Understanding human behavior in military operations has long been of interest to defense analysts. For several decades I made a living performing analysis and simulation of pilot performance and air combat for the Air Force. Our primary focus was on simulating the human decision making process. One process model we used extensively was comprised of four steps: 1) observe, 2) assess, 3) decide, and 4) act, or OADA. The general idea behind this and similar models is that, when we humans perform rationally, there are clear steps we follow. The first is to observe the situation around us; the second is to assess any changes in our situation; the third is to decide what action (if any) to take if a situational change occurs; and the forth is to take the selected action. Naturally, this is a continuous process we humans “run” in our minds over and over again while we’re awake. The most basic instinct of humans is survival and this process model supports the survival impulse.
As an illustration, suppose I’m walking down the left side of the street when I observe a truck coming towards me on the same side of the street. I initially think nothing of the truck, of course, unless I observe that it is being steered erratically. If its motion is erratic I quickly assess this information and decide to smartly walk toward the left, away from the street and to a nearby brick building. The truck now has my full attention as I observe its continued erratic movement. I move faster and notice an entrance into the building that I can duck into. I observe that the truck has not reduced speed and is now coming over the curb, heading in my general direction. As it does I run into the recessed entrance and try the door. It opens and I enter just as the truck’s front corner hits the front of the brick building and it starts to buckle. I jump as far into the building foyer as I can and, seeing a woman behind a large custom desk, yell to her to take cover as I crawl for the left side of the desk.
In the above example it is obvious that I’m continually observing the situation, assessing what has changed, deciding what I should do about it, and then doing it. When writing about a protagonist (or any character) in a story I find it useful to keep this OADA model in mind. Why? Because I can logically consider what my protagonist is thinking about and what s/he is doing. If nothing much is going on around him, he may be thinking about his goals (wants) and the plans he has developed for reaching them (foreshadowing). Or he may be mulling over events of the past (giving the reader a taste of backstory) or formulating questions or issues that will serve to guide his future activities. In other words, there are many things our characters can be doing and much of it goes on in their minds. Why is this so important? Because knowing this information gives the reader clues as to the character’s worldview and what meanings they associate with what situations. For example, a woman may be in a dangerous situation but feel that as long as her pet Rover is with her she can fend off any attackers. The reader may understand and even relate to this viewpoint but may have a different assessment of the situation. The point is the reader understands why the woman acts the way she does.
There is much more to say about the OADA model and ways to expand it to serve as a tool to help us writers navigate character behavior. This is the first of several posts I plan to write on the topic so stay tuned.