Karen Horney nailed it. We oft deceive ourselves for the sake of self-preservation. Trust me. I’m a pro when it comes to rationalization. I can deceive myself into believing anything using the simple powers of reason. I’ve almost talked myself out of giving up on algebra. Because it takes away from my writing and I’m a born writer. In fact, I’ve suffered from severe insomnia and it’s probably because I’m not writing because I’m spending so much darn time on stupid numbers that don’t mean anything to my life. Besides, in the end, it’s just a thousand dollar lesson that I was born to be a writer.
This power of self-deception is strongest in dealing with personal relationships. It’s easy to rationalize ignoring your bosses orders because he truly is a stingy miser who won’t give me a pay raise. Or that dinner out when the money really isn’t there and should be paid to the cable company. Dab-nabit! You work hard for that money and it was a long day. It’s hard to cook when your exhausted from ignoring your bosses orders. Besides, it’s good bonding with your child.
Probably the most effective use of rationalization comes in the dating world. The last boyfriend didn’t quite work out because…well, he was a bum anyway. It’s not like he was ever going to be an effective provider working as a used-car salesman. There are obvious reasons why his last relationship didn’t work out. With his lack of openness and honesty. He had no right getting to know my son and making the kind of promises he did when he had to know that he was only involved for fun. Besides, he drank way too much.
It had nothing to do with me.
Whether or not it’s true is neither here nor there. It’s what we do. I love listening to women console another after a break up. He doesn’t know what he’s missing. Giving up the best thing he ever had. I never liked him anyway. He looked at me funny. Well, honey, (said with a pat on the knee) it’s his loss, not yours. You deserve better, and now you are free to meet that someone who’s going to see how wonderful you are.
We rationalize. That’s what we do. We rationalize the hurtful things our parents did. We rationalize broken hearts. We rationalize bad choices. Humans rationalize. Animals don’t. Vulchers don’t sit around after a long day of scavenging and say to each other, “Well, he died anyway. No use in letting him go to waste.”
Characters rationalize too. It’s part of internal dialogue that brings them to life. Gatsby rationalizes to the point of delusion about Daisy in “The Great Gatsby“. Mohsin Hamid’s character, Changez, struggles trying to rationalize his feelings after 9-11 in “The Reluctant Fundamentalist“.
Rationalization can be a powerful tool of description when introducing a character. Much more than hair color. It gives insight into the struggles that a character fights, often reflections of their experience. See…Description by Experience.
Like I had a chance in hell. He met my family and knew the chaos that pulsed through my genes. Alcoholic mother, fat and lazy sister, father in the penitentiary for grand theft. Dad was never mentioned and the Brighton’s never asked, but I was sure they knew. Christian code wrote it on the grime coated window.
Lisa’s pretty good at rationalizing her situation. Her mother’s “inability” to work. Her sister’s laziness. Her father’s incarceration. Her own choices, particularly when it comes to Brian. In this passage, she’s rationalizing the Brighton’s withdrawing their charity and Brian’s sudden disinterest in her.
Right or wrong, she’s human. Like the rest of us. We rationalize and that gives us one more tool in making our characters real. What do your characters rationalize? What bad situation are they talking themselves out of? What self-deception do they practice? Give your readers a taste of it and they will thank you.
It’s always nice to know that someone else in the world deceived themselves with the same reason you did. It’s good not to be so alone. Thank you, books.
Now, I’m going to deceive myself that it’s not one in the morning with a little rationalization. I don’t work tomorrow. I deserve a solid night of writing. After all, I’ve been struggling with three weeks of insomnia without it.
How do I rationalize the large glass of Cabernet Sauvignon beside me? I’m sure I’ll figure it out.