by Jesikah Sundin
This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Farewell, my blessing season this in thee!
Polonius, in Hamlet
In the Elizabethan era, the audience understood Polonius’ message to mean that a well-to-do person in society could still be good to others, even if he sought his own interests first.
Words like “self” and “true” carry different meanings in our modern culture. Memes plaster cyberspace with pithy reminders. Forget the unearthed skull. It’s a kitten contemplating her reflection in a rain puddle that motivates our morale and grounds our courage. But at the heart, the aim is still for authenticity. We expect “true self” in personal relationships—and also with characters we read in books. In fact, I’ll go out on a limb and say that perhaps readers hold fictional characters to even higher standards than they do real people.
Ever read a book and found yourself annoyed when a character deviates from their personality? I’m not talking about the personal growth and development the character naturally undergoes as they battle myriad conflicts to reach their end goal. Allow me to elaborate…
Maybe she’s a total klutz and lacks the normal grace of most upright human beings. But, suddenly, she whips across the page like a ninja formed from the night, full of aerial moves, dancing in the wind, taking down bad guys without a single hair of her own moving out of alignment. If she had attended the University of Badassary for the Hopelessly Clumsy and struggled until she gained supernatural skills, I might find the character change believable. Might. Otherwise … No.
Or perhaps the character is an alpha male, a bad boy with a heart of stone. But a girl turns him into a slobbering puppy dog, and suddenly he’s this mushy teddy bear of a man, spouting poetry, all toughness melted away to beta status, heart of stone now beating as the flesh-and-blood organ it should have always been. An awakening of tenderness? Sure. Becoming the total opposite of who he was? No.
So why do storytellers unwittingly create a character arc identity crisis? I’m not sure, exactly. In my writing, however, I often find my desire to help the hero conquer their inner demons, or prematurely comfort their pain, disrupts the flow of his or her journey. My empathy eventually changes who they are to make their reaction to suffering and revelation different, more bearable. But fundamentally inauthentic.
For this reason, when writing and revising (or while beta reading for another author), I follow these four rules:
- Characters should never become a device to fit the plot, dead leaves blowing hither and dither in the windy gusts of scene changes. The plot should unfold as a reaction to the character’s true-self choices.
- Constantly ask: “What would [insert character name] do?” Some characters will react similarly. But the best stories are those with a diverse cast. For example, best friends interested in the same boy should react differently. Judy might send visual invitations with coy smiles, lingering glances, loud giggles, and more pronounced body language. Mary might avoid eye contact, even when face to face with said boy, and stutter when answering questions, her palms sweaty. Once a personality or environmental reaction is established, be consistent. Expected changes with true-self growth? Sure. Readers want that. Not the opposite.
- Break the rules only when the character needs to be “out of character.” Perhaps Mary starts wearing gaudy makeup to overcompensate for her quiet presence and boisterous friend. Judy moves to the shadows and watches the boy take notice of Mary without trying to upstage Mary. The reader gets that they are not being their true-selves and that learning this lesson is part of the journey. But if this is suddenly who they are? No. Well, except…
- Characters might change as a result of trauma or benevolence. Good guys become villains. Villains become good guys. The base personality comprising those characters should still remain the same. Think of it as editing a photograph. We can adjust the highlights and shadows. The subject true-self is still the same, just lighter or darker depending on how we want to present the image. Same is true of characters.
Struggle with wobbly characterization in your writing? How do you ensure your character is true to their own self? And not false to any man… er, reader?
AUTHOR BIO: Jesikah Sundin is a sci-fi/fantasy writer mom of three nerdlets and devoted wife to a gamer geek. In addition to her family, she shares her home in Monroe, Washington with a red-footed tortoise and a collection of seatbelt purses. She is addicted to coffee, laughing, and Dr. Martens shoes … Oh! And the forest is her happy place.
The transformation of villain to hero is particularly fascinating … and of course the reverse, too. I like your analogy to photography: good insight. Still, the most interesting villains aren’t just misunderstood (Snape, for instance), but actually transformed even as we begin to understand them (Dumbledore, for instance.) Don’t get me wrong, I love Snape. But if I’d seen more of his internal journey after Lily died, I think I’d love him more, not less. She had a hard row to hoe, there, because Snape spoke so little to Harry. Dumbledore had the grace of plenty of pages to elucidate himself.
I completely agree, Virginia! And well said 😀 The complexity of the subject (hero or villain) should always be layered, each layer peeling away for the reader as the character transforms from hero to villain or the reverse. The journey toward light or darkness, in the case of the photography metaphor, should always “show” the transformation rather than “tell” about it.