Thursday, October 8, 2009

Superstitions and Other Forms of Irrational Thinking

Macbeth and Banquo Meeting the Witches on the Heath--Theodore Chasseriau 1819-1856 For all its emphasis on the religious, the South is a very superstitious place. When I was pregnant with my son (living in Alabama at the time) I had people dangling strings over my stomach to tell the gender of my child, and received dire warnings that I should give my cats away because, “They’ll suck the life right outta that baby!”

I didn’t dare laugh at them.

But some superstitious have gotten ingrained in me. You should see my behavior when salt is spilled. Don’t make me walk under a ladder. I shuddered recently when my son broke his hand mirror he uses to put his contacts in. I make the sign of a cross when a black cat crosses my path (and I’m Presbyterian.) I’ll back into a car and get sopping wet to keep from having an umbrella open indoors.

This makes no sense. It’s completely irrational. But it’s become second nature to me. I won’t mess around with getting hexed!

So, in a small way, the superstitions are controlling my behavior in rather ridiculous ways (throwing salt over my left shoulder, crossing myself, avoiding construction areas.)

I’ve been playing around for a while with having a superstitious person in my books. They’re vulnerable to manipulation, I think. And they behave in unpredictable ways, which can be interesting.

I started thinking about all the irrational things that people do. When I write, I think I focus only on the believable. In fact, sometimes I’ll hear stories on the news and think, “Well, there’s no way I can write that as part of my book. My editor would say it’s completely unrealistic. Truth is stranger than fiction.”

But what about the odd things that people do? The phobias they have that prevent them from flying or from having a pet, or from being around people?

What about even eccentric habits that have gotten ingrained in people and which they’re loath to stray from? The person who always eats his supper while watching Wheel of Fortune. Comfortable habit? Or something more?

What about their past experiences that make them behave in an irrational, but understandable way—their reluctance to become intimate with anyone—taken to the extreme.

Or… their superstitions.

I think it would be interesting to play around with pushing characters in directions they don’t want to travel in. Make them take that plane ride. Tip them over the edge into pyromania from their little candle-burning habit. Turn their clutter into hoarding. Make their superstitions affect their daily behavior…or make them completely wrapped up in their daily horoscope. What kind of conflict could this cause, both internal and external?