Unexamined Assumptions— #CharacterBuilding

In another lifetime, I had a supervisor that told me a story. Where she got it, I don’t know. It’s one of those stories that’s “out there” somewhere, but it’s not mine and it wasn’t hers. I found articles that reference the tale including Snopes and Psychology today, but these sources don’t seem to know where it originated, either.

I’ll attribute it appropriately if I can find the original author. This line serves as my disclaimer: It’s not mine and it’s likely changed drastically from the original telling…whenever that might have been.

Here it is in a nutshell:

A young girl watches her mother bake a pot roast. The mother preps the meat with spices, and before she twines it, she cuts the ends off the roast and tosses them in the garbage. Now, these ends weren’t full of fat and gristle. There is good, edible meat in the wasted portions.

“Why do you do that? Cut the ends off like that?”

The mom continues spicing and arranging the meat in the roasting pan and surrounds it with carrots and potatoes. “It’s how you do it. My mom did it this way.”

“But why?”

The mother pauses, wiping her hands on her apron. “I don’t know. Go call your grandmother.” She slides the roast into the oven and leaves the room.

The girl calls Grandma. “Why do you and Mom cut the ends off your pot roast before you put it in the oven? Isn’t that wasteful?”

The grandmother pauses for a moment before answering. “Well, I don’t know why your mother does it, but my roasting pan is small and the roast won’t fit if I don’t cut off the ends.”

Or so the tale goes, and some versions have the too-small-pan spanning more than a couple of generations. It’s a classic, “We’ve always done it this way” example. An act of necessity for one poor cook unable to afford an appropriately sized pan decades ago is passed down from mother to daughter until someone dares ask “But why?”

I’ve been thinking and studying a lot about characterization. How to make my imaginary friends come to life on the page. How to avoid cliched “paper people” and create a human that stays in your head for a while. I started brainstorming ways to make my characters come alive. Some of those ways lend themselves nicely to blog posts. Because if we really think about it, the methods of developing fictional characters aren’t that different from developing our own character. (Except I haven’t figured out how to give myself super powers yet.)

We connect with fictional characters when we see bits of ourselves in them (be they the protagonist, the misunderstood sidekick, or *gasp* the antagonist). We’ve experienced something similar. We believe something similar. We’ve felt what they feel. We rationalize and make excuses like they do… the list goes on.

(Whether we like those bits or not is altogether a different topic. See next week’s post…)

The next character I create will go through this. Have his world turned upside down because what he’s believed for generations—and what his family had believed—is challenged. It’s not a new idea by any length, but it does open unique story opportunities. Even if the story isn’t all about the “But why?”, adding that bit in there deepens character’s motives and makes him relatable.

Most of us have had our systems challenged. And I don’t know anyone who enjoys this experience—it drives us out of our comfort zones.

And if you don’t know what this feels like, spend the day with a four-year-old. Or a teenager. Your motives and methods for everything you say and do will come under scrutiny.

How many of our actions, intentional or habit/reflex, are based on unexamined assumptions?

Because someone taught us how to do something a certain way and now that action is engrained?

Because someone told us something and we believe it and adopt it as truth without question?

Because, well, maybe we don’t even know why we do things until we stop and ask the words (or until a four/fourteen-year-old asks the words), “But why?”

And if you do stop and ask, or it’s demanded of you to give an appropriate answer to a child, and your answer is “just because” or “that’s the way I’ve always done it,” maybe it’s time to examine your assumptions—whether they be behaviors or beliefs.

What is at my character’s foundation that makes him who he is? What’s at your foundation that makes you who you are? Why do we do what we do?

What’s my foundation?

And is that foundation built of sand? Stone?

Or are those “foundational assumptions” simply bubbles filled with the hot air of those “wise ones” who’ve gone before and “ain’t never did it no differnt…”

Thank you for hanging out for a bit. Check back on Mondays for a new blog or revisit older post on my Archive page. Don't forget to come back on the first Friday of every month for a free fictional short, and be sure to visit my Amazon page.