Character motivation: belief or disbelief in a genetic predisposition to violence

Is there a genetic predisposition to violence? Some studies suggest there is. So, if a defendant–a diagnosed psychopath–has the gene, should he be given a lighter sentence on the theory that he is not as morally or personally responsible for his crime as others might be? Or a stiffer one, on the theory that he is more likely to re-offend, and only a longer sentence can protect the public?

Last month, NPR reported on a study published in the August 17, 2012 issue of Science magazine that asked judges to review facts–based on a real case–then compared their hypothetical sentences. (Here’s the abstract – full access is restricted.) The judges given a report detailing the neurobiological basis for the psychopathy gave shorter sentences–an average of 13 years compared to 14 years without the report.

As the NPR reporter said, “Our sympathy for the idea that biology might be responsible for criminal behavior is powerful.”

How will that sympathy affect your characters–or not? How will their different opinions influence their thoughts and dialogue, their actions and their relationships? What conflicts will result?

Character motivation: a witness to a murder speaks about internal conflict

I talk a lot here about character motivation–what drives our characters, and how unexpected factors shape their actions. This piece from NPR’s Storycorps project, broadcast in August 2012, struck me as a powerful illustration of how a violent event can affect a person–and drive her to unexpected actions.

As a teenager, this woman witnessed her boyfriend commit a racist murder of an Ethiopian immigrant. The experience and its aftermath led her to deliberately raise her own children very differently, and eventually to get a degree in social work and start working with at-risk youth. But, she says, even though she knows she’s changing the cycle, “I just still feel like not a good person,” she says. “And I don’t forgive myself.”

Every character–like every person–has internal tensions that drive them to act, often in unexpected ways. Is a character in your story driven by a brush with violence? How has she been affected by denying it, keeping it secret, confronting it? What price has she paid–in the world, and in her own life? How does that emerge in the story you’re writing?