Infinite State Machine


Have you ever heard of a finite state machine (FSM)? It’s a term that gets thrown around when folks discuss mathematical models, digital circuits, or computer science. You’ll also see it occasionally in data networking (EIGRP uses the DUAL FSM to determine favorable routes.)

You might be wondering, “What is an FSM?” More likely, you may wonder, “Why is he telling us this?”

Perhaps it’s an oversimplification, but an FSM is basically a logical device used to compute results based on a set of conditions. They can be used to program computers to sort through a diverse array of data and arrive at pertinent conclusions or predictions. They’re called finite state machines because any given FSM can accept only the preset conditions it’s designed to consider, and those preset conditions can only be subjected to a limited number of state transitions.

I’m talking about it because people sometimes ask me questions like, “How do you come up with your plots? How do you keep character behavior consistent? How do you decide what the characters will do next? How do you keep it all straight?”

I like to tell them, “I use an infinite state machine.” Then I laugh when they look at me like I’m nuts. Despite all of the cool things I’ve done (the Rangers, bouncing, etc) I am – and I always have been – a total geek at heart. If someone wants to understand how I write, they need to understand the concept of FSMs, because I don’t believe that I decide what the characters do next. I don’t have to make an effort to keep their behavior consistent. I don’t decide what happens next. The infinite state machine does all of the work.

3 Thoughts on “Infinite State Machine

  1. I think all successful fiction writers do some variation of what you describe here. You start out with a general idea of what is going to take place and then just run with it.

    People (and characters) are 110%  products of their environments. If you understand the composition of the person, you intuitively know how they would think and act in a given situation. The fun part, as a writer, is in not knowing what each step of the trip from A to B entails until you pen it. You know he has to get there but you seldom know what he will encounter in route. Or at least, I usually don’t.

    When these “targets of opportunity” appear, to develop the character or story as you move along, that’s where the good stuff is. No one knows how or why a character reacts in a certain way except the character. As the writer, you are more like a referee at a sporting event. You have no idea which play will be run beforehand, but you know all players must follow the set of rules of their nature and stay in-bounds on the field of their reality. If you allow them to play outside the rules or bounds, the crowds will boo you.

    I never know what a dialog will be in advance and usually not the day to day events that just pop up out of no where. The same passage written yesterday or tomorrow would, in all likelihood, be totally different than what the reader sees. Characters often go through the mood changes of the author in other words. lol Jim may have tried to reason with this asshole yesterday, but today he just kicks his with little or no provocation. It all just depends on what mood “Jim” is in the day he was written. If that makes sense at all.

  2. Totally off the topic of the post but this struck me:

    “People (and characters) are 110% products of their environments”

    the scientific side of my brain (ummm small yes) screams: error error error

    Anyway…carry on.

    (I am just here to read and hopefully learn how to better write these self help books I am currently working on ….. lmtlsao I may have to find a ghost writer.)

    • The Scribe on December 16, 2012 at 1:38 pm said:

      I have never tried to write a self-help book. After thinking about it, I think, if I were to write one, the first sentence would read, “If you had to ask for assistance to find the self-help section, this book probably isn’t going to help you much.” ;-)

      Ok, back on topic – I never thought about this before, but the whole “nature vs nurture” argument concerning human behavior doesn’t really apply to fictional characters, since their genetics is entirely up to the whim of the author. In fact, their genetics is just another aspect of the story environment, so it is as you say; the characters truly are totally defined by their environment.

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