There is No Such Thing as Random

The Illusion of Spontaneity

In nature, everything on a macro scale that seems random is an illusion. Stones roll down hills in predictable ways. Rivers meander through valleys in a way that is well understood, and can be predicted by their age.

People can seem random and unpredictable as well, but when they do, it is because you have incomplete information about what is driving them.

In fiction, nothing can be random. You must have a reason for everything that happens, every action every character takes, even the most minor. You cannot afford to pretend that things are random.


Cause and Effect

When we are very young, we learn that things happen for a reason. And I don’t mean that in the “God has a plan” way, but rather in the “Physics has a plan” way. If you drop a rock, it falls, because gravity. If you aren’t watching where you’re going when you’re driving, there’s a good chance you’ll hit someone, and if you hit someone, things will be damaged, because kinematics.

It works for psychology as well. If someone screws you over at work, he doesn’t do it because he wants to screw you over, and he doesn’t do it randomly. He does it because he gets something out of it. If your partner cheats on you, it isn’t because they wanted to hurt you, but rather because in that moment they liked the other person more.


The Role of Complexity

Things, especially in psychology, but also other things, look random because of incomplete information. They look random because they are complicated.

Why did you get into that car crash? Because you and the other car were in the same location at the same time. Because you chose to look down at your radio at the exact moment you entered the intersection. Maybe you and the other person are only entering the intersection at the exact same time because one of you forgot a paper on your desk and had to go back for it. Maybe if you had played a song that was 10 seconds longer than the one that was playing, you wouldn’t have had to check your radio for another 10 seconds and would have avoided the accident. If you had gotten further without your paper, it would have taken you longer to go back for it, and you would have avoided the accident.

Why did Martin throw you under the bus at the staff meeting? Because you had a shared responsibility, and both of you blew it, and he needs to get promoted because he’s got more mouths to feed and anyway, he’s really a good person and this experience will make you stronger, so it’s actually like he’s doing you a favor. People actually think like this. But you can go back further. Why didn’t the pair of you meet your obligations? Maybe you didn’t feel like working late. Maybe a critical piece of information was misfiled and you couldn’t find it in time. Maybe your customers were uncooperative.


What This Means For You

As a fiction writer, you cannot afford to ignore the reasons why things happen. While we feel sympathy for a character to whom bad things seem to happen constantly for no reason, we feel more and better sympathy if there is a reason why the bad things are happening.

We feel better when there is someone to blame. We feel better when seemingly meaningless choices are actually causing the bad things. We, as a species, deeply want to believe that the world is fair. And while, the real world is many things, not including fair… a fictional world can at least be predictable. And that is what your readers want.

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