Know Thy Self
Most of us avoid doing anything out of character. We don’t want our routines to get broken. If our lives have to change we want it to be so gradual that we don’t even notice. If we’re stuck in a rut we try to make ourselves comfortable with it. It doesn’t matter if every day feels the same, we choose to live in Groundhog Day scenarios because it’s what we know.
We predict how we’ll manage in tough spots, overlooking the difference between our ideal selves and our applied selves, between our routine self and our chaotic self.We gossip about other losers who fell apart under pressure, patting ourselves on the back for how we assume we’d react differently. We’d like to believe we wouldn’t panic from the comfort of our love seats.
We assume telling people who we are is the same as being it. We write off jealousy until we’re in a position to feel it. We write off envy until someone close to us has nice things. We write off our anger until ours has a target.
When we do something we’re philosophically opposed to, we’re not acting out of character. We’re realizing that our thoughts and our actions aren’t aligned. That contradiction is part of the human condition.
Good writers put characters in challenging situations that explore their reactions, where their ideal selves don’t fit, and their true identities are revealed. They did this by recognizing this conflict within themselves.
The More We Know Ourselves The More We’ll Know Our Characters
Writers draw material from life experience. The smart ones know better than to insert their precise past into their fiction, instead they draw from emotional responses they felt at the time. The more naked and embarrassing these responses are the more authentically they read.
For those of us who do everything we can to look on the bright side of things we miss the part of ourselves lurking in the shadows. Most people perform mental gymnastics to avoid seeing it. They tilt their head away to see themselves in a positive light. They’re blindsided every time they react badly to something.
Writers can’t afford to look away from their darkness. They need to harness it.
Jot down a list of times you think you’ve overreacted, when you brought a fight to a conversation, when you took bad news really badly, and when you let your mask slip.
When you log your lapses in judgement you do something good for yourself and something good for your writing. You gain an inventory of things you react badly to. You can either avoid those triggers, learn to confront them productively, learn to cope with them, or expose yourself to them in smaller doses until you’re comfortable. Directed self examination has the power to teach you the difference between obsessive thought processes and problem solving.
This log also helps your writing by giving you insight into the human condition. Your stressors are weights you can put on your characters’ backs. Use that weight on your shoulders to build dramatic tension. Use your obsessions to fuel your characters’ motivations. Passionate characters, even ones motivated by baser instincts, are compelling. Your bad reactions can be turned into the fuel to further scenes.
Conflict is the heart of drama and rational decisions don’t make for good entertainment, so let’s make our characters get unhinged. Make a list of times you reacted poorly to a situation, then put one of your characters in the same situation and dial their response up to eleven.
Lure your characters into a game of truth or dare, serve them too much alcohol, and loosen their tongues until they fall into the dirt. Any actor will tell you that tell off speeches make the best monologues. There’s something cathartic about seeing someone else say what they feel with reckless abandon.
Sometimes people have excess emotions and they have to unload them. It doesn’t matter if this is the opportune time or place. It doesn’t matter if sharing will benefit anyone. They’ve held something in for so long and they want the world to know how hard it’s been. Watching this play out gives the audience a fleeting feeling of freedom.
The truth is when someone does something out of character, it isn’t. It’s just that our perception of their character was based on limited information. Just as we have our ideal selves audiences have idealized versions of the characters we set before them. We try to see the best in people, even fake people. Don’t let us. Stories shouldn’t simply change a character’s routine. They should change the audience’s perception of the characters.
That’s why it’s import to plant signs of these character traits earlier in the story. Give the audience subtle clues that the character has feelings they themselves aren’t willing to acknowledge. Hint at past reactions the character tries to downplay. Show how the character is attempting to manage the stressors they do acknowledge, and foreshadow things beyond their control.
The audience might miss these clues upon first reading, but they won’t feel betrayed when the character has a sudden explosion of emotion. The story can even add these clues up after the fact, reminding the audience of what they might have missed when they were looking too closely on the bright side of things.
O Captain! My Captain!
We all like to think we have a fixed moral compass and that our conscience will keep us on its course. We want to believe our rudders can stand up to anything and that our charted routes will resemble the landmasses we pass, but we fail to anticipate the winds pushing our sails in directions we never thought possible. We prepare ourselves for smooth sailing and assume we’ll know what to do if we get pulled into a maelstrom. Our only expectation is that the waters stay calm and the weather remains clear.
We put our ideal self in the captain’s quarters and never question his orders. We assume he’s brave enough to stand up to temptation, but can’t remember a time when his bravery was challenged. We want to believe that our intellect is holding the wheel keeping our subordinate emotions in check. We hear about other captains who let their crews run them aground and we wonder how they could’ve ever gotten it so wrong.
When our options include risky icebergs or a stretch of mundane water we applaud ourselves for choosing long boring nights at sea. We never account for uncharted islands in our calculations, where risk looks like a once in a lifetime opportunity and boredom looks like it’s the only thing stretching over the horizon.
Ideas we never anticipated surface on the upper deck. They commit mental mutiny and shift us off course. Change happens so fast we’re not even sure we can find our way back. Our idealized self stands at the edge of the plank, our moral compass spins at random, and our bow dips into the drink.
It isn’t until we think we’ve spotted the shore that we realize if we can tell the difference between dry land and a mirage. It isn’t until we’re tempted by the promise of treasure that we know how honest we are. It isn’t until we’re in danger of capsizing that we know how well we cope under pressure.
We’d like to think we know how we’d react in every situation, but we don’t really know until we know.
This is my first collection of musical spoken word recordings. Each recording puts a satirical slant on self improvement, self medicating heartbreak with humor, and dropping the mic on depression. The recordings are scored with synth melodies, backing beats, and radio drama sound FX.
11 thoughts on “Use Your Darkness: How Writers’ Shortcomings Benefit Their Characters”
This must be the only time being old can have its advantages, so much accumulated weight of living on our shoulders can only make us better writers! And if most of that weight is of the dark variety…
Exactly. It’s easier to write about life when you’ve got some good miles on you
I read something recently that gives a name to the conflicts you describe. He called it ‘moral luck.’ I’ve never stolen anything in my life, but then again I was brought up in a loving family and raised to respect other people’s property. But what if I’d been born the son of Jesse James? Life would have dealt me a different hand. Even now, my moral position hasn’t been tested with the temptation of finding a suitcase with $10,000 in it. The idea that this can be used to feed stories is a new development, though. Thanks for this insightful piece.
Thanks for reading it. I think “moral luck” is going to be the phrase of the week that I try to pepper into casual conversations.
I’m getting better at predicting my own moral ambiguity. It’s the best way to resist temptation by knowing my limitations.
So true, I’ve done this with my writing and it really helps. Thanks, reblogging.
I’m doing it with a short I’m writing right now that’s essentially a truth or dare scenario from hell
Very appropriate setting to practice using your darkness. 😉
Reblogged this on The Writers' Workshop Blog and commented:
‘Draw from your own shortcomings’ – as Drew Chial would say.
Some useful ideas here – I like ‘ We all like to think we have a fixed moral compass and that our conscience will keep us on its course.’
here are some more writing tips – about avoiding platitudes –
Thanks for reading
Even if we stripped the “writer” out of this one, you’ve got some deep life stuff in here, Drew.
Funny – the overarching goal in my writing (both book and blog) is to encourage people to face the reality of themselves (as you’ve done here) and to “start where you are, not where you wish you were toward becoming a better person.” But it never really occurred to me that there are benefits – particularly to writers of all kinds – in being intentional after ugly moments with our real self, to just plain write solid material. I myself can always tell when a fiction author is writing from an emotional place that is disingenuous or distanced.
Best line of the lot: “Our idealized self stands at the edge of the plank, our moral compass spins at random, and our bow dips into the drink.” (I always appreciate your novel treatment of metaphors.)
I have to say, the idea of your opening lines (“Most of us avoid doing anything out of character. We don’t want our routines to get broken.”) couldn’t be further from how I want to approach life! It’s in character for me to do things that are out of character (a state which you do a smack-dab job of addressing in this one).
I’ve bookmarked this post and may refer to it later for a post (in which case I’ll assuredly link readers back here).