May 13, 2011
Peek-a-Boo! I See You! Writing Fictional Characters
Do we live in a perpetual state of peek-a-boo? And what if we had no privacy veil? No moments hidden from outside scrutiny. How would we look then?
I’m pretty sure that when we watch ‘reality TV,’ little of what we take from it is all that real. There’s pretty much always a villain, a goody-two-shoes, and a bunch of folks who kind of meld together to form the less-remarkable middle. The thing is, we make our judgments based solely on carefully chosen snippets that are presented to us by the producers—clearly not a total picture.
I think the same happens in real life. If I always see you being kind and cooperative, I’m likely to hold you in high regard. On the other hand, if I’m privy only to your least attractive moments, I may not care for you, not realizing that they represent but a small portion of the total picture.
What if there was a camera rolling at all times? How would we look then? I doubt that any of us would sign up to have our every moment available for public appraisal. People, even genuinely decent people, have villainous moments. We are sometimes crabby and impatient. We lash out, curl up in fear or sadness, speak without forethought, and act hastily. We don't always look out for the best interests of others, so focused are we on what we want and need. We are sometimes lazy and shirk our responsibilities. If we were to be watched continuously, it would become clear that we are sometimes downright disgraceful.
All of us. No exceptions.
Fiction writers—good ones—understand the importance of letting their characters’ humanness show. Bad guys need to have a soft side, a pitiable weakness, something. Without it, readers won't get fully vested in the story because it will feel off—they may night be able to identify exactly what’s missing, but they’ll inherently know that something is.
The same goes for the protagonist. We can only champion their cause when we have a spark of connection—we don’t need to feel that we’ve walked in their very shoes, just that we understand how and why they walk in them. And to get that, we need to recognize something of ourselves in those reasons. We need to see the frailty beneath their strength, their uncertainty, their flaws. Their inner bitch needs to shine, if only in quick peek-a-boo glimpses. The best fiction feels like it could be reality. That it is, in fact, a true story. And one of the keys to making it real is to write people who are like you and I—a blend of good and evil, happy and sad, strength and weakness.