A Big Difference Between Film and Fiction
In film we sympathize with characters that are introduced in vulnerable situations. In fiction we get to see that vulnerability underneath their skin. In film we judge characters by their actions. In fiction we get a broader sampling of information. In film a character’s charisma makes up for their shortcomings. In fiction a character’s rationality makes all the difference.
Characters in novels shouldn’t be burdened by the same like-ability standards as characters in films. Characters in movies have a few hours to get their motivations on screen. Characters in novels can slow time down to give us a play by play of their every thought. This is why villains in text tend to make more sense than their big screen counterparts.
Writers Should Stretch the Limits of Empathy
You’d be surprised with what people can empathize with, things they’d dislike characters saying on screen, but could understand them thinking on the page. These are universal conditions that often go soft spoken.
We all feel like we have the right to be angry when we’re in traffic. When we have the right of way we’re mad at the asshole behind us honking as we’re trying to turn. When we’re stuck behind someone who’s turning we’re mad at all the opportunities they’re missing.
We all fear judgement. When we’re surrounded by people with more academic experience we fear they’ll see the gaping hole in our intelligence. They’ll catch us rephrasing their statements, citing dated information, or misdefining terms.
We’re all jealous of someone else’s success. We watched them prepare for the opportunity and still have the audacity to call them lucky.
A character in fiction can have terrible thoughts and still be a good person so long as their actions are decent. Those terrible thoughts, that seldom find their way onto film, might help us relate to them.
Let Your Character Keep It Real
If you’re writing in the first person, or third person omniscient, you should give your audience a peek inside your character’s inner workings. If your character’s conscience is always clear it will alienate the reader. Your character shouldn’t think the way they’d speak in a job interview. They should feel free to put their worst foot forward, to let it all hang out, to embarrass themselves.
Don’t just give us a record of what is actually happening to them. That’s what we get from films. Frame scenes through your characters eyes, through the patterns they recognize. Project their biases onto every surface. Fill our ears with their sneaking suspicions.
Don’t tell it like it is. Tell it like your character believes it to be.
These Aren’t Your Secrets
People who know you can differentiate between your beliefs and those of an embarrassing friend. Astute readers know the difference between the subject and the author. If a character’s nature is established early on you shouldn’t feel like you’re putting words in their mouth. They should have a strong urge to speak their mind as it’s been defined.
Even when a character is rooted in you allow them to do things you’d never do. Let your audience think an embarrassing character moment is rooted in reality.
It’s good if a reader thinks, “Only a genuine psychopath could write from a killer’s perspective so convincingly.” or “Only a serial cheater could rationalize betraying their lover like this.” or “Only a sexual deviant would know the lingo for this nuanced fetish.”
If readers are trying to figure out what makes you tick then you’re doing something right. It means your characters feel real.
Here are some other methods for showcasing your character’s flawed nature.
It’s easier for people to rationalize selfish decisions than stupid ones, even when they’re one in the same. If your plot needs your character to go somewhere they’d be smart to avoid, you need to make the reward outweigh the risk.
How do people always rationalize cheating on their spouses?
“I never wanted to hurt anyone.” Which is another way of saying, “I didn’t think I was going to get caught.”
Make the devil on your hero’s shoulder more articulate than their angel, at least until the climax of the story when the angel drops the mic on them.
Use Logical Fallacies
I’ve linked to yourlogicalfallacyis.com as a tool for arguing with trolls online. Now I’m recommending it for another purpose. Look through some of these poor arguments: the straw man, the slippery slope, and special pleading. Now find one for your narrator to use in a fit of anger. Your hero might be a smart person, but it’s hard to think rationally in the heat of the moment.
Make the holes in your hero’s argument obvious. This will create dramatic irony. The audience will know something your hero hasn’t come to terms with. Your hero should realize their fallacy when they go through a change by the end of the story.
Plan a Crime
Some of the nicest characters plan murders, they just don’t follow through on them. They confide in the reader about what they’d like to do to their bosses, their in-laws, and their own children.
Think of this as an intrusive thought that’s lingered in your character’s imagination. It’s not something they’d commit to doing, just a dark fantasy they escape to now and again. There’s no one in the character’s life they can confess this to without coming across as a homicidal maniac. So they tell you.
We all know jealousy isn’t something to be proud of. So we code it when we vent. We’re envious of the beautiful person who nabbed our position. We just happen to notice how little they did to get what we wanted. We have a front row seat to an injustice. Sure that injustice came out our expense, but we witnessed it all the same. If anything we’re the most qualified to give criticism.
Perpetually envious people aren’t particularly likable. Socially adjusted people know this, but jealousy is just part of the human condition. The more a character works to rationalize their envy the more they reveal how much it consumes them.
Talking dirty isn’t just about kissing and telling, it’s about letting your character share their sexuality with the reader. A timid character might confess to a crush, while another might walk you through their bedroom fantasy. There’s a way for characters to do this without coming across as smarmy.
Just as characters can launder their envy to build a better rapport with readers characters can launder their lust with innuendos and euphemisms. Feel free to be unambiguous. Just give your character a big heart to go with their libido. It’s hard to hate someone who intertwines their sexual fantasies with their emotional ones.
I love characters without filters, characters who think it like it is. If they spoke everything on their minds they’d come across as creeps talking about their exes on first dates, but that’s not what they’re doing. They’re gossiping with their most trusted confidant. They know the reader is someone who gets them. The hero over-shares because they count the reader as their friend.
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