Wednesday, January 13, 2010

A Character Study

So here it is, Wednesday at 10:00am and I’m just sitting down to write my blog post. And while it is officially Wednesday morning here in the US, Wednesday is almost over in Australia –a fact that causes me to cringe for I have essentially missed my blog day. Oh, I know this well; I do this every week. My mind has settled on the fact that Wednesday is my day to blog, ergo, I should start blogging on Wednesday. When really I should start blogging on Tuesday and leave it up for 12:00am Wednesday. My fellow bloggers do this. They understand the concept. Why can’t I do the same? The fact is that this is a typical Kristen pattern; I did something once in a certain way thus I will continue to do it that way until I can kick the pattern. It’s a quirk. One that I understand but that may not be so clear to others.

The thing is we all have quirks, weird ways of interacting with the world. Take my husband, for example. For the past three weeks, he has been forgetting to zip his fly in the mornings (ha, he’d probably kill me for mentioning this.) Everyday I have to say, “erm, your fly??” Oh, right. To the outside world, one may start to wonder, what is up with this dude? Is he a closet exhibitionist? Super forgetful? What? But after nearly twenty years with him I know. If you tell my husband to do something, or remind him, he will not do it. Not a chance. So an experiment-- yesterday I actually told him, “leave your fly down.” What do you think happened? Yup, nice and zipped this morning. It was pavlovian. And a great example of his character.

Human beings are odd. Very odd. We act in ways that seemingly make no sense. We act out, confuse others, confuse ourselves. To write a great character, you’ve got to understand that.

Many times I’ve read crits –and not only of my own work- that say a person is acting out of character because they do something inconsistent with how they normally act. I think we often confuse acting out of character to acting out of experience. There’s a difference. Subtle but different.

In the confines of his home, my son is quite a ham. I am treated to daily performances that include singing, dancing (sometimes in the buff when he is eluding me and that clean diaper), beating drums… he is a one man show. Yet when it was time to sing for his holiday party, my one man show sat on the floor and covered his ears until the entire pageant was over. While this is probably more common behavior in children, it is hardly confined to them.

My mother sells for a living. She sells well. She talks to people all day. Yet when I broke my wrist, she would not take my son to school for me because she was terrified of having to walk into his classroom and interact with his teacher. Such shyness seems decidedly out of character for a salesperson, but it is out of character for my mother? No.

My mother is at heart a shy woman, but she in her element when she sells. She is not when faced with an unfamiliar school. And this is the thing to remember with characters; most of us act differently with different situations. We are not steady rocks of behavior. We show different faces all the time. So yes, you can have a normally confident, well-spoken woman find herself in a situation where she is suddenly shy and tight-lipped. In fact, those are the things that open up a world of depth to the character, and make us, the reader, wonder why she is acting the way she is.

Now on the other hand there is acting out of experience.

I recently started to read a historical romance in which the heroine was a wealthy vicar’s daughter and a virgin, yet within ten pages she meets a man and his look makes her…cough… “C U Next Tuesday (I just can’t write it out fully. LOL) clenched and trickled” with desire. Uhm…excuse me? Bad, bad, writing aside, would a vicar’s daughter in 1851 really think of her vagina as a c---? Really? Perhaps she might have heard that word from one of the grooms, or on the street in passing, but would she even know what it meant? Maybe. But one thing is certain; the author knows what that word means. And that is a dead giveaway of author intrusion, btw. She pulled this character out of her natural experience and spoke for the character. The writer might as well have waved a big red flag saying look at me! Never mind the fact that four more bad paragraphs down, she’s thinking of “f-ing” him. Gak! Needless to say, the book got a big ole toss against the wall. And it was not due to my delicate sensibilities. I’m not offended by the words; I’m offended by the utterly unbelievable characterization.

Acting out of character is really acting out experience. A person can do a lot of odd things. What she cannot do is know/act on things outside her realm of life experience. He cannot use supercalafragilisticexpialidocous if he lives in 1781. She cannot suddenly expound the beliefs of the Buddha if she’s never read/heard his teachings. She CAN suddenly go ape on a woman who steps on her toe in the metro if she’s had it up to here with being pushed around and acting the good girl and this innocent person’s mistake was the last straw.

As long as the reader can understand what motivates the character to act the way they do –even if it is far left of how they normally act- then said action IS within character. What a reader cannot accept is obvious writer intrusion. And writer intrusion is giving the character knowledge that falls outside the realm of what they know of life.

Having your character "act" out of turn, do odd things can give them depth -far more depth that keeping them steadily within the norm. Anyway, something to think about. :)

1 comment:

  1. Thanks Kristen! Definitely something to think about, especially since I'm still in the beginning stages of writing Rose's story, and learning about all my characters.
    Clenched and trickled??? Ew, gross!
    People think I'm being nitpicky if I point out errors like that in books, but heck, why shouldn't I demand the best out of everyone? And how did they ever get published?