A SERIES OF POSTS ON MOTIVATION: CERTAINTY

Assuming we’re all reasonably okay with the “Six Human Needs” I introduced last week—and I’m not entirely convinced myself, but this list is at the very least a good starting point—let’s dive in to the first of the six: certainty.

It’s not at all unusual or difficult to understand why someone would want to feel certain of something—certain in a belief, in a method, etc. This quest for certainty is behind both scientific and religious thought. A religious person might feel certain that God is looking out for him, and a mathematician can feel certain that 2+2=4. Everything from the Ten Commandments to Newton’s Laws are the results of a quest for certainty. This behavior is always bad. If this happens then this result will follow, for sure.

We actually can be certain of things like gravity. If I climb up onto my roof and jump off, I am absolutely certain that I will fall, and I am equally certain that I will be badly injured as a result. This prevents me from jumping off my roof.

So then worldbuilders take note. I have that certainty in the laws of physics in the universe in which I live. But what if the rules change? What if I have something like D&D’s ring of featherfalling? I could jump off my roof and rely on the magic of the ring to float me gently to the ground. What if I’m not on Earth at all, but on the Moon, where gravity is only one sixth of Earth’s?

I know people who are certain of the existence of God, replacing the need for evidence with faith. People absolutely do not require experimental evidence like two broken legs immediately following the jump from the roof, to be as certain of Heavenly Rewards as I am of gravity. Likewise, for us worldbuilders… I’ve looked around the real world for more than fifty-three years now and feel certain that there is no God, but if I lived in, say, the Forgotten Realms world, I would be much, much more certain of the existence of those gods, who occasionally interact with the mortal world. How does that change the idea of religion, in both the larger sense of a personal spiritual feeling and in the various human institutions—churches and temples and cults—that surround them?

Though there are a lot of things we can feel certain of in either our real-world or invented physics, there are at least as many things we can’t feel certain about at all. Looking someone in the eye, listening carefully to the way she’s talking, the words she uses, might convince you that that person is lying, but you can’t actually be certain—until, again, the rules change and now you’re psychic and can hear that person’s inner dialog. So magic or SF tech can lend certainty to otherwise uncertain situations.

Characters who seek out certainty can sometimes be tragic characters when they look for that in the wrong places—in the existence of some mysterious force that refuses to reveal itself, or in a lie or misconception. At the same time, certainty in a hero can propel that character forward against considerable odds.

When something works against a character’s sense of certainty, whether that character is a hero, a villain, or somewhere in between, bad things can happen.

In his book The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck, Mark Manson offered what he called Manson’s Law: “The more something threatens your identity, the more you will avoid it.” And a lot of what comprises our “identity” comes from our various certainties. To some extent, at least, we become what we believe we are.

I didn’t have to dig too deeply to find an example of certainty in action. I’m just finishing up the science fiction novel Wine of the Dreamers by John D. MacDonald, a blind pick from my Sci-Fi Paperback Grab-bag. In this novel from 1950, alien Watchers use advanced technology to inhabit the bodies of Earthlings in the future world of 1975 in order to sabotage our efforts to explore space. After the intentional destruction by sabotage of Earth’s first starship, our heroes see their efforts scuttled, their warnings of an alien conspiracy dismissed, and former allies selling them out. In this bit from a hearing on the incident, we see a character—not a villain, and not one of the alien agents—expressing with full certainty, his opinion of the matter:

I read this edition from the 70s.

“You will find in my record that two years ago when Project Tempo was being considered, I read the survey reports and filed a negative opinion. That girl—I should say Dr. Inly—inferred that the military has attempted to block Project Tempo. I wish to deny that allegation. I am a soldier. I follow orders. Once Project Tempo was approved, I gave it my wholehearted cooperation. The minutes of my staff meetings in connection with Tempo are available as proof of this cooperation.

“However, in all honesty, I must confess that from the beginning I considered Tempo to be a wild scheme. I believe that with persistence, with the application of discipline and effort, we will succeed in conquering space in accordance with the plan outlined by General Roamer sixteen years ago. First we must beef up our moon base. The moon is the stepping stone to Mars and Venus. Gentlemen, it is sound military thought to consolidate your own area before advancing further. Project Tempo put the cart several miles ahead of the horse. The old ways are the best. The known methods are tried, and they will be true.

“Is this time-jump theory something you can see, feel, hold on to? No. It is a theory. I personally do not believe that there is any variation. I think time is a constant throughout all the galaxies and all the universe. Lane was a dreamer. I am a doer. You know my record. I do not want this fiasco to make you turn your backs on space flight. We need a vastly augmented moon base. From a moon base we can look down the throat of Pan-Asia. We must reinforce that base, and not dissipate our efforts in humoring the more lunatic fringe of our nation’s physicists. Thank you, gentlemen.”

This manner of thinking is not unusual for a military character, someone who has been drilled in the uniform chain of command, in standard operating procedures, and other certainties that can be relied on (we hope) in the rather uncertain environment of the battlefield. We can see why this guy wants to be certain about what he’s doing and what he should be doing, based on that training, that military mind-set. This is only reinforced by the clearly absurd story our heroes are telling of otherwise unprovable alien intervention. The nature of the way the aliens infiltrate seemingly random people at unpredictable intervals without any outward sign makes their presence even more uncertain, at least to the many people who haven’t experienced it for themselves. It’s easy for someone to be certain that there are no aliens, that the destruction of the starship was either an accident or human sabotage, especially when the technology behind the starship was still untested.

As you’re building your characters, consider the degree of certainty they might have in a particular component of the world, the plot, and the other characters. How does that help and/or hurt them? A need for certainty like the soldier in the above example exhibits can hurt, helping to forestall humanity’s spread into the stars, unwittingly assisting an insidious external force, while at the same time it isn’t necessarily a bad idea to move into space with a bit more caution. Given the information available to him, this guy isn’t wrong. But it’s his need for certainty, in large part at least, that’s holding him back from seeing the bigger picture.

 

—Philip Athans

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About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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