and my weird geeky actory thought. Because all of this applies to people too. Which of course means it also applies to characters.
If we think at all about why we do whatever we do at any given moment, it's the immediate influences -- the things with the measurable gravitational field -- we're likely to put it down to. But there are dozens, even hundreds more pieces of "why," a whole universe of little gravitational fields at work. And sometimes, when we least expect it, a stray particle makes a weird quantum jump, from a seemingly unrelated situation or something you experienced years and years ago, to fire something in our brains and say "Do this!" when this might seem from the outside to make no sense at all.
My friend Tara has an oft-repeated saying about writing: "If your characters have to act out of character for your plot to work, your plot doesn't work." And she's absolutely right, but we should be careful about what we say is "out of character." Obviously, a character whose actions seem completely random all the time isn't much of a character. But neither is one who's completely predictable, whose choices always make sense in light of what the audience can immediately observe.
This tends to freak out a lot of writers, I've noticed. Which might explain why so many of them seem to love the old "What's my motivation?" gag when they write actors as characters. It popped up again just a couple days ago on Castle, and was answered with a succinct "To do your job." Which not only made eminent sense, but carried a whole lot of implications for the fictional actor to unpack. Thing is, that fictional actor probably wouldn't have landed that fictional gig if he were that clueless. It often surprises people (presumably because they haven't really thought about it) when I explain that I always roll my eyes at the "what's my motivation?" gag because the very first thing you learn in any acting class, the most rock-bottom basic thing, is that answering that question is your job. The writer tells you what to do. The director tells you how to go about it. It's up to you to determine why you're doing it.
And even you might never know all the reasons. Not really. Because that's just like real people. Other people often give us insights into our own behavior that we never considered, just like audiences (if we're doing it right) find things in our performances that we didn't necessarily consciously put there. One of my favorite things in the world is when someone tells me something about a character of mine that I didn't know when I was playing her. It's probably a lot of why I gravitate to characters -- whether to watch or to play -- who are a little reckless or even crazy, making the wrong choices and taking the wrong risks and dealing with the consequences, for reasons that don't always make a whole lot of sense. (I'm looking at you, Malcolm Reynolds, and Vicki Nelson, and John Mitchell, and Mary Shannon, and...) There are certain things you can be reasonably sure they'll do or won't do under a given set of circumstances... and then there are the quantum moments. That's when the magic really happens.