Your Character is Wrong
Let me paint a picture. We’ll discuss it, then I’ll show you how your character is wrong.
You wake up in the morning. What do you do? Brush your teeth? Take a shower? Make breakfast?
Why not brush your dog? Take a nap? Make dinner?
Sounds silly at first, but what happens is that you make choices. You decide what is important to you at every moment, weigh the alternatives, and make a choice. At every moment of life, we have an infinite number of choices. We think we know what the consequences are of each choice. If we brush our teeth, then we have clean breath and an unkempt dog. But if we brush the dog, then we have a nice puppy but bad breath. Choices.
Some choices are not so obvious, especially when emotions are involved. These are the decisions that people spend a lot of energy thinking about. Whom do we ask out and how? When do we break up or quit our job? Which college is the right one? Should I enlist? People agonize over these choices because the consequences of a bad choice can be painful if not outright deadly.
I read a snippet of someone’s WIP the other day. It included a line something to the effect of “She hated the way he made her feel.”
Here’s the thing. There are no wires attached to your brain and no strings attached to your arms and legs. Nobody is controlling your emotions through some external means. You have eyes, ears, a nose, a tongue, and skin. All these organs generate electro-chemical impulses that are fairly indistinguishable from each other. These signals enter your brain which then decides what those impulses mean. A bunch of neurons fire in your ear, which activates your brain, which interprets those impulses into words, which (according to your X years of life on Earth) you decide means someone is saying something, and that something is hurtful. You’ve wired your own brain to decide what something means. No one can make you feel anything. You’ve chosen the meaning based on your experience and your beliefs about that person and the words that are said.
Here’s the next thing. You decide how your brain is wired (mostly). Your brain is not a computer with X number of transistors. You decide how to decode external stimuli. You make choices based on these stimuli. At some point, you may suddenly make a new choice, given the same external input. How does this happen? You choose to interpret things differently. The process in which you choose new interpretations is called learning. It’s the process in which people change and grow. Inside your brain, the neurons are always changing, creating new connections and severing old ones. You decide which connections are important, and which ones you choose to drop.
This is the key to successful story writing. Your character starts out with a certain world view. They make the same choices given the same external stimuli. This view does not serve them, given an unbiased external analysis, and especially as the story moves forward and they face greater and greater obstacles. Characters are locked into their world view because it’s all they’ve known, and they’ve rejected anything outside this view. They fight to protect this world view, because what does the alternative mean? What would it mean to find out that their belief system is incomplete or flawed? What would they discover if those same hurtful words they hear became helpful or even a revelation?
It would mean that they were wrong. Nobody wants to admit they are wrong, or ignorant, or mistaken. More than that, they would have to see that they were wrong about their interpretation of the most important event of their lives, whether this event happens in the backstory or in the first act. Their conclusions were wrong, and every choice they made based on this conclusion was probably based on faulty logic. The best episode on the TV series “Happy Days” is when The Fonz(Henry Winkler) has to apologize to Richie Cunningham(Ron Howard). He’s established his entire world view on being “cool”, or being tough and unrepentant. He must learn that even the great Arthur Fonzarelli makes mistakes. He finally explains, “Cool is knowing the difference between right and wrong and doing what is right with guts.” He has a new interpretation of the word “cool”. He was wrong, and once he realizes this, his whole life changes and he now has the power to conquer his foes.
A good story should rip apart the character’s world view. But characters shouldn’t go down without a fight. The biggest and most important battle a character fights is not with the antagonist. The villain is simply there to point out the character’s weaknesses, to show them where they’ve been wrong. In fact, there’s no way to defeat the villain while clinging to their old world view. The villain uses this knowledge to their advantage. It’s not until the character learns a new interpretation of their defining event and beliefs that they can defeat the villain, and the old demons in their head. It’s the moment where they say, “I’m not this weak/boring/unlovable/unworthy/untalented/indecisive/fearful person. I’m a mighty/fascinating/cherished/deserving/inspired/assertive/brave man/woman and I’m kicking ass!”
So here are the questions you should ask yourself when reviewing your story:
- What critical event occurred in your character’s life (usually in childhood) and what decision did they make about themselves based on that event? How does it affect their world view?
- How does this negatively impact them in the present (the start of the novel)? How does it hold them back?
- How does this world view impact their ability to work through the central crisis of the novel?
- What do they learn about this critical event in their past? What new interpretation do they have? How does this affect their choices moving forward?
- How does this help them confront the antagonist and prevail in the end?
I’m going to answer these questions for Dawn in Dawn’s Rise in the comment section. I’d love to hear how your characters change too.
o What critical event occurred in your character’s life (usually in childhood) and what decision they make about themselves based on that event? How does it affect their world view?ReplyDelete
The most traumatic event in Dawn's life up until now occurred when she was ten. An automated drone fell out of the sky and killed her mother, and she saw the whole thing. She was thrust into the care of her Aunt, not much more than a child herself. Dawn decided that life is out of her control, and that she needs to protect herself from pain and unpleasant thoughts as much as she can. She also feels responsible for not warning her mother, so she tries to become her mother in a sense by taking up her mother's life goals and take care of her mother's sister.
o How does this negatively impact them in the present (the start of the novel)? How does it hold them back?
She's unwilling to make changes in her life. She just treads water. She's burdened by the responsibility of caring for this Aunt who takes advantage of Dawn's feelings of responsibility. She's afraid to step outside her normal life.
o How does this world view impact their ability to work through the central crisis of the novel?
Dawn is reluctant to take up the mantle of the Hero. Her visions and the disasters remind her of her personal disaster so she wants no part of it. Rose becomes a huge distraction instead of a key ally.
o What do they learn about this critical event in their past? What new interpretation do they have? How does this affect their choices moving forward?
Dawn learns that her mother's death was no accident. She realizes she had no control over the situation, but she can do something about it now. She learns that Rose needs to lead her own life. She must be willing to endure pain, especially the pain of her mother's death which she suppressed for years.Dawn realizes she does have control over her destiny, that things happen for a reason, even the disasters. She decides to take action, that she can make a difference. She doesn't have to be her mother anymore.
o How does this help them confront the antagonist and prevail in the end?
Dawn riles up the antagonist and stays cool herself. She knows the secret her mom died to protect. She uses that to her advantage. The antagonist can't hurt her any more, because Dawn's survived the pain of the truth about her parents, and nothing the antagonist does can hurt her.
These are some great questions, and to be honest with you I think that I'm going to have to sit down and puzzle over them for a day or so. If you don't mind I would like to answer these questions for Raising Kain in one of my next blog posts. I'll be happy to link to this post, and leave a link to the post in the comments here.ReplyDelete
I also have one question about the questions. What happens if your story is about a child, and therefore they have very little (six years as a matter of fact) in which they could develop those mental prejudices. Never mind, I think I have that one answered all ready.
By the way, wonderful post.
I think I have to blog this and link it, too. That'll be my first project in the morning.ReplyDelete
I'm looking forward to the responses.
Children learn pretty important lessons early in life. Note that the "critical event" doesn't have to be a plane wreck. It could be a dog growling or a bad storm. A child could be frightened by storms when small, but grow to enjoy them.
I just realized why your "name" seemed familiar. I loved your hook. You have a great site and I'm looking forward to reading Dawn's Rise!ReplyDelete
Andrew, these are all great questions! I just recently did this in a character development workshop for Paige and Dexx, my mc's in my paranormal thriller. I haven't done this for Riley and Kat, my mc's for my YA yet. I'm going to have to find the time to do that. It'll be so much fun!ReplyDelete
A very good post and very interactive. Nice job!ReplyDelete
A good story has to involve conflict - whether that conflict is internal, external or both. Nobody wants to read about someone's ordinary day. Most of us live those all the time - writing is an escape from ordinary, without all the bumps and bruises.
One other thing, the sentence “She hated the way he made her feel," is not good writing either. The reader experiences nothing from it. It’s better to writing something like "She nearly bit the side of her tongue off when he told her she was fat for the thousandth time." Then the reader feels her anguish directly.
Great post. Insightful and informational.ReplyDelete
Hey, Lapetus999, I have answered your questions in my post Too Lazy Tuesday, and I have even nominated you for a Kreative Blogger award. Enjoy.ReplyDelete
Great tips on character development. I look forward to seeing more of your blog.ReplyDelete
Y'know, my mother always tried to tell us that no one else can make you feel anything.ReplyDelete
My sisters can still make me madder than anything ;) .
(I was going to answer your questions, but the comment post won't let me cut and paste. How rude.)
MamaB: Not sure why it won't cut/paste. If you email it to me I can post it for you :)ReplyDelete
No one can make you feel anything, but you certainly can expose your triggers and let people manipulate you with them. You still control what sets you off. It can be really hard to change your reactions though. All I'm saying is that it's possible.
Ryan: Thanks! I've been wanting one of those. I'll have to share the love when I get a chance.
It is not fair to ask of others what you are unwilling to do yourself.ReplyDelete
It is not only fine feathers that make fine birds.