Willed V. Caused Behaviour: Writing and Psychology

“The scientific knowledge of S’s mind must be based on other people’s observations of what he does.”

“There will be many characteristics of the action to which he is ignorant, and there may be others about which he is mistaken; and of these, we cannot say that he intends or wants to do an act of such a kind – there is a sense in which this is not what he is doing, though it is what he…accomplishes.”

(Charles Whiteley, Mind In Action: An essay in Philosophical Psychology)

I read Mind in Action in two days (because I have to give it back to the school library 021588tomorrow) in preparation for my Psychology and Philosophy course next year.

Of course, the above statement is very true for we writers. As I prepare to do what I hope will be a full edit with more finality to it, in which I try to strengthen the voice and characterisation within my novel, this especially strikes my inspiration.

I mean, it’s not as if I should be providing a motive for each action a character makes indeed – as he created a philosophy book in principle, Whiteley goes on to talk of a person’s actions as caused by desire and those caused by the opposite: personal volition – but I should certainly be thinking of their personality as cause to actions in my editing.

What really struck me from the point of this theoretic, however, included this rather writing-appropriate point:

“Men do not regularly do those actions which are likely to achieve their goals in the existing situation. They regularly do those actions which they think likely to achieve their goals in what they think their situation to be. Their actions vary according to the perceptions and judgements of the agents.”

We writers aim for realistic characterisation, even in those fantasies, and these things are more important (at least, in my view) than forming a precise world; if the characters are not realistic or relatable, then how will the readers find themselves in the midst of the story? Because of this, behaviour and characterisation must be intrinsically linked: and this includes characters’ perceptions of the world.

And it strikes me, this particular quote. I may know the twists, the turns, and the endings, but my own dear characters themselves can have no idea of what their actions will lead to. Therefore, they act (some, purely for selfish gain) to only their experience of the world. As I am frequently reminded by mentor-friend writers: one way of reinforcing character is through what they notice about the world. So what if I want to describe the size of the chandelier in Costello Mansion? None of the Costello brothers would even see the house they have lived in most of their lives.

Especially during my recent short/back-story work for antagonist Rion, this comes into play. One supporting character, Lysander, writes a letter (no telephones in The Continent!); he delivers in person on impulse, leading to disaster. He doesn’t quite know what leads him to do so – not what his desire is entirely – but, as Whiteley says, we often do things without a proper understanding of each particular of the means.

“He may not know which of the many characteristics of x it is that makes it a goal for him; he may not know whether he would still pursue x if he believed it to lack some characteristic.”IMAG5298

And, actually, that’s exactly what a writer needs for a character. I was recently having a lengthy conversation with an old friend about love as a motive for antagonists, whether this can stand on its own, as a trigger, or is flimsy as one motive. The conclusion is complicated, but… *shrugs*

Some actions we (or our characters) do are done without spending a conscious block of time analysing the positives and negatives. Not just because there is no time to do so for every action, but because not every action is one with a plausible intent. The example Whiteley frequently uses is the movement of limbs. I am typing as quickly as I can, but at no point before my fingers are rushing over the keys am I sending a conscious, verbal memo to my fingers – ‘move to the T key now!’. No, it just happens. And yet, even laymen would say that this action has a cause.


“There is not much reason to suppose that uniformities at the microscopic level bring about uniformities at the behavioural level.”

Are we conscious of our purposive choices – completely? – or is there a further element in our actions? We are exposed to cognition and conation, respectively: the cause of conation and our volition itself. However, these are constantly in different levels of play; as an author, it can be difficult to balance these when thinking about character action and character motive.

Too, I feel very much like the behavioural psychologist in luring my characters from their hiding places and finding my explanation and their justification for their actions. Whiteley’s words apply here. We cannot ever “suppose that showing why his move was justifiable is thereby to explain why he [did so].”

If one applies this also with the concept of ‘preparedness’ (a non-behaviourist approach that some people react or learn to different and new situations more easily than others), it is easier to see how characters can be so different in their actions from one another. Perhaps, by the time he aims to disrupt Phillip’s wedding, Rion is already ‘prepared’, in a psychological sense, for his actions, regardless of the ‘reward’ or outcome.

It’s easy to say ‘so-and-so drank because he had a thirst,’ but it’s more difficult to keep this cause as the reason for his drinking: did he drink because he wanted to abate his thirst, or because of a more abstract reasoning delving beyond the direct effect?

After all, isn’t that one of the main importances of a novel: to create a deeper net of hidden truths?

In this way, perhaps Rion’s motives are not so simple as being planned, though I can confirm that he intends to do most of his actions. I doubt Rion would admit to having done something when he didn’t mean to.


“Since most of our information…comes from what they say, we must be able to understand their language.”

From this, Whiteley goes on to make the agreeable point that not every stimulus is similar in “physical character”, but in interpretation: “snakes, policemen and conflagrations do not look alike, but they may all be perceived as threatening.” Thus, every action we – and characters – have to make is one from a deep pool of actions and choice. This, as I have said, very much depends on motive, means and expectation of end. Whilst Whiteley looks to the scientific, that we cannot judge consciousness and desire on behaviour, I look to the literary to do exactly that; for, it has been said, motive is important, but more important is the twisted, human portrait of motive through behaviour – be it planned or more arbitrary.

3 thoughts on “Willed V. Caused Behaviour: Writing and Psychology

  1. Very informative on writing motivations in our story. 😀

    On another note, have you been over to the Mystic Cooking blog lately? They’ve been doing a bunch of posts on the 1920s era in America. Some cool tidbits I think you’d enjoy.

    1. Glad you enjoyed 🙂 I love reading Philosophy/Psychology books and thinking ‘this can be applied to writing!’

      I have! I was squeeing about it to them a couple of days ago. I would have done a similar-themed week (though maybe including snippets about A Game of Murder as well) had I not been over-busy this week. 😦

      BTW, how informed are you about writing novel synopses? I need to create one, but I haven’t in a while, and my last was…well, dreadful.

      1. The best advice I ever received on synopses writing was to take every chapter and summarize it in one sentence. Then smooth it out as needed. Synopsis are tell-alls, so you’re not trying to hook or tease or anything. However, you still want your writing to be as top notch as you can make it in the summary.

        So start with the one-sentence summaries of each chapter and fill in from there.

Thoughts, comments, replies...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s