Thursday, December 10, 2009

Your Character is Wrong

Andrew Rosenberg is an aspiring author hailing from the Sasquatch-infested woods of the Great Northwest. He is currently working on his latest WIP, a Steampunk novel known as Steam Palace, in which his main character uncovers her family's deep dark secret and realizes she has been terribly wrong about her life and her ideals.

We'd like to thank Andrew for this guest post today. It's worth reading! You can visit him at his blog, The Write Runner.


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:

    1. What critical event occurred in your character’s life (usually in childhood) and what decision did they make about themselves based on that event?

    2. 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?

    3. How does this world view impact their ability to work through the central crisis of the novel?

    4. 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?

    5. How does this help them confront the antagonist and prevail in the end?


  1. Great post Michelle. In my novel which as you know is MG, the critical event is happening throughout the novel. But I can adapt these questions to fit. I can think in terms of how WILL this affect them throughout their lives. Because what happens now does influence them at the end of the book.

    Thank you. Thought provoking. :)

  2. Great post! Good things to think about when exploring characters!

  3. Robyn, alas, I did not write this wonderful post. Andrew, our guest for today, listed at the top, did. Isn't he great!

    I really liked Andrew's post. He posted it awhile ago on his own blog, and it helped me through some re-planning with my book.

  4. This is great stuff, Andrew!

    Also, I'm ecstatic to find another Steampunk writer trolling the waters here at The Literary Lab.

    The MC of my latest WIP, Callarion at Night, was forced to live through her mother disappearing when MC was 10. Since that time, my MC's carried a load of anger toward mom, the world, and everything else on her shoulders.

    And you're right about the antagonist not being the one who's the subject of the most important battle of the story. Well, unless you've got a tale with static characters. Which isn't as interesting anyway.

  5. *A good story should rip apart the character’s world view*

    This is going to give me heartburn and headache for a while: but in a good way. Thanks for the thought-provoking post.

  6. @Robyn: Thanks!

    @Valerie: Thanks!

    @Matt: My FMC's family is forced off their estate when she's 10 and essentially live as commoners since then. She's off to right this wrong, but it will turn out the real reasons they left are far more complicated than she thought....

    @Yat: That's the nature of Transformation. As long as the old stuff works, you go with it. Once the old ways break down, your character has to find a new way. Trying harder doesn't cut it.

  7. Andrew, very nice, thought provoking post. This post resonated with me because--at least for me--this is one of the criteria that makes a story "literary." I don't want to throw around a controversial term, but having a character that goes through an inner transformation creates depth in the story, and that depth is all I need to consider a book literary, not matter what other genre applies to it.

    Thanks a lot for writing this post!

  8. Andrew,

    Thanks for sharing your views on character-building, you have some great ideas on how to take motivations and reactions to the next level.

  9. I appreciate this post, Andrew. It will help immeasurably when I return to my revision.

    Thanks, Michelle, for posting it!

  10. Thanks to everybody for stopping by so far! I will most likely do a post in response to this when I come back from my break. Thanks for all your comments!

  11. Thanks for having me. :)

    Can't wait for your post!

  12. My story is built around turning my MC's world upside down. Everytime she thinks she has a grasp on things and found all the answers, life throws her another curve. It's all about shaping up the comfort zone- something I'm very familiar with!

    Thanks for an insightful post!

  13. This is thought provoking for sure. Andy's comments in out writing group really helped me develop my characters in my debut novel and as I continue writing.

  14. This is one of those a-ha moments for me, because it's a window into how other writer's operate. I'm always fascinated to learn how people approach stories differently. I won't belabor it here since I'm going to write a blog entry response, but I think it's awesome to see such a dramatically different approach to characterization. And to realize that it's necessary because we're starting at entirely different points. Very interesting stuff!

  15. Michelle, I knew that you did not write that post. Apologies to you and Andrew. I'm just so use to putting your name on Thursday, I did it as a reflex. Sorry. Fantastic post though.

  16. Robyn, no worries at all! I figured that you knew because you left such a great comment with your thoughts about the post. :)


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