Using the Fundamental Attribution Error to Control Character Sympathy

Note: This entry reveals some background about a supporting character in Princess Academy. This information comes out about halfway through the book. I don't think it ruins the book for people who haven't read it, but if you're someone who doesn't want to know anything, then you should skip this post.

The fundamental attribution error is a classic psychological principle. This basic idea is this: people tend to attribute the missteps of other people to character flaws while attributing their own mistakes to circumstances. For example, if you're late to our lunch date, then I'm likely to assume it's because you're inconsiderate. However, if I'm late to our lunch date, it's obviously because things were crazy at work and the bus was late.

There are several reasons we do this. One is pretty simple: We know much more about our own circumstances than we do about others'. I know about all things that made me late (that stupid bus!!). However, if you show up late, I have no information about why. Therefore, I attribute your actions to your personality.

Writers should be aware of how this basic human tendency affects how readers feel about their characters. If a character does something bad and we don't know why, we'll definitely dislike them. However, if we know the reason, we're more likely to feel sympathy. Here's an example from Princess Academy.

In the story, priests have foretold that the next princess will come from Mount Eskel. Therefore, Miri and all the other marriageable girls are sent to a school to learn the ways of the court. At the end of the year, the prince will meet the candidates at a ball and select his bride. While all the girls have a chance to be chosen, the best student at the Princess Academy wins the title of Academy Princess along the right to wear a special dress and dance the first dance with the prince.

One girl, Katar, is Miri's main competition for the title of Academy princess. Katar is petty and mean and does her best to turn the other girls against Miri. For the first part of the book, Katar seems like the stereotypical girl-nemesis, and as a reader, I don't like her.

But then, we get to another scene. Miri comes upon Katar crying. She approaches, and Katar reveals she doesn't actually care about marrying the prince but wants to be chosen because she hates Mount Eskel. She has no friends on the mountain, and even her father ignores her because he blames her for her mother's death. Katar was vicious in her quest to be Academy princess because it was her best chance of getting out.

I was surprised at how quickly my sympathies shifted for Katar. After this revelation, Katar still had the same unlikable characteristics she did beforehand (there's a reason why she has no friends on the mountain). However, I still empathized with her and wanted her happiness.

This example isn't a perfect one because there are other factors here that also make Katar more sympathetic -- for example, the vulnerability she shows. But I think it's still true that simply knowing the reason behind an undesirable action will sway the reader toward a better opinion of the actor. Have you had an experience where your feelings about a character or person changed drastically? What caused that change?


  1. Comments were broken under the old template, but they are working now. Sorry about that!

  2. Hi Livia, Comments are working again. :-)

    This is a great post! I plan to link to it from my blog.

  3. Woot!
    So I kinda disagree with "fundamental attribution error" in this way:
    People attribute their own motivations on other people's actions. It really can be a mirror of their own psyche. Not only that, but they react in a way that confirms their suspicions.
    So when someone else is late, you're going to be pissed because you did everything to be on time. But if you're late, you know you didn't do everything to be on time. You know you're being inconsiderate, no matter the circumstances. People know all this on the inside, but they choose their interpretations.
    I do think it's an interesting concept, and it's a great way to create conflict in fiction.

  4. Iapetus -- your thought about people attributing their one's own motivations is an interesting one. I bet there's some studies of that phenomenon too -- but I'm not well versed in social psych. I'm guessing people with higher "EQ" are better at avoiding the mistake of thinking that other people think just like them. To some degree, authors have to be good at doing that -- or else all their characters end up very similar to themselves.

    And it's true that there's more going in people's heads than just the fundamental attribution error. Thankfully, people are complex thinkers and have some kind of freedom to avoid living simply by these broad heuristics.

  5. Interesting - this may have pointed me toward a solution for my nano. I want the brother of the king to be thought the bad guy, but he's really a pawn of someone else (I've got to figure that out too.).

    By keeping his motivation hidden, that may work. It'll also make his turning and starting to help the king much more believable.



  6. We have a psychological principal at our house called "Pot Kettle Black." Meaning, the things that bug you about other people are usually the things that you are bad at yourself. Consider a neat freak. Sure, slobs annoy neat freaks. But what really upsets a neat freak? Someone who "claims" to be neat but really isn't. Or, someone who is neater than them and points out their flaws. So someone who gets upset about someone else's tardiness is probably fairly tardy themselves.
    Now I'm saying this is always the case, but it's always amusing when it happens.

  7. This is a test, this is only a test.

  8. I think she's testing us just to annoy us. :)

  9. Man, can't get a break can I? Iapetus- I'll make it up to you by dedicating a blog post to you. I'm serious -- you inspired another blog post. It probably won't come out for a while, but I'll give you a heads up when it does.

  10. Congrats on your prize!!,guid,3b60e7e9-111c-44cf-a6d4-6b235bd7cf42.aspx

  11. Thanks! Although much of the credit goes to someone else. I'll explain when I finally get around to posting about it :-)

  12. Excellent article. I can see some juicy ramifications of using this principle to create specific effects by manipulating the information that both readers and POV characters have about the circumstances behind non-POV characters' mistakes. This, I will put on my own stuff-to-blog schedule. Thanks for the inspiration!

  13. Very interesting post (as ever!), thanks.