I’ve been pondering a word lately. I’ve pondered this word while working on my latest book, while reading, and even while listening to the evening news on the latest horrors around the world.
The word is JUSTIFICATION.
How do people justify their actions?
While I’ve been thinking about this for some time, it really honed into my mind after the terror attacks on Paris. According to the NY Times, ISIS claims that “Paris is the capital of prostitution and obscenity.”
In other words, that was their justification.
In the terrorist’s mind, Paris was an evil city, and evil must be destroyed. As sickening as this is, and even knowing what pain and anguish were caused by such one-sided, generalized thinking, is this not the same story line for every hero movie out there? Evil must be destroyed.
But justification doesn’t have to happen on that large of a scale. Sometimes it’s simple things we justify.
Recently a friend told me of a ‘huge’ offense that happened to them by a family member. I happen to know this family member as well, and because of this, I could see why they had done what they had. I knew enough that this ‘offender’ hadn’t intentionally meant to hurt anyone. Far from it. They were just offering advice. They were just trying to help. That was their justification for interfering in a place they didn’t belong.
How does this work with fictional characters?
It goes back to the adage that every character is the hero in his own story.
This means that even villains and bad guys should feel like they are the protagonist, the hero, the driving force in their own story. They should be fighting for something they believe in, even if that something is wrong.
Les Miserables is the perfect example of this:
Jean Valjean justifies his law breaking (and evading Javert) because he’s a changed man and he needs to protect Cosette. Even in the beginning of the story, he justifies stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s children.
Inspector Javert justifies his ‘cruelty’ because right is right and wrong is wrong. Justice must be served to keep order and harmony in the world.
Fantine justifies prostitution to feed and save her daughter.
The Thernadiers justify stealing and swindling people because they’ve had a hard life, and why shouldn’t the rich share their money when they’ve had everything served to them on a silver platter? They justify cruelty to Cosette because they’ve done ‘so much’ for her. She should show them gratitude by working hard in return.
And on and on.
I think that’s what makes Les Miserables so powerful. Javert is the bad guy and yet we understand why he’s doing what he’s doing. We see his justification and, in a way, we understand it.
But at the same time, we see Valjean’s reasoning, his desires and justifications for evading the law, and we cheer for any successes he finds in life.
That is powerful literature.
Yet, sometimes this justification is lacking in characters. Like the stereotypical mean girl in high school.
In so many of these mean girl stories, the girls are mean just to be mean. But you know, I went to high school. I have a daughter in high school now. I’ve never come across a girl who was mean just for the sake of being mean, as is so often portrayed.
I’ve seen girls who are trying to ‘help’ another girl by giving her fashion or beauty tips (that come off as haughty and mean). I’ve seen girls who seem rude because they won’t talk to or sit by someone, but deep down, it’s because they’re insecure, or they think that other person might hurt them. I’ve also seen girls huddle together in a tight-knit group of friends that can appear to be click-ish, but really, they’re just BFFs.
I’m not saying there aren’t mean high school girls. There are. Cruel girls, even.
But if you were to confront a girl labeled as ‘mean’, she would probably be shocked by the accusation and start back pedaling. She’d rationalize her ‘meanness’ as her just trying to… (fill in the blank).
That’s how justification always sounds, right?
“I was just trying to…”
(Want a little humor? Check out this Studio C clip about bullies’ justifications: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qHBv74B1N9U. Heehee.)
When you’re writing characters, ask yourself:
- What is their justification?
Why did Anakin turn to the dark side? Not why do we think he did, but what was the justification in his mind? How did he see that as a good thing?
Why did President Snow continue the Hunger Games? We think it was to suppress people and keep power, but in his own mind, he might tell himself that he did it to maintain order, to keep the peace, to protect his country from another bloody war. (Some of the same rationalizations Hitler might have used.)
Because sadly, many evil acts are done by someone who has justified it in their mind. (Paris attacks.)
Your job as an author is to find that justification.
Don’t necessarily exploit it or make it obvious, but if you can hint at it, then you’ll create literature that makes us think. It might even make us a little uncomfortable because we might have to ask ourselves:
What am I justifying in my own life?
What about you? What interesting, complex, or disturbing justifications have you seen characters (real or imagined) use? Comment here.
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4 thoughts on “How Do Your Characters Justify Their Actions?”
Great post. Justification is at the root of so many ‘bad’ actions. I think all of us are guilty of it at some point in our life, trying to justify why we did something that someone else doesn’t like (or maybe what we believe God won’t like, but with our justification, we think how can He not?). I love Javert in Les Mis because he has amazing justification to do what he does to harass and stalk Valjean for so many decades. I love powerful literature or movies that make the ‘villain’ likable in some way, and you’re right, it’s usually because of the justification behind their actions.
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Well said! I wonder at what age we learn justification. It seems to happen young, because even my toddles have rationalized stealing candy from the pantry. ;)
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I love this. (Even with your Studio C clip ;) ) I think this is the difference between books I read over and over and the books that I just forget. If I feel like the characters were all justified, I believe in the story.
Yes, exactly. The rationalization is what makes characters human, I think. Crazy species that we are. :)