Character is like the foundation of a house – it is below the surface. – Anon.
One of the hardest things writing my last novel, Left, was working with a character who was so not me. This was not simply because she’s a woman and I’m not – because I’m told I actually do quite a good job with my female characters, besides my wife and daughter bestowed me with ‘honorary woman’ status years ago – no, what was so hard was because I chose to make her someone who had shut herself off from her emotions and that’s really not me. I’m not ruled by them but I do wear my heart on my sleeve a bit.
I was reading a blog recently – Sarah Duncan’s blog actually (she used to be Rodney’s girlfriend in Only Fools and Horses, the one before the one he actually married) – where she was talking about the choices that we get our characters to make and how there’s a danger of asking them to do something that might progress the story but which isn’t reasonable or believable. The example she gave was of a mother being pressurised to do a job presentation or stay home to look after her sick kid. Of course we don’t have all the facts here; we don’t know how sick the kid is. Kids get sick all the time – that’s part of being a kid – and no parent can afford to drop everything every time they get the sniffles. Additionally we don’t know what support mechanisms the mother has in place – her daughter might be being looked after by her grandmother who was a staff nurse for thirty years specialising in paediatrics.
It doesn’t really matter what the situation is, a choice has to be made and choices have consequences. Do you always make good choices? No, so why should your character? Do you ever do something out of character? Yes? So why can’t your character? When I started writing the female protagonist in my book – she’s called Jennifer by the way, Jen to everyone bar her dad – I stuck her in situations and got her to do things: go here, pick up that, put it down. I treated her a bit like a character out of The Sims. She didn’t have much of a personality. I’m not saying she had no personality just not a well-developed one.
Once the story was well under way and I could see where it was heading I then went back and looked again at the kind of person she was and asked myself if she would necessarily do certain things, or think certain things, or believe certain things, none of which would affect the action particularly because she wasn’t make those kinds of decisions, not at the start of the book anyway. An optimist and a pessimist don’t go about making a cup of coffee differently, not essentially: the optimist might sing while doing it and the pessimist might not care so much if it was done right but the mechanics would be pretty much the same: spoon in the coffee, add hot water and milk and sugar to taste. What they thought about while doing this rather mundane task would be different and this is where I started to tweak the character.
So what kind of personality did you give you character?
Good question. Thank you for that. Personalities are complex. There really is no such thing as a simple personality. Which is why psychologists have spent so long trying to devise methods of categorising personality types. One of the most popular is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator assessment and I bet many of you have sat that test if only for the sheer hell of it. The test assesses four dichotomies: Extroversion versus Introversion, Sensing versus Intuition, Thinking versus Feeling and Judgment versus Perception giving a possibility that you will fall into one of sixteen different types of which ISTJ and ISFJ are way the most popular for introverts with ESTJ and ESFJ the trendiest choices for the extroverts.
Nothing’s that simple though. Just like bones, personalities can get broken, shattered even, and, seriously, who wants to read about a healthy, well-rounded individual going about their day-to-day business? I suppose there must be people like that out there just as a non-dysfunctional family might also exist somewhere but I’m not holding my breath. Life damages us. If we’re jammy we get away with a few cuts and bruises but most of us aren’t so lucky and we will sustain any number of more serious injuries over the years which is why some of us end up with personality disorders. We all know the popular ones, the obsessive-compulsives, the schizophrenics, but there are others and, of course, how these conditions manifest themselves vary. You often hear people say, “Oh, I’m just being a little bit OCD,” or something along those lines. Can you just be a little bit OCD? Yes, you can. People don’t fit into boxes neatly. They can have mood disorders too like depression or bipolar disorder too. They’ll have varying IQs. They have unique life experiences. Basically there as many boxes out there as there are people.
I do find it helps to set out the . . . rules, is the word I’m going to go for . . . the rules that say what is normal for your character. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is a widely used manual for diagnosing mental disorders. It’s the book that tells you what you need to do to say you’re OCD. What I did with my character was look at what I’d had her do and think up until this point and see what was a good fit for her. So I had her take a few tests including the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator assessment and I very quickly realised that this list fitted her like a glove:
A. A pervasive pattern of detachment from social relationships and a restricted range of expression of emotions in interpersonal settings, beginning by early adulthood (age eighteen or older) and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by four (or more) of the following:
- neither desires nor enjoys close relationships, including being part of a family
- almost always chooses solitary activities
- has little, if any, interest in having sexual experiences with another person
- takes pleasure in few, if any, activities
- lacks close friends or confidants other than first-degree relatives
- appears indifferent to the praise or criticism of others
- shows emotional coldness, detachment, or flattened affect
B. Does not occur exclusively during the course of schizophrenia, a mood disorder with psychotic features, another psychotic disorder, or a pervasive developmental disorder and is not due to the direct physiological effects of a general medical condition.
This is the criteria for schizoid personality disorder. As you’ll see there is scope within the list for a wide variety of personalities. Up until this point all I really knew about Jen was that she was serious, cerebral and not close to her dad who has just died; she is trapped in a loveless (although not entirely sexless) marriage, lives in a strange city she’s never made home and has a teenage daughter she can’t relate to. If I could’ve summarised her in a single word it would have been ‘numb’.
My daughter had a boyfriend once who had OCD. You wouldn’t know he had it to look at him. He didn’t wear a badge or anything although you can get them. But it dominated his life. The thing is he knew he had OCD just like I know I’m a depressive and many people know what they are and they almost say it with something akin to pride especially if they’ve sat a test and “passed” – See! See! That proves it! The problem with having a diagnosis like this is that you start to see the word through OCD- or depressive- or ISTJ-coloured glasses and modify your behaviour to fit with what some textbook says you ought to behave like. I’m a depressive so you wouldn’t expect to see me playing air guitar and singing along to ‘Born in the USA’ but I can assure you I have. You’d certainly never get me doing it in front of an audience, not even my wife, although when my daughter was wee I would have been more willing to make a fool of myself for her benefit and I suspect that’s still the case.
In doing research I spent a long time wading through online forums where schizoids and wannabe schizoids hung out comparing their emotional scars. It was fascinating and also a little disturbing to see how important this label was to them. Here’s the rub though, when the new edition of Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) comes out all the personality disorders are going to be reclassified. They won’t disappear but they will be represented dimensionally rather than categorically and I could almost see the panic in some of the entries as if they were saying, “If I’m not a schizoid then who am I?” I exaggerate but I also get it. When I fell ill a while ago and it wasn’t simple depression I was frustrated because I didn’t know how to explain what was wrong with me. Essentially I was suffering from a cluster of symptoms following burnout but I didn’t have a neat buzzword to use. The simple fact is that my particular cocktail of symptoms was unique to me and any form of reductionism would be inaccurate.
But back to Jen. In Left Jen is in every scene. She is the narrator. We watch her. We hear her. And no one wants to spend that amount of time in the head of one person and them not be interesting and there’s nothing more interesting that different. We love seeing weird animals on TV and we love weird people. Here’s how Jen describes herself:
It’s okay to be sad and hungry at the same time. You shouldn’t feel guilty. Life potters on, I told myself, only I wasn’t sad exactly. Sad is a child’s word and I wasn’t a child any more. I was empty and my emptiness was crying out to be filled. I found it easier to express my emotions when I was a kid. I can remember being sad as a kid and happy and angry; the whole spectrum of emotions was available to me but as I’ve grown older everything’s turned grey. I no longer feel sadness; I remember sadness and act accordingly. Have you ever watched Dexter? If you’ve not, how can I describe him? Your friendly neighbourhood serial killer I suppose. Wait, I’ve thought of a better example: Data, from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Data has no emotions and so fakes them in a bid to fit in. So does Dexter. And so do I these days.
I fixed spaghetti and toast. The spaghetti was tinned and had meatballs in it. The bread was frozen. It had to be toasted twice because the toaster doesn’t work right.
I felt something but it was something new, a guilty version of angst: guilst, maybe. Why, with so many people having experienced loss, are there so few words that made sense of this? I felt bereft of language. Is there a word for that? I bet it’s not one of the forty-eight [emotions]. Speechless I suppose will have to suffice. I'm good with words most of the time but all of a sudden none of them seemed up to the task besides words-with-a-capital-w admit things and I wasn’t ready yet to let certain truths into my life.
Jen has sat the Myers-Briggs test. She doesn’t know it as that – it was years earlier at school – but she remembers being told she was a ‘Scientist’ type, which is INTJ. Here’s the full list:
- ISTJ - The Duty Fulfillers
- ESTJ - The Guardians
- ISFJ - The Nurturers
- ESFJ - The Caregivers
- ISTP - The Mechanics
- ESTP - The Doers
- ESFP - The Performers
- ISFP - The Artists
- ENTJ - The Executives
- INTJ - The Scientists
- ENTP - The Visionaries
- INTP - The Thinkers
- ENFJ - The Givers
- INFJ - The Protectors
- ENFP - The Inspirers
- INFP - The Idealists
She’s never been tested for anything else. So as far as she’s concerned she simply is who she is. She’s not right or wrong. She just reacts to the world her way. And that’s how most of us are. Dexter is a psychopath and what Jen is relating to is his lack of "emotional intelligence" because she is also stunted in that way. Why is Dexter that way? Because he saw his mother massacred in front of his eyes when he was a little boy; he wasn’t born that way, unlike Data who was manufactured without an emotion chip.
So what happened to Jen? There are a number of theories about what causes schizoid personality disorder but unlike some of the other personality disorders the jury’s still out on this one. One thing that does keep cropping up is a family history of bi-polar disorder. So with half the book written I went back and grafted a mother into the picture. Up until this point all we know is that she died when Jen was a teenager. I’d mentioned cancer but all that changed. And her dad? Well I’d already painted him as a workaholic but I modified his character to make him a man who escaped into his work as opposed to a man whose job defined him. Again none of these decisions radically changed the story but it’s details like this that flesh out a character. And of course all these details are dribbled out over the course of the whole book; I hate long chunks to exposition and Star Trek is just awful when it comes to its information dumps.
Talking about Star Trek there is another character who struggles with emotions: Seven of Nine. Again, she wasn’t born that way – she suffered a trauma at the hands of the Borg and had her humanity ripped away from her when she was only six. Over four seasons we get to watch her struggle with coming to terms with who she could be unlike Jean Luc Picard who after his ordeal with the Borg was pretty much back to drinking his Earl Grey and boldly going after a punch-up in the mud with his brother. Okay there is a huge time difference and time after time it’s been impressed upon us just how rock solid Picard’s character is; that he would get it all out of his system in one episode is not terribly unreasonable besides we do see the odd twinge appear in later episodes and the films.
Is it important that the people we have inhabit our books and stories stay in character? Earlier in the book Jen is clearing out her father’s wardrobe when she chances upon an item of clothing:
I came across something I did recognise in one of the drawers, an old pullover, something I actually remembered Dad wearing around the house, something he’d had when we had still been a family. Or when we imagined we were still a family. A house is no more a home any more than a group of relatives automatically make up a family and families can be as much about pushing people away as they are about supposedly letting them in. I thought to bury my face in it, the pullover, but I stopped before I’d really started. Not me. Too melodramatic. And I have no idea why that would’ve been a bad thing, to slip out of character for a moment in the privacy of my father’s… of my own flat. Who was watching? God? Dad? I sniffed it instead. It was fusty. It didn’t even have that ‘old man’ odour; it had probably been years since he wore it. For some reason I tossed it on the bed not exactly sure what I might do with it later.
Why do you do things out of character? If you do something you want to do then doesn’t it mean that that is in character? In a Facebook exchange L. McKenna Donovan called me dour:
If you want to know what it's like to write a novel, read Jim's blog post about his latest endeavour. Love his dour sense of humour!
I'm not dour! No, wait a second ... yes I am.
Yes, you are, and I almost admitted to the cliché of the dour Scotsman, but I decided not to. Great article, Jim! Long, but well worth the read! Thanks for posting it!
Am I dour? What does ‘dour’ even mean. Stern? Laconic? (Surely not?) Awkward? Or is dour a part I play when I’m online to entertain the troops? That I do it so well suggests that there might be some truth to the rumour – and I throw my hand up right now and admit to being a grumpy pig at times especially when tired – but I’m not so sure I am actually dour. Dour is not a switch or if it is it’s more like a dimmer switch than an on/off switch. Would a dour bugger stick on The Best... Album in the World...Ever! and crank up the volume while he cleaned the flat in preparation for his wife’s return from the States?
A couple of nights ago my bedside clock started to make an odd buzzing noise. Not all the time. Just ever few minutes there’d be this electronic cackle and then it would lapse into silence. Eventually I unplugged it so I wouldn’t spend the whole night lying there waiting for the next occurrence. There will be an explanation why it’s suddenly decided to make that noise but I’ll probably never know what it is. And people I find are like that too. We get sudden itches and pains and spots. Let’s talk about spots. Spots appear in the queerest places don’t they? I mean we’re not androids like Data but we are biological machines and sometimes we don’t, as Data might put it, function within normal parameters. And we never know why. Why did our body decide to give us a pimple on our eyelid or inside a nostril? You could go mad trying to answer questions like that.
Here’s a snippet from an exchange between Jen and her husband. She opens:
"Why do you love me?"
"What are you on about?"
"It's a simple enough question. Why do you love me?"
"You used to shout at Anne for saying that."
Most of never think about why we do things. It’s actually the central issue raised in my last book, Milligan and Murphy, the core of the book being how the protagonists coming to terms with the fact that there are no reasons for unreasonable things.
Novels are not real life. They have plots – a lot of them do anyway – and tie things up neatly at the end. The characters express themselves succinctly, stay on topic and don’t go “er” and “um” all the time. Huge chunks of time when nothing interesting is happening just vanish. And behaviour gets simplified, streamlined: good people do good things and bad people do bad things. What makes a character stand out is where they surprise us.
Why does a girder – a dirty great chunk of metal – bend like a drinking straw? Stress. It’s not designed to bend but stick an earthquake underneath it and it will most certainly behave out of character. But there will be a reason. There will be a reason why a pimple decided to appear on your eyelid and there will be a reason why Roy Batty didn’t kill Rick Deckard at the end of Blade Runner. Deckard guesses at what that reason may have been but we never find out for sure and we don’t need to. In reality he’s being true to his real character. The murderer Roy Batty is actually him behaving out of character. Had he been given a reasonable lifespan by his creator then none of the events in the film would have happened.
There are always consequences to our actions whether we’re in or out of character. Allowing the characters in your writing to do the unexpected can take your writing in a direction you might not necessarily feel comfortable going but it is often worth investigating because it very likely will reveal levels to them that you might never have thought to investigate normally. And if you don’t like where the road less travelled takes you, well, this isn’t real life – you can just tear up those pages and take the other one.
The real problems arise when you have to have your character do something out of character to progress the story. If Superman has a choice to save Lois or the world you know he’s going to save both because he’s Superman. The rest of us will have to choose. And that choice will affect the character even if it’s the right one – the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few … or the one, for example – and after being faced with the burden of doing the right thing you might assume that doing the right thing the next time would be easier when it might actually prove to be even harder; the character could view this as an opportunity to do what they should have done the first time round.
Characters develop and characters’ characters develop. Usually. Like flowers blooming or carcasses rotting. Nothing stays the same for long.