Backstory as Behavior: Pathological Maneuvers and Persistent Virtues

From Writer Unboxed:

Last month (“Explanation vs. Fascination—And a Woman in the Corner Opposite“) we explored how to use moments of helplessness to “look behind the curtain” of your characters. The context of that exploration was the need to make our characters fascinating by resisting the temptation to explain them.

But simply exploring moments in the past won’t by itself overcome the temptation to narrate those events in some form of flashback or backstory reveal. We need to take our exploration a step further by showing how those moments generate behavior.

Before we begin, though, take a moment to reflect on how you yourself deal with stress or conflict.

  • Do you drink a bit too much when fearing judgment, ridicule, rejection—or bordeom?
  • Do you jabber away when you meet someone you’re attracted to—or fall into nervous silence?
  • Does loneliness prompt eating, drinking, or spending binges?
  • Do you lash out when you feel criticized or threatened?

The psychologist Anna Freud referred to such patterns of behavior with the technical terms adaptations or defense mechanisms.

The novelist Elizabeth George (in her fiction guide Write Away) refers to this type of pattern of behavior the Pathological Maneuver. Personally, I love that term, not just because it’s more colorful. It reveals the fundamentally maladaptive nature of the behavior in question.

The maneuver is pathological because it demonstrates how the person is not dealing with the underlying emotion prompted by their experience of stress, conflict, judgment, and so on. And the episodes of helplessness we explored last week, especially those linked to fear, shame, guilt, betrayal, or loss are precisely moments characterized by stress, conflict, and judgment.

To see how such episodes generate habitual behavior—specifically, here, Pathological Maneuvers—consider these examples:

  • Because the character’s moment of greatest loss involved not just a devastating breakup with the man she thought was the love of her life, but also a moment of greatest betrayal when he married her best friend, she has developed such a profound fear of failure and rejection, colored by a stifling sense of shame, that she no longer tries to date men she is actually attracted to, but instead devotes herself to “projects” who most likely will never leave her. If the romance ends, it will be her decision that breaks things off.
  • Because the character’s moment of greatest shame was losing a position she had been told she was going to get—only to watch as the whole office learned it was going to a woman she herself had hired and trained—she no longer pursues what she truly wants, but instead settles for what is easily achieved or simply provided, while resentfully retreating into a carping sense of victimhood, fueled in secret by drink.
  • Because the character’s moment of greatest sorrow was the agonizing death of his mother from cancer when he was seventeen, combined with his father’s subsequent descent into alcoholism, he never allows himself to get too deeply involved with anyone else, because it just awakens the pain of loss, a pervasive sense of guilt over being unable to help his father, and his fears of his own mortality.
  • Because the character was raised poor, she suffered not just deprivation but frequent incidents of mockery and shaming. (If we’re creating this character, we’d flesh out the worst of those incidents.) As a result, she has become obsessed with success, works herself to the bone, secretly takes delight in bettering her competition (better they feel ashamed than her), feels suspicious of anyone making demands on her time (including friends and family), and basically lives in secret terror that without that constant, unrelenting focus she may slip back into poverty.
  • Because of being bullied and even abused as a child, he now lashes out with irrational rage at anyone who triggers his fears of being victimized—including not just enemies and competitors but loved ones.

Not all Pathological Maneuvers follow such a reactive trajectory; some take unpredictable turns:

  • Return to the character whose mother died of cancer when he was a teenager, and his father subsequently turned to alcohol to numb the pain. The son has refrained from any deep emotional commitments, resulting in a loneliness so severe he too has developed a drinking problem, which he cynically explains away as “like father like son.” In one of his drunken stupors, his elderly neighbor suffers a heart attack and is literally calling out to him for help, but he is too wasted to respond.
  • The character’s most terrifying moment came when he watched his drunken father beat his mother nearly to death. Unfortunately, he learns the wrong lesson from this experience, and grows into a man with a hair-trigger temper, living by the credo: The angriest person wins.
  • The character’s moments of greatest pride revolved around being the class clown, typically cracking jokes at others’ expense. Unfortunately, she too learned the wrong lesson from this, and now deals with uncomfortable feelings, not just in others but herself, through deflection, making jokes instead of actually facing the anxiety, nervousness, or discomfort in the moment.

As these examples indicate, moments of helplessness often develop into a pattern of behavior that is characterized by:

  • Avoidance, deflection, projection, denial, settling for less.
  • Acting out, self-injury, irresponsible risk taking, casual sex, substance abuse or some other form of over-indulgence.
  • Unconsciously modeling one’s maladaptive behavior on someone else’s that seems to get them what they want.
  • Some form of abusive behavior toward others, exemplified by a selfish regard for one’s own wants over any concern for others, or a disregard for the pain one causes.

Pathological Maneuvers are the collection of behavioral traits that reveal the false sense of safety, control, empowerment, or concealment that allows the character to ward off the depression, self-hatred, or anxiety she feels when she recognizes that she is not the person she truly wants to be, or living the life she truly wants to live.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed