Novels are a rich resource for examining human behavior. To be sure, human behavior is what story writing is all about. When we read a novel and see some parts of ourselves in it this makes the novel more meaningful, more real, and more relevant. We may also see character behaviors that offer insights into the behavior of people we’ve encountered.
From this we might conclude that authors possess extensive training in human psychology. It’s true there are authors who have such training but my research suggests they are a small minority. Apparently this is not a big handicap for most novelist judging by their success. However, readers must judge for themselves how well an author captures human behavior in a story. I observe that many adults have a good grasp of human behavior. Indeed, one need not be old to have encountered many human emotions in one’s self and in others: anger, sadness, excitement, elation, enthusiasm, curiosity, apathy, disappointment, hubris, revenge, and many others. Furthermore, most adults have some understanding of how people relate to each other, including displays of: respect, envy, pity, jealousy, abuse, disregard, resentment, love, and hate. Most emotions can be expressed either against things or against ourselves, or against other people.
In this post, I want to draw attention to blame transference. The word blame suggests that something has gone wrong and there is the issue of who’s responsible. The responsible party is of course the one to blame. The consequences of such blame depend on the circumstances, but a screw-up at work could result in loss of pay, status, or even the job. Our egos can also suffer when we do the adult thing and accept blame when appropriate.
Blame transference is all about people assigning their blame to someone else (or something else) who is not responsible. For example, if Sue has a lousy childhood because of her parent’s dysfunction then they are responsible. Whether Sue blames them or not, interestingly, is another matter. Suppose Sue grew up never feeling unconditional love from her mother. She might blame her mother for this – except she has another conflicting emotion: the desire to put her mother’s needs above hers in an attempt to win her mother’s praise and acceptance. Sue has confused and even replaced the underlying long-unmet need for maternal love with a here-and-now need for her mother’s praise and acceptance. An objective observer might suggest to Sue that as a mature woman she accept that the past cannot be changed and acknowledge her mother’s shortcomings (even confront her if Sue feels the need or will). Further, Sue would do well to seek praise and acceptance elsewhere. Unfortunately, there are not enough objective observers around and Sue doesn’t get the insight she needs until much later in life.
I can say without hesitation that I’ve been guilty of transferring (my) blame to others on several occasions. In general, I can say that at the time (thankfully years ago) I knew I was reacting badly to a difficult situation but didn’t realize I was “taking it out on someone else.” Fortunately, life has a way of educating us as we age and are better able to look back and see things for what they were. As a result, I now do my best to look out for potential transference situations, both in myself and the people around me.
I don’t think fiction writers give this behavioral phenomena as much attention as it deserves. Considering that it can and does cause all manner of problems in people’s lives it should be on the short list of problems for protagonists to have to deal with.