Building Character: Understanding Others

I still remember the very worst book I ever read--I guess I kept reading for comedic value, in disbelief that such writing was actually taken seriously enough to get published, and maybe hoping it would eventually get better.  What made it so awful?  The characters were all bizarre, twisted caricatures of how the author apparently saw the world and other people.  They were tools for her to express her disdain and hatred of others.  They were mere mouthpieces for her political opinions.

writing tips, creating character, politics, good and bad, good writing, good vs evil
Those characters who agreed with her politics were all very, very good--courageous, perseverant, hard-working, noble, kind, generous, honest, intelligent, thoughtful, well-educated, gently spoken, and every possible good thing.

 If any of them had a single flaw, it was a token flaw or some 'virtue' disguised as a flaw in order to claim they weren't one-dimensional.  You know--like the way sites on job interviews advise us to answer the 'What are your flaws" type of question--Sir, I'm too eager to work hard!  I'm too punctual!  And I'm just too darn good-looking!

Those who didn't share the author's politics--they were all crass, nasty, vile, hateful, dismissive of others, unkind, stupid, completely lacking in any basic common decency or any humanity at all, with a burning desire to kill and hurt.  Bad breath, shifty eyes, you name it, they had it.  They were bad stereotypes, complete caricatures of the people of certain much-maligned and ridiculed areas of this country.

Not a single one of them, in the entire large-group demographic, had even a token redeeming feature.  Riiiiiiiight.

Why doesn't this work?  Because people aren't like that.  We all have our faults.  None of us are all good.  And none of us are all bad.  Because issues and ideas are not black and white.  Because entire groups of people especially are not all good or all bad.   To create such characters--or mouthpieces--is, in my humble opinion, insulting to the reader, in addition to not being very interesting.

In my reading last night at Night Writers, I read a discussion between Shawn, Amy's boyfriend, and Dana, Amy's best friend, who, at the opening of Blue Bells of Scotland , the beginning of the story, were involved in a long-running affair behind Amy's back.  Not that affairs, by definition, usually occur anywhere else.

Dana feels justified in many ways.  I would assume to many people, she's not a very nice person at the beginning of the scene.  By the end, though, I hope the reader feels a little differently, as some of her deeper feelings come out.  In fact, I think the end of the scene reflects strongly--badly--on who Shawn once was and leaves him with renewed guilt--although he is the one who has been steadily improving himself throughout the series.

This is the complexity of life.  The one who is redeeming himself is not perfect and the one who refuses to redeem herself isn't solely to blame.  I don't agree with her actions or many of her views.  I make no excuses for her betrayal of her best friend or her refusal to issue any sincere apology that doesn't involve the word but....

BUT...(sorry, couldn't help myself--but (oops, there I go again) given the nature of Shawn and Dana's past interactions, there are worse puns floating around begging to be heard.)  Wait, I'm getting off track.

BUT...People are complex. People are interesting.  People have backgrounds.  People have stories.  People have reasons they ended up thinking or believing as they do.  Sometimes they act out of pain.  Sometimes they struggle deep down with emotions and past trauma that we don't know about.

We learn a lot if we listen.  I believe we are called to have love and compassion for others, as human beings.  And this transfers into our writing.  If we view people as good or bad, if we despise others, if we slap a label on them and thus feel we can dismiss them as bad and unworthy, this is likely to come out in our writing as flat, stereotyped caricatures that don't ring true, or even become laughable to many readers.  If we listen to others and try to know them instead of slotting them into categories, our characters will be more real, more believable, more powerful.

A simplistic example springs to mind: someone who wanted to write a piano teacher slapping a student's knuckles with a ruler.  This was clearly someone who hadn't had piano lessons in the last 50 years, if ever.  To have written such a scene, set in the present day, would be laughable to any piano teacher, and I suspect most of them would have rolled their eyes and quit reading, because it's ridiculous and because the suspension of disbelief was destroyed.

We do the same thing when we put presumed, but false beliefs, into the heads of characters who are our 'enemies.'  Those who live there, so to speak, will likely roll their eyes at the completely unrealistic portrayal of themselves, which shows the author doesn't actually know a single person of this demographic--and didn't care to--and close the book.

The Writing Prompt Today:

craft of writing, bring characters to life, create rounded characters, learn to write
Write about someone who sees life very differently from you, and show their good side.  Give them the benefit of the doubt.

Explore good and legitimate reasons why they may hold the views they do.  Show them doing a kindness for someone else.

Bring this person to life.  Let them breathe in living color, good and bad, rather than single shades.

Look at everything around them-- not just one issue by which you may have originally defined them.

Describe their background, their current friends and job, what past experiences may have brought them to their current beliefs, whether they once thought very differently and if so, what changed.

What does this person do for fun, for hobbies, for social groups, for charitable giving?

This can become an over-simplification, too, of course, but I think it's a good exercise in writing deeper characters, and perhaps, dare I say it, in life?

Thoughts on Craft:
  • Talk with people, get to know people, listen to people
  • Read books or forums that relate to your character (forums they might be on regarding their hobbies, interests, profession, struggles in life--alcoholism, depression, etc.--faith, or politics)
  • Read forums that address a topic from both sides of an issue.  In Dana's case, read forums for betrayed spouses, and also forums where 'the other women' talk about their experience.

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Creating Setting, Using the Senses, and Creating Character
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  1. Insightful and timely! I love the prompt, and especially love and appreciate your comments leading up to it. Thanks, Laura!


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