Creating Convincing Characters (Part II)

Everyone’s the hero of their own story.

How they see themselves isn’t necessarily how you see them, or how your readers will see them. In fact, as a writer, it’s fairly vital that you create a conflict here. A villain who knows he’s a villain is just a sad sack. You’ve defanged him. A villain who honestly thinks he’s saving the world? There’s conflict. And remember: conflict is what involves the reader.

The other night, some douchebag who went to school with Mr. Business took issue with a meme I’d shared. ‘Cause those memes, so serious. The text of the meme was something about, guess what, buddy, women entering the workforce isn’t the problem. He commented that he “didn’t understand.” To him, women absolutely were the problem and he wanted to tell me about that. I wasn’t…charmed, by this. His response? Absolute, balls to the walls, calling me every name in the book fury. He dug himself into a deeper and deeper hole, accusing me of everything from planting thoughts in his head (yes, really) to advancing the–still elusive–gay agenda.

After I finished being a mixture of repelled, hurt, and amused, I decided I’d turn my experience into a teachable moment. That’s when I decided to write this series of posts. Because, you see, Assholio truly did, and still does, believe that he’s on the side of right. He absolutely rejected the suggestion–made by more than one person, including my husband–that he’d said, or indeed was even capable of saying, anything offensive. Which I, kind of obviously, pointed out was a bit narcissistic. A further attack, apparently, on my part.

Whether I’m right or he is, is beside the point. I’m going to go on and live my life and he’s going to go on and live his and where we both end up’ll ultimately tell us all something about which approach to life is best. Assholio’s opinion of himself was what drove that conversation. His opinion of himself and, probably, his insecurities. Which illuminates another, absolutely vital, principle of character design: people see what you show them, not what you tell them.

Assholio could’ve sat there telling me how “tolerant” he was until the cows came home. His own, other statements rendered his assertions about his character meaningless. Likewise, when writing, your goal should be to show, don’t tell.

For the longest time, I thought “show, don’t tell” meant “think of a really wordy and complex way of hinting that this character is angry, rather than just saying ‘she’s angry.'” In reality it’s about letting the reader draw their own conclusions. Just like we all do, in real life. Like I said at the beginning, everyone’s the hero of their own story: you have to show, through the disconnect (if any) between their words and actions, who they actually are.

And this is where beta readers can be incredibly helpful. Beta readers aren’t your own personal army of unpaid editors, they’re your front line against failure. You can write for yourself, or you can write for an audience; if you’re writing for an audience, then you’d better take some responsibility for communicating with it. If they “don’t get what you’re trying to say,” then possibly you haven’t found your target audience yet but…. More likely, let’s get real. More likely, you’re just not that great of a writer yet. Don’t take criticism (i.e., your supposed hero is someone nobody can stand) as an attack. Use it as a springboard for growth.

Your beta readers might devour every chapter, they might all of them quit after the first chapter. Either way, they’re giving you feedback–both on the quality of your writing, and on your potential readership. You could write the absolute best book in the world, the true Great American Novel. Someone will still hate it. It’s when everyone hates it, including the people you think you’re writing for, that there’s a problem. We all make assumptions about who’s going to like us, our books, and everything else. Sometimes we’re wrong.

Until the beta readers come along, you’ve only experienced your characters from your own, unique point of view. And experiencing anything only from your own, unique point of view is a mistake. Learning should be a group activity, not one person lecturing at the wind.

So you can take feedback like Assholio (blocking me), or you can take feedback like an adult and use it to become more powerful. Shouldn’t your goal always be to assume your ultimate form? Whatever form that might be? When you get feedback you should, dare I say this, lean in. Embrace the positive (you’ve earned it) but embrace the negative, too. That’s the real gift. When someone’s invested enough in your success, and overall happiness, to risk upsetting you…that’s friendship. Treasure it. Ignoring your friends’ well intentioned criticisms only means hearing those same criticisms later, and from all the reviewers panning your hard work. Trust me on this, I speak from experience.

I’ll probably finish this series out, at least for now, with a third post. So let me know what you’d like it, or any other future post, to address, either here or on Facebook. My Facebook page, incidentally, gets no love at all but is awesome. I mean. If you like seeing pictures of my cats, plants, other animals, and son it’s awesome. That and this blog is only useful to the extent that it’s on point.