3 min read

The whys of our ways

"And now, just like every afternoon, we're giving you—our dear listeners—the chance to pick the next song! Today we're choosing between Bruno Mars and..." the DJ's voice cracks through the static, as radio presets don't automatically adjust when driving between different municipalities.

And just like that, in the blink of an eye, three callers in a row are voting for their favourite song. A little bit of banter, a little bit of "where are you calling us from?". All part of the medium's appeal, the studio always just a phone call away.

I don't think I ever called a station. And I don't think I know anyone who has. Of course, it's not a defining personality trait, and there might be closeted, even serial, callers in my circle. But the act itself still seems strange, requiring some explanation.

Let's dissect the act of calling. Presumably, you're sitting at home. Alone or with the people you like and trust. Or maybe you're riding somewhere in the passenger's seat. You hear your cue – a DJ needs your input. You either catch the studio's number or you already have it memorized. Like jingles, station numbers get etched in our memory. You turn the volume down, as there's nothing more annoying than a caller causing echo onslaught on air. You've been put through. You're live.

"What's your name and where are you calling us from?"

"I'm Inesa from so-and-so."

"Are you headed somewhere fun?"

"We're going to the seaside for the weekend."

"That must be exciting! The weather could be better, but you know how they say – no such thing as bad weather. So, Inesa, would you care to help us pick the next song..."

Conversations like this happen many times a day across many stations. Usually they're prompted by a contest – a chance to win a branded mug or an umbrella. But winning a small prize can't be the main thing motivating the callers, right? If this were a fictional tale, a question would loom over the head of the author. And that question is "What's the character's internal motivation?"

This question hits me hard every time I'm attempting to write a story. Sometimes it hangs over my head when I'm reading a piece written by a friend or stranger. What is it that drives this fictional person forward? It's an annoying question indeed, akin to "How come you don't eat meat?" that vegetarians have to dodge at office parties.

Armchair critics and writing instructors (everyone's a writing coach these days) want you to have a concrete answer about your characters' internal motivation. Knowing the answer, they say, is key to coherence, essential to plot, crucial to writing "real" people. Without internal motivation, characters become parodies of folk, mere shadows on the damp walls of Plato's cave. But is that really so?

Flesh-and-blood people go around their day, doing all sorts of things (like calling their local radio station) without giving the question a thought. Unless they're in therapy or writing a journal.

If characters could talk, I imagine, they would look you in the eye and say:

"I don't know why I stole that silver spoon from Martha, my posh cousin with whom I had fallen out last year. It just so happened, okay? Honestly, I'm a complicated person with millions of synapses firing in my imaginary brain for no reason at all. And all you want is to reduce me to someone who acts solely because of resentment, jealousy, or childhood trauma? How simple do you think I am?"

Projecting our own introspection on others—be they fictional or real—tells more about ourselves than it does about the people whose motivations we're interrogating. "Does the person call the station DJ for a moment of connection? Maybe all they're trying to do is to fill some void. And—aha!—that's why they requested Lady Gaga's Shallow to be played next. I solved it! I solved them!" you might be thinking, and you'd be no more right or wrong than the next person.