Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Character Traits

When my husband and I were first dating, we saw a comedian who, in his act, would answer his wife or his friend or whoever with what he was supposed to say, and then the tag line would be "But on the inside..." (It was funnier in person.)

So, you know those scenarios or quizzes where you're asked to describe yourself? The usual answers are along the lines of "I'm funny," "I'm kind," "I'm smart," or "I'm an excellent baker." And some, or all, of those things might be true. But every once in awhile, I'm tempted to say out loud what's on the inside:

I am prickly. I am private. I am more shy than social. I am selfish. I am suspicious, but if I come to trust you and the feeling is mutual, I'll be in your corner until the zombies come lurching home. If I feel betrayed, I might forgive but I won't forget. I struggle to stay positive and don't always emerge victorious.

Some of my best characters have those traits or something similar. (Notice I didn't say my most loved or well-liked characters. It's not easy to love someone with so much angst. Just ask my poor husband.) Those are the characters I am most drawn to in my writing - the ones seeking revenge, redemption, their places in the world. The ones who are mean and weak and selfish and confused, who are threaded with dark thoughts and fears they can't get rid of no matter how hard they try. I get in there with them and roll around in the muck. I bring it to the surface and put it on the page. I shine a light on it in the hope that maybe, just maybe, I can give those characters what I strive for - strength, confidence, friends, faith, hope. I can write their story so there will be, if not a happily-ever-after ending, then at least a positive one with a little light peeking around the corner.

How easy is it for you to write those dark characters? How do you put them on the page/screen and still make them at least relatable, if not likable? It's often the dark characters, the "bad guys," who stay with us the longest - why do you think that is? What makes them so compelling on paper/screen and not so much in real life?


  1. in real life people dont show that side, but we all have something we struggle with character wise. its good we cant read minds, i dont want to know! and actions are the loudest tellers of who we are.

    great post, and an cartoon this we had a comic about subtext (like your comedy show) so funny!

  2. I'm like that on the inside too. Probably even on the outside a little...

    So those characteristics are often infused in all my characters. I think it helps make them more real... we can relate to them better because maybe we'll all a little like that on the inside.

  3. Tara - I agree about not wanting to read minds. :) I think the trick, though, for our characters and for ourselves, is to be real and authentic without necessarily showing or telling the world everything we're feeling. We want to make sure those actions don't come across as insincere. You can not care for someone and still treat them with civility without fawning all over them.

    MJ - good point about relating to those characters. It's kind of like when a character has a zinger of a line and we wish we could've said something like that at some point in our real lives. :)

  4. I'm getting better at dark characters, I think. They can be very liberating to write.

  5. Simon - interesting! I never thought of it as liberating...

  6. I felt like I was reading a description of myself when reading about your inside self.

    I also love to write dark characters and I love dark and haunting stories. I actually find it had to give my characters happy endings, not sure what that says about me but it's the truth LOL.

  7. Julie - I wonder if we're too hard on ourselves...

    I always hope for my characters to have hopeful endings, if not happy ones. Tying everything up with a pretty bow does not work for the stories I tell, but a little brightness, a little light, is doable. :)

  8. Your post resonates with me, Madeline, because I've always enjoyed reading/watching conflicted characters. But writing them and getting the reader to feel some sort of empathy for them is a real challenge.

  9. Milo - it really is, Milo. I struggle with doing that with my characters. I might like them because I understand them but will readers feel the same way? I don't know. It's a delicate balance.

    A good recent example is GONE GIRL by Gillian Flynn - I didn't care for the main characters but I wanted to keep reading, but my husband absolutely hated them and stopped reading.

  10. I started thinking about your questions--and realized that my less-than-savory characters tend to be...women.

    Wonder what that means? ;-)

    (And congrats on your flash placing over at Writer Unboxed!Keeping fingers crossed for your win!)

  11. Cathy - as much as I like to know "why" something is, sometimes it's best not to think about it too much... :)

    (And thanks!)