Choice or Chance: The Answer Can Change Your Whole Story

Do your characters believe they’re in control of their destinies or at the mercy of external forces? The answer could change their whole outlook on the world.

It’s easy to make excuses, right?

If this article is about as entertaining as a never-ending software update, who might I blame? Myself, because I wrote the thing and should be better at it by now? Or maybe I’ll blame the Doctor Who Prom, for distracting me while I was writing this post? Or my family, for requesting I spend time with them? Or the day, for being so blazingly sunny that it reduced my computer screen to an unreadable black blob?

Exactly who or what I place the blame on says a lot about me, including my locus of control.

‘Locus of control’ is a psychological term that refers to the degree of control you believe you have over your life and environment. Are they something you have power over, through your efforts and hard work, or are they something external forces, like chance and other people, control?

Internal Locus of Control

At one end of the continuum, we have the folk with an internal locus of control. If you’re towards this end of the scale, you see yourself as the master of your own fate. You control what happens in your life, through your hard work, skills or some characteristic you possess. Good things come about because of personal effort. It’s all about choice.

  • Unsurprisingly, believing that achievement is a result of your own actions brings great satisfaction. It feels good to know that your hard work has paid off.
  • Because you believe that your actions control what happens to you, it’s easier for you to make behavioural changes in your life. If you’re under-performing at work, you’re likely to make changes that let you do better.
  • If you have an internal locus of control, you’ll probably make an effective leader because you take responsibility for your actions and recognise what you and your team have to do to improve.
  • Feeling accountable for everything that happens to you isn’t always a good thing. If you’re an extreme internal, you might try to control all situations, even those you have no influence over, which can bring a whole truckload of stress with it.
  • Accepting responsibility can cause guilt and self-criticism when things don’t go as planned.
  • Having someone or something else to blame offers a way to deflect anxiety. As an extreme internal, however, you’d heap the blame on yourself and so live with the anxiety that creates.
  • Since you’re all about controlling your own destiny, a common fear is handing over power to others. When you’re not in control, you stress out or try to regain it, through whatever means (even if that has no effect on the original situation).
  • Being unwilling to hand the reins over to others can often foster distrust in other people and their abilities. This inability to trust can lead to insecurity.
  • Finally, accepting full responsibility for your actions can result in a lack of compassion. If you’re an extreme internal, you believe you control what happens to you and so the same goes for everyone else. If someone should blame something other than themselves for an event (such as being late for work because the bus was late), sympathy goes out the window.

External Locus of Control

On the other side, if you have an external locus of control, you believe your life is predominantly controlled by external forces. This could be powerful others, such as authoritative parents, doctors and bosses, or chance, luck or fate. You often feel like your achievements, as well as your failures, are down to someone or something else.

  • By blaming external forces for things that go wrong, this buffers you from the stress, anxiety and guilt that often accompanies failure or mishap.
  • As you’re attributing success to those around you, you’re likely to be a team player, praising those you work with for their actions (even if they didn’t really do anything).
  • Because success is often accredited to others rather than yourself, you might feel inadequate and robbed of the satisfaction of a job well done.
  • This perceived lack of control in an extreme external can result in depression and feelings of powerlessness, helplessness and hopelessness.
  • If you’re an extreme external, you don’t see your own behaviours as having an effect on events and so you often don’t change when a problem arises due to your actions.
  • Others may view you as someone who never accepts responsibility for their actions when things go wrong.

Bi-Local Expectancy

As internal-external locus of control is on a continuum, not one extreme or the other, people tend to fall somewhere in between. If you have a balanced mix of internal and external loci of control, you have a bi-local expectancy. You take responsibility for events within your control and accept that you have limited or no control in certain situations.

Applying Theory to Fiction

Crafting characters

Consider locus of control when creating characters. Do they blame others rather than themselves? Then they’re probably more of an external. For example, this could be because of an authority figure, like a parent, not acknowledging that the character’s successes result from her own efforts. Over time, she has come to believe this herself.

Alternatively, does your character believe she has the power to control her life and achieve her goals? Then she’s most likely an internal. Knowing how and why your characters attribute blame can help you to understand them on a deeper level.

Cooking up conflict

How might your character’s locus of control affect how they deal with the plot? If she’s an internal, maybe she’ll take charge and approach the situation head on. If she’s an external, she might blame others and try to avoid or escape situations where she has to take on responsibility.

Once you’ve determined your character’s locus of control, look at the drawbacks listed. Could she suffer from one of these? And if so, how might this complicate or add to the plot?

Creating character arcs

You know your character’s locus of control. You know its drawbacks. Now how might the character overcome these over the course of the story? If she doesn’t trust others to do the job right, maybe she’ll learn to relinquish some control and delegate? If she believes her successes are the result of luck or other people’s influence, perhaps she comes to realise that she’s the one achieving these things and learns to take pride in her work?

Did you know that locus of control can affect how forgiving people (and characters) are of themselves, others and situations? Learn more in 3 Ways Your Characters Could Forgive… Or Not.