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Permit me a quick cat anecote. Like any housecat, my cat liked to get into mischief — clawing the curtains and the furniture, that sort of thing. When I scolded her for her bad behavior (“Bad kitty!” and other brilliant disciplinary speeches of that ilk) she would get this look on her face. She’d look grumpy, resentful, and scheming — the feline equivalent of grumbling under her breath. What immediately followed was that she would go find her sister — the smaller, more innocent cat — and swat her. It happened every time. I even learned to step between them just in time, to keep her from redirecting her vengeance onto the littler cat. I had developed a whole psychological theory of what was going on in the scolded cat’s head — her picking on the smaller cat seemed to be her method of coping with the frustration feelings, a way to seek satisfaction when she couldn’t plead her case to her human accuser.

Or… maybe not. I had no way to verify that that’s what was actually going on in her little kitty brain, of course. I just used my day-to-day knowledge of how people psychology works, and projected that onto my cat.

My own anthropomorphic tendencies aside, we do this kind of thinking about other people all the time. When a busy office worker snaps over a seemingly minor comment, we think it might be because he’s stressed out. When a jilted lover lashes out in a violent rage, we theorize that her external violence might be connected to some internal feelings of betrayal.

Philosophers of mind sometimes call this “folk psychology”: the sum of all the ordinary observations, explanations, and predictions we make about how other people’s minds work. The fact that we deal with people every day, and that we know what our own emotions and thoughts feel like from the inside, means that we do plenty of armchair psychology throughout our lives. We get very good at finding psychological reasons behind actions, to the point that we can even predict how people will react in a given set of circumstances.

You’re doing a version of the same thing when you write about fictional characters. Each time your protagonist experiences some important stimulus in the world you’ve created around her, you’re using your commonsense theories of the human mind to determine how she’ll react to that stimulus. When she discovers the letter that proves she’s adopted, how will she feel, and how will that feeling lead her to action? She doesn’t act randomly — there’s a logic to it. Psychological logic. The stimulus leads to a feeling, which leads to her taking action — and of course that action eventually leads to further circumstances that serve as the next stimulus.

If your protagonist isn’t taking action, then get in her head. Get your hero off her butt and into some forward motion by setting up a chain of stimulus, feeling, and action. Create troublesome circumstances (stimulus) that will lead to troubled psychological states (feeling) that will lead to strong external behavior (action). If she’s not swatting anyone, then her psychology might be too complacent. Perturb her. Ask yourself: what emotions cause people to take action? Teen embarrassment, envy, career dissatisfaction, puppy love, economic woes, loneliness, road rage, frustration, feelings of unjust accusation? And then ask yourself: what stimuli could cause those emotions? (Maybe getting called “bad kitty.”) Use your everyday theories of human psychology to figure out what it would take to make your hero take action.

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