Assuming we’re all reasonably okay with the “Six Human Needs” I introduced a couple weeks ago—at least a good starting point on the subject of what drives us all—let’s continue with the second of the six, and the opposite of the first: uncertainty.

Defining uncertainty is easy enough: You don’t know for sure.

You don’t know for sure who the killer is, you don’t know for sure what the continuum transfunctioner does, you don’t know for sure if you can resist the lure of the One Ring, you don’t know for sure if the scary clown is real or not…

We live in uncertainty—at least, I know I do. There’s a lot I don’t know on any given day, and I’ll admit that that often causes me some real stress. But I’ve also come to understand that though there is definitely such a thing as too much uncertainty (or is it not enough certainty?), in some aspects of my life uncertainty is not a good thing. But in the end I, personally, tend to thrive in uncertainty.

I like not knowing stuff. I like the journey through a difficult problem and the surprise of unexpected solutions. I may not realize that in the moment, or in every moment along the way, but in retrospect a lot of the best things I’ve ever done started with some version of “I don’t know if this is going to work, but…” or “I have no idea how I’m going to do this, but…”

Mark Manson, in his book The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck, wrote: “Like physical pain, our psychological pain is an indication of something out of equilibrium, some limitation that has been exceeded. And like our physical pain, our psychological pain is not necessarily bad our undesirable.”

Sometimes, not knowing how to do something or not being sure that some effort will end with success—or even what “success” actually looks like—can be a good thing, an empowering thing, even under the weight of the in-the-moment stress.

In fact, a case could be made that a fear of uncertainty, or a need for certainty, is a better motivator for a villain than for a hero. Though a hero might be trying to, say, find out who the killer is—to be certain of that conclusion—it’s the thrill of the uncertainty wherein the story thrives. The moment of certainty comes only at the very end. The hero lives in the uncertainty, and an interesting story unfolds accordingly.

But villains might begin from a position of absolute certainty and work their nefarious schemes in an effort to combat the fear that uncertainty can often inspire. A fear of uncertainty may very well sit at the very foundation of a quest for power, the feeling that everything will be fine as long as everyone does exactly what I say, every day, from now on.

Paul Bloom, interviewed at Vox, said:

Consider the rhetoric of white supremacy. White supremacists know about the humanity of Jews and black people and whoever else they’re discriminating against—and it terrifies them. One of their slogans is, “You will not replace us.” Think of what that means. That’s not what you chant if you thought they were roaches or subhuman. That’s what you chant at people you’re really worried about, people who you think are a threat to your status and way of life.

But for the rest of us—and for our heroes—uncertainty can not just propel a story forward, but separate the strong from the weak. In a Scientific America interview, Jamie Holmes said:

One area where there is more and more interest in ambiguity is among entrepreneurs and businesspeople, simply because the future in many business sectors is highly ambiguous. Earlier this year, Thomas Friedman had an op-ed about disorder in the business world where he highlighted just how disruptive the business models of Uber, Facebook, Alibaba, and Airbnb are. Uber is the biggest taxi company in the world, he pointed out, yet has no cars. Facebook doesn’t create media, Alibaba has no inventory, and Airbnb doesn’t own the real estate it uses. So the communication platforms we’re using are revolutionizing a range of industries. It’s not in the book, but businesspeople have an acronym, VUCA, or volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. It’s a VUCA world, and as the economist Noreena Hertz put it, one of today’s fundamental challenges is coping with disorder.

But let’s face it, it’s always been a VUCA world. A case could be made that religion was invented for that very reason. I’m living in ancient times and I’m uncertain about everything, from existential questions like “What, if anything, happens to me when I die?” to day to day dilemmas like, “Can I eat this?” Those questions inspired people to find ways to lend a little certainty to an uncertain world.

As it turns out, a quest for certainty can lead to compulsive behavior, from religious fundamentalism to obsessive-compulsive disorder. Reid Wilson described working with compulsive patients in his Psychotherapy Networker article “The Healing Power of Uncertainty” in which he described writing the following on a whiteboard for the benefit of an obsessive patient:

1. I’m willing to be uncertain;

2. I’m now going to generate uncertainty;

3. I must be distressed for prolonged periods in order to get better.

So accepting that uncertainty is a part of life, even when it scares the crap out of us, helped break through compulsive behavior, which tends to be about a quest for certainty. Turns out the volatile relationship between certainty and uncertainty is of interest to a lot of researchers in the various related fields of psychology. In “The Persuasive Power of Uncertainty” from Harvard Business Review, Zak Tormala described the results of an experiment using restaurant reviews in which the critic expressed varying degrees of certainty:

And so, basically, what we think is going on, and what we have evidence for, is that an expert who expresses uncertainty is surprising somehow. So people expect experts to be confident in their opinions. If this is a restaurant critic, the person should be highly certain about his assessment of a restaurant.

And so, it’s surprising when the person who’s an expert expresses some hint of hesitation or uncertainty or doubt. And that surprise grabs attention and draws people in. And so, it’s the sort of tension between the person’s expertise and confessed uncertainty that leads people to sort of feel something is amiss here, let me pay more attention and make sense of this.

And so, once they’re paying more attention, they’re sort of more open to influence. They’re being drawn into the message. They’re reading more carefully, and then assuming that the message is compelling. That leads to more persuasion.

I’ll extend that to fiction in that when your hero is uncertain, the more he or she is uncertain, the more compelling that character will be. After all, suspense comes from uncertainty—what’s going to happen next, when will the bomb go off, when will the monster jump out?—so if everyone, your principle protagonist, at least, knows what’s going to happen next, always knows exactly what to do, and spends the “story” crossing items off a to do list, the less interesting that attempt at a story will be.

As a person, trying to keep up on a mortgage, you might not love living in constant uncertainty, but as an author of fiction in any genre, you need to embrace uncertainty in your characters—maybe with the exception of your villains.


—Philip Athans

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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