The last few days I've thought a lot about what motivates us to do what we do. There are the easy ones: I work to support my family. I exercise to be healthy. I clean so I don't live in a pigpen.
But what motivates us to be who we are and do what we do? This is something writers have to think about. Right now I'm writing a character who does some things that make me shake my head or roll my eyes. But her actions--crazy as they may seem--are completely understandable when you look at her past and what motivates her.
Each of us, even our fictional characters, have a history. Sure, the writer creates that history for the fictional character, but without that history, the character floats in a land of unbelievability. She doesn't ring true. What she does doesn't make sense without that anchor of back story.
Our back story is just as important. When we understand someone's back story we have a better understanding of what motivates them and why they do what they do. Understanding those motives makes things that might seem incomprehensible make more sense.
When we see someone doing something that makes us shudder, we need to remember that if we knew their back story, we might understand their actions. We might still need to take a stand against those actions or speak out in an effort to spare the damage their actions are causing, but it might help us do it in a more effective way.