Locus Of Control

Even when you’re thinking about character, you’re still really thinking about plot.

This would be Pot’s obersvation about some of what I sent her yesterday as thoughts on Marley’s character arc (and a bunch of random other stuff that inspired).  It’s incredibly ironic (and very true) because I have said the exact opposite to her on many occasions.  Even when she’s thinking about plot, it’s still really character.  We’re a nice bookended pair.  This is why she is Pot and I am Kettle.

But I was thinking this morning–  No, thinking may be too generous a term. I can’t really call myself conscious yet.  A thought from the void floated into my head (that’s probably more apt) about locus of control.  In psychology the idea of locus of control has to do with world view.    This theory was originally discussed by Julian Rotter, and it has to do with what the person sees as the cause for the good or bad in their life in a general way.  Locus of control is really about the extent to which a person feels that he or she has control over the stuff going on in their life.  People with a high internal locus of control, feel that they have a lot of control over what goes on in their life.  They are far more likely to not only take action but to take responsibility for their actions.  Someone with an external locus of control believes that their environment, some higher power, or other people control their decisions and their life.  So for example, you have a student who fails a test.  If that student has an internal locus of control, he will tell himself, “I failed the test because I didn’t study hard enough.”  If he has an external locus of control, he’ll say, “I failed because the teacher is hard and has unreasonable expectations.”  No doubt I have a lot of the latter in my classes…

Now it’s important to note that these concepts exist on a continuum.  It’s not an either/or kind of thing.  Very often you’ll see people have an internal locus for control for the good things in their life and an external one for the bad.  We like to think that if something good happens, we did something to make it happen.  Likewise, we’re not really keen on admitting when something bad is truly our fault (and sometimes it’s not…unless we were wielding the bloody knife or something, we’re not responsible or in control of someone’s death).  You can find out more about the details of locus of control and the attribution theory that goes with it here.  It’s a really handy thing to know about your characters.

Me, I am highly, highly internal with my locus of control (this may be why I have such difficulty with the idea that God is always in control–but I digress).  I feel like I am (largely) in control of my life.  This makes for considerable stress when the things I legitimately don’t have control over pop up and I can’t do anything about them.  Likewise, most of my characters (hero or heroine anyway) tend to also have a very internal locus of control.  Sometimes to the point of taking responsibility for things that actually were out of their control.  Conall, my hero in HiS, is very much like this.  He takes the weight of the world on his shoulders.  Him I get because in that way, he’s absolutely me.

But Marley, I’m coming to realize, isn’t like this.  She’s had several pretty huge circumstances in her life that have forced her into a fairly external locus of control.  She’s epileptic–no control over her medical condition.  She was orphaned at age 2–she had no control over her parents and what happened to them.  She was in and out of foster homes for about 8 years because the foster families couldn’t deal with her psychological problems (neither could she)–again the decision was taken out of her hands.  The woman who ultimately became a second mother to her was killed by a drunk driver–no control over him.  I think this is one of the reasons I’m having such a difficult time relating to this woman.  Because she is very very unlike me in her outlook on things.  In her worldview, bad things will happen and you really can’t do much about them but weather the storm.  This could have made her very laid back and Zen, but it didn’t.  It made her prickly and defensive and always expecting the worst from everyone.   Which, surprise, is not at all how I’ve written her.  I think I took how she’s meant to be in the end and just started out that way.  So, as written, she has nowhere to go or grow.

I think I may have had a breakthrough.  And without caffeine either.

10 thoughts on “Locus Of Control

  1. Wow! I too am impressed that you could formulate all that without caffeine. Bravo! But the realization will lead to incredible strides, I do believe. Sometimes it just takes “getting” our characters before the work will flow with any purpose.

    I hadn’t thought of my characters in terms of locus of control, but it is a very interesting question to ask about them. Thanks!

    For NPI: today 710 words. I’m hoping to come back to it, but don’t really see it happening. Lots going on today, so I hit the keyboard early. 🙂

  2. Brilliant insight! Psychological plausibility is like good stage lighting – if it’s doing its job, nobody (except another lighting designer) will notice it. But if it’s absent or doesn’t work, everyone will know there is something wrong, even if the don’t know what.

    I’m also interested in the flip of your example – where someone feels responsible for all the bad things that happen to the, but think the good things are luck or an act of God. That’s the path to depression and despair.

    Thanks for another great way to think about character!

    1. It absolutely can and does lead to depression. It makes for some interesting treatment conundrums with patients with this particular attribution style. I’ve just never applied it to my characters before. It feels like I might finally be on to something with this character. On top of the 2 hours I spent doing tarot readings for her last night 😀

      1. Ooh, good idea!!! Have you done numerology on her name & birthdate? I’m gonna try that on mine, never even thought of it before!

        1. I’ve done it on other characters in the past (as I do have books on the subject) but I’ve not done it for this particular character. She actually doesn’t know when her birthday is (neither do I).

  3. Okay, my word count today was only 341, and what I did write probably sucks, but I didn’t take a free day! Work kept me away all day, and my writing time tonight was chopped up with even more work, but I turned in my current work project, so tomorrow will be better.

    I really enjoyed today’s blog, BTW, Kait. I seem to remember hearing something about this in my psych classes a LONG time ago (way too long, it seems), and I think we may subconsciously consider this in a basic way when we think about backstory and its effect on the character, but I never fully understood what I was considering. Thanks for giving us a professional and logical point of view on it.

    1. Hey, you wrote–butt in chair. That’s what counts.

      Glad you enjoyed it! I’m considering doing a regular feature or maybe a series (assuming I can get myself together) of looking at various psychological theories and how to apply them to writing. It’s particularly on my mind since I’m currently prepping a class on theories of personality for next semester, so it keeps popping up.

  4. Hey, bravo!!! It sucks to have to rewrite, but better now than later . . . and you have a journey to watch. Very cool!

    I’d love to hear more of that series idea. It is a valuable way to look at characters that I haven’t ever heard. I’m in the throes of working on my “villains” and part of what has stalled me is getting into their heads – so disgusting I don’t want to go there. But this helps as a place to start, and to maybe identify some not entirely evil aspects of their nature. I’m actually forcing myself to use the NPI for writing on these characters of the WIP, since the other seems so much easier.

    Today, 1358 word count – and that was after I forgot I hadn’t written yet untiol 10 pm. But, still got it in! Hooray for all of us!

    1. Woo! You’re kicking butt!

      I’m okay with revisions. I’ve done them before. I knew when I started this particular book that I would be doing pretty heavy ones because I pushed straight through with the first draft to GET a first draft without revising as I go (which has always been my habit in the past). So it’s all a matter of refining the process.

  5. NPI word count for October 4: 1106. Wow, things are so much easier when I’m not exhausted!

    Kait, I would love to see a series like that. There are so many ways to look at our characters that could give us that little something we need to truly understand them and help our readers understand them too — every little bit helps. And I find the psychology of it fascinating, anyway. Too much therapy, perhaps? 🙂

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