Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Your character is not you


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.

DSM4I 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:

  1. neither desires nor enjoys close relationships, including being part of a family
  2. almost always chooses solitary activities
  3. has little, if any, interest in having sexual experiences with another person
  4. takes pleasure in few, if any, activities
  5. lacks close friends or confidants other than first-degree relatives
  6. appears indifferent to the praise or criticism of others
  7. 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 DexterDexter 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 Punk Albumswitch 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.


Rachel Fenton said...

I'm deep into a novel and I wish I had a dollar for every time my husband reads a chapter and comments, asking why this or that character says whatever. He thinks I'm nuts for filling notebooks with details about my respective characters but, to me, they are people. I know what I'd buy each of them for their birthdays - and I know their birthdays. It does seem over the top but it makes the writing easier. For me it does. Although, there have been times when their specific personalities have interfered with my chosen plot but I quite like the challenge of writing that one out when it happens.

Jim Murdoch said...

I know a lot of writers do that, Rachel. In general I don’t. I spent a lot of time on Jen’s personality but I don’t know her birthday or what school she went to or so many things but the things that do happen in the novel or she remembers as happening needed to be appropriate things. I wrote myself into a novel once – I have a cameo in Stranger than Fiction – but although it is me it’s still a fictionalisation of me. I did try and imagine events from Jen’s life but I found I wasn’t interested. I only cared about who she had become, who she was on the page, and I’m the same with all my other characters.

Beckett refrained from elaborating on the characters beyond what he had written in the play. He once recalled when Sir Ralph Richardson "wanted the low-down on Pozzo, his home address and curriculum vitae, and seemed to make the forthcoming of this and similar information the condition of his condescending to illustrate the part of Vladimir ... I told him that all I knew about Pozzo was in the text, that if I had known more I would have put it in the text, and that was true also of the other characters." Richardson apparently presented Beckett with a five-page questionnaire but if you did that to me I’d have the same problem. I couldn’t tell you what colour Jen’s hair is, or her eyes, or if she has an overbite or a fondness for piccalilli. In my mind she is not a person, she is an avatar full of ideas. I leave it up to the readers to flesh her out.

As far as a character’s personality getting in the way of my plot, well, I don’t do plots so I never have that problem. I’m totally with F. Scott Fitzgerald: “Character is plot, plot is character.” All I need do is put a character on a page, give him or her a problem to solve and let them do what comes naturally and try and avoid having them act out of character too many times.

Angela said...

I had very fragmented feelings growing up . . . meaning I rejected certain emotions, refused to feel them. Not saying I had multiple personality disorder or anything, but I used a lot of strategies to deal with 1.) my learning problems 2.) my family problems 3.) my lack-of-friends problems 4.) my constant bullying at school.

Also, I had a lot of colorful people in my life, so I've yet to consult the DSM-IV for any of my characters. It's easier simply to base them on either the whacky people I used to know or the messed up person I used to be.

Jim Murdoch said...

I’ve only ever done this with the one character, Angela. As you say we all have a plethora of diverse people to draw from and, let’s face it, the whole point to individuality is that no matter what conglomeration of character traits we come up with there is always the possibility that there could be someone out there like that. But with Jen I felt I personally needed a few dos and don’ts. What worries me a little is that when I do finally get a few beta readers to go over this they will find her whole family hard to relate to. Later on in the book she decides she’s probably left her husband. It’s a realisation she drifts into and one which he basically shrugs and accepts and I would never be like that. I have been devastated when every relationship I have had in my life has ended and I have (often unwisely) done everything I could to reconcile but Jen is not like that. She got married because marriage, at least to this kind of a man, best suited her ends. She didn’t have to work – i.e. interact with people – and she got to indulge her fondness for order. She, unlike some schizoids, can tolerate a degree of sexual intimacy and even enjoys sex up to a point but she’s generally happier fantasising about it than participating in it and that seems to suit her husband, a workaholic, who may or may not be satisfying his baser urges outside the family home anyway not that it would bother her if he was.

I always liked The Addams Family on TV. What I liked about them is that they work as a family. They are abnormal as far as everyone else is concerned but then everyone else’s ‘normal’ seems strange to them. And that is what this family is like. Teenagers – she has a daughter who’s a goth – generally act the way Jen acts anyway and only time will tell if her daughter is going through a phase or if she has developed like her mother. The odds are she will have especially having a distant and distracted father too. And let’s not get started on the bi-polar grandmother.

I find the whole nature vs nurture debate fascinating but I do hate it when people try and lay down rules as to how people should behave. The one thing people love to do is deviate from the norm.

Marion McCready said...

Jim, you're starting to worry me, I'm an INTJ and my mother was bi-polar!! Seriously though, this is really fascinating, that you subject your character to psychological tests. I don't write prose but if I were to I could imagine myself doing something similar to get into the character.

Jim Murdoch said...

Yes, Marion, the bi-polar mother was a late addition to the novel. I write pretty much as a programme, in modules. I start off with a basic framework that gets me from A to B and then I start adding in little detours. For a long time the mother was actually dead. I had no real use for her and so I had her killed off when Jen was young. But when I started to realise that I could use her to explain why Jen is the way she is I resurrected her and had her give Jen a hard time of it when I read that often people who suffer from schizoid personality disorder have a parent who was bi-polar. The mother’s condition also helped explain why the father spent more time at the office than absolutely necessary and hence was not as big a figure in Jen’s life as he should have been.

Jen didn’t start out with schizoid personality disorder but once I realised that there was more wrong with her than simply being a cold fish I started to address all her actions and responses to make sure they were appropriate. I’ve never done this with any other character but it is a quick way of getting a list of characteristics. It’s especially important when a character is on every page and is a first person narrator. In that respect Jen is probably more real more than any other character I’ve written most of whom are avatars for my ideas or cardboard cut-outs.

Dave King said...

This was a fascinating read, Jim, but it sort of fragmented my thoughts. Everytime I got going on one I was off somewhere else, chasing another. I'm not complaining, mind, they may each have a payoff later.
Having a rule book for characters strikes me as too rigid. Basing a character on Aunty Betty and the chippie in the corner shop seems to work well enough. Character shoud be flexible - that's the trouble with your girder: it isn't. Characters can change over time, of course, but not suddenly act out of character. That's one of my objections to the soaps, incidentally, a character will suddenly start acting completely unlike him or her. You can see why: it's going to profit the story; but it's like another script writer has just come on duty, with little idea of what the character's been doing until now.

Jim Murdoch said...

When I wrote my first novel, Dave, I basically took myself as I was then and projected what a worst case scenario might have been twenty years down the line. With Jen I took one aspect about myself, the fact that I expressed very little grief over the death of my parents, and formed a whole character around that. So there’s some of Jonathan in Jen, neither has been interested in getting involved in life, neither is what you would call a people person. Jen does develop as a character but only very slightly. She’s like a helium-filled balloon whose string gets released and she passively floats up to the ceiling and stops. What Jen does in this book is what comes naturally to her. Her circumstances change and she relocates – literally as it happens – but she chooses to do so because it is, for her, the natural thing to do: she has all the loyalty of a cat and as much as I love cats I know full well they will go to whoever feeds them.

I give Jen a voyeuristic nature. She may not be interested in interacting with people but she likes to watch and fantasise about them be that the gay couple who are breaking up in the restaurant she’s lunching in or the man/boy ironing his shirt in a flat across the street so when she learns her dad’s big secret she investigates, half-heartedly admittedly but she does go through the motions because although she cannot access a wide range of emotions she’s still an intelligent and curious woman. Had she suffered from a more pronounced form of schizoid personality disorder she would have felt and done nothing and that was too extreme. Like all my characters I don’t think she’s an especially likeable person but heroes and good guys don’t interest me much.

Ken Armstrong said...

There was (and I suppose still is) a 'personality system' called an Enneagram which assigned numbers to people's personality types on the basis of a fairly rudimentary questionnaire. My boss at the time and one of my colleagues went on a course and, despite being charged with not using this system to catalogue people at a glance, that is precisely what they went and did.

They branded me a Number 2 within minutes of finishing the first evening of the course and it coloured the way they looked at me for ever after.

People fall into categories, I guess, but I won't be doing it for them.

Jim Murdoch said...

So you were Mummy’s litter helper then, Ken? Type Two is demonstrative, generous, people-pleasing, and possessive: the Helper. I sound more like Type One: principled, purposeful, self-controlled, and perfectionistic: the Reformer; I don’t feel like a reformer. If only it was that simple. And then I’m reminded of Brave New World and Gattaca with its vision of pre-programmed kids. I’m an orderly kind of person. I like rules and boxes on the whole and I get really frustrated when faced with a choice between what feels right and what the rules say. I often wish there were rules for how to be a writer, for example. I know plenty of people come up with a set of guidelines but there’s no one-size-fits-all set. As soon as you say this is the way to it then someone sticks up his hand and goes, “No, I do it this way and it works fine for me.”

One thing that bothered me a little about the schizoid forum that I read through was I felt some of the people were using the criteria as a kind of Ten Commandments and modifying their behaviour to ensure they kept their label. I remember being told about the Christian personality when I was interested in such things and really all that is is complying to a list of dos and don’ts. That’s one of the reasons I left, because although I could go through the motions of being a good Christian that is all it was. I couldn’t change who I was underneath the patina of belief.

Ken Armstrong said...

Amazing to note the cold prickle of irritation I feel when you revive their definition of me (with, I imagine, a cheeky grin). :)

The worst thing was that some of it fitted (quite well, I'm afraid) but it didn't *define* me and they just believed it did.

...aaggh! :)

Jim Murdoch said...

That’s exactly the point, Ken. I had a wife once (I know that makes me sound as if I’ve had hundreds, I just mean not the current one) whose mother spent all the time telling this particular daughter that she was stupid and by the time I met her she believed it and, of course, the truth was far from it. I accept that people fall into broad categories but it’s how people can make a natural character trait a weakness that annoys me. In the company of extroverts I’m most certainly the odd man out but I’m perfectly suited to being a writer. When I was doing my research I looked at a book called The Normal Personality and it was a fascinating read because it started off from the premise that we are all normal: that there is no normal-with-a-capital-n because if there was then we’d all be abnormal. Just because I prefer my own company doesn’t make me an abnormal person. Wanting to chop up babies and eat them, well, that’s another matter entirely.

Art Durkee said...

I'm extremely wary of labels because I've been on the receiving end of labels meant to put me in my place far too often. Grow up gay and bullied and see if you don't feel the same way. I've come to believe that labels and identities mean more if they're chosen rather than imposed, but no label or identity encompasses the whole person. We're all very complex and even contradictory inside. We do change over time, hopefully we evolve and grow through acquiring experience and wisdom. I'm not at all the same person I was even ten years ago.

When I read fiction, characters that seem more realistic to me are those that are able to include contradictory and complex aspects of personality within their actions, characters who do change because of what they go through. There's nothing I find more contrived than a plot imposed from outside, especially one that contradicts the personalities of the characters. Character-driven stories are far more realistic because that's how life is: messy, awkward, going off in all directions, and not easily subject to tidy linear narrative plotting.

So I agree with you and with Fitzgerald. I've noticed before that plot-driven narrative reveals the "under construction" scaffolding of its own making all too readily, and I can usually predict what's going to happen next. Few things annoy me more when reading, or watching a movie, than pat and sentimental predictability.

Having said all that, every time I do the Myers-Briggs I come up INFP, one of the smaller groups, although usually I am equally split between T and P on that node. Many of my inner circle of friends are fellow INFPs, which isn't as insular as it sounds. It's more about not having to explain yourself all the goddamn time.

I don't date ESTJs generally, not because they're not nice people but because experience has shown that they're generally incapable of understanding ME. That gets old real fast.

Jim Murdoch said...

I’ve never tried to work with a plot proper, Art, and I doubt I could. I’d want to subvert the whole thing. I did it to some extent in my last book. It has the feel of a mystery and although I have the big reveal I actually reveal nothing because it all happens in the protagonist’s imagination; we get an answer, not necessarily the answer. At the end of the book we’re not much wiser than we were at the start. Things get shifted around but nothing changes.

I’ve sat the Myers-Briggs test a few times in my life. The results vary but not by much. I suppose it all has to do with my mood when I sat the test. The ‘I’ never changes though. And extroverts bug the pants off of me [not grammatically correct but that’s how I’ve said it all my life]. I have been attracted to one or two women who might scrape an ‘E’ but as personality is what I’m more drawn to than physical attributes that’s rare – and by ‘one or two’ that’s exactly what I mean.

awyn said...

Having one's characters function as avatars for ideas is tricky (as is leaving it up to readers to “flesh out” one’s fictional characters). You referred to Jen as a ‘cold fish’, suggesting she’s emotionally bankrupt (and a wee bit calculating: i.e. her marriage choice). She seems to feel it important to explain things. (“I was empty and my emptiness was crying out to be filled”). It might be interesting to show that scene rather than have her narrate it.

Jen seems to address the reader directly, almost conversationally, (“Have you ever watched Dexter?” ) which contrasts with the sometimes more general pronouncements (as if thinking out loud or in an essay): “It’s okay to be sad and hungry at the same time” … “a house is no more a home any more than a group of relatives automatically make up a family . . .” (Jen as avatar, vocalizing implanted statements--the voicing’s different; switching from “cerebral” to “chatty” mode). A bit of a disconnect, reading-wise.

About the doing-something-“out of character” discussion: She watches herself about to react a certain way, only to abruptly stop herself. (“No, no, this isn’t me… I’m not melodramatic”--as if she’s just caught herself being ‘out of character’. It may be less the case here of your character contemplating acting ‘out of character’ than an example of her conscious struggle to maintain a chosen identity, reacting to watching herself feeling watched (“Who was watching? God? Dad?”). Perhaps Dad’s “Jennifer” would act one way; her and everybody else’s “Jen”, another.

I wasn’t sure if the emphasis on the schizoid personality (and other mental) disorder(s) suggests that’s one of the issues Jen (as avatar or fictional spokesperson for psychically damaged or emotionally bankrupt individuals) will creatively express (in the novel) but issues maybe shouldn’t trump the character’s ‘story’.

What you said is true, Jim, about novels not being real life. With the limited information available, Jen as a character initially puzzled me. You wrote: “What makes a character stand out is where they surprise us.” I would love to know the ending. I can relate to ‘numbness. (Does Jen ever manage to un-numb herself? ) Your acknowledging that “she is who she is” only increases reader curiosity to learn whether or not, at novel’s end, she’s comfortable with who she is. What Art Durkee commented is right: “Identities mean more if they’re chosen, rather than imposed.”

Hey, tell us more about Jen’s gothic daughter!) (How to communicate with teenagers—now there’s a book I expect any number of people would be interested in.)

Rachna Chhabria said...

I am amazed that your wife and daughter have bestowed the 'Honorary Woman ' status. That shows that you have a sensitive side that you don't mind revealing to the world.

Character choices are extremely tricky. I agonize over the choices my characters make.

Jim Murdoch said...

If it helps, Annie, the entire book is a letter written to a woman who may or may not be her half-sister which is why there are times she comes across as conversational and then lapses into introspection. The thing to remember about her is that although she may have difficulty accessing her emotions she is not ignorant of what emotions are and that she should be feeling something about the loss of her dad, about the fact she now has an opportunity (i.e. the funds) to end her marriage and that she has a sibling who, for once in her life, seems to want to have less to do with her than she wants to have to do with anyone. You make valid points but it’s too soon for me to look at the manuscript to see what might need ironed out. Carrie said it works and that’s fine for me just now. Ask me again in maybe 2014.

Jen makes no real changes throughout the book though. I’m sure there will be those who are bothered by that. I don’t see that her identity has been imposed on her though. She reacted to the life she had in a certain way and that is who she is. We are all a bit calculating when we get down to it. She’s just a little more honest about the fact.

The daughter is hardly mentioned – I think she has one line in the whole book – and the husband is also very much a cardboard character because that’s how she sees them: the husband, the daughter. I made Anne a goth because with a mother and father like she has you would expect her to react in some way and to make her disturbed or mentally ill like her grandmother seemed too obvious. She has been starved of attention and so has done something that she hoped would get her some. It doesn’t.

I’ll leave it there. Without having read the whole book you’re at a disadvantage and I’m not ready to have anyone see it yet. My habit has been to put the work aside until I can read it as if I’d never written it. Only then will I know what’s missing. Then I’ll send it to people to get a feel if it works. I just did that with Milligan and Murphy and the responses were all valid and I could have changed things to make them happy if that was the kind of book I wanted to write. I was able to defend my choices and as long as I can do that then it really doesn’t matter if I’m the only person in the world who gets the book. I do hope that’s not the case though.

And, Rachna, there aren’t very many of us honorary women kicking about but it’s something I don’t mind bragging about. I look very male and there’s a gruffness about me that I project to keep people at a distance but I’m just a pussycat once you get to know me.

Sangu Mandanna said...

I often get told that certain aspects of a character are like me - and I think that's normal. To emphathize with a character we need to share something with them, I think, so I think every character is in some way a reflection of the author - however tenuous the connection. But you're right, your character isn't you. Dexter is a great example!

Jim Murdoch said...

In that respect all fiction is autobiography, Sangu, but not usually a good reflection. A novel is like a Hall of Mirrors in which we see distorted and exaggerated aspects of the writer. In just the same way as I look my conscience for want of a better word and turned him into the character of Truth likewise with Jen, she is my grief or to be more precise my inability to grieve turned into a person and allowed to explore her own condition.

Anonymous said...

I've never written fiction, though I've read at least a dozen books on how to do it. (I've got to get in touch with what's driving that.) How writers relate to characters is a delightful curiosity to me. My wife, an ESTJ who (true to her Myers-Briggs type formula) has little interest in writing but (also true to her formula) loves to imagine characters and stories. My daydreams never go in those directions.

I love it that your wife and daughter bestowed "honorary woman" status on you. My wife has done the same on me.

Jim Murdoch said...

I have mixed feelings about books that purport to tell you how to write, Peter. All I could do, if I ever decided to go down that line, was tell you what works for me and, from listening to other writers talk, I don’t seem to be following the crowd. For starters, as far as the novels go, I’ve never set out to tell a story. I’ve started out with something I wanted to explore and ended up telling a story. In the first book, as you know, I wanted to examine my relationship to the truth and the best way to do that was to make Truth a real person. I had no interest in writing fantasy but, in strictness, that is what it is. The Truth was just a convenient literary device and I went with it. So I don’t know what to tell you. If you don’t have a burning desire to write fiction then don’t. If you don’t have something to say that couldn’t be said better some other way then don’t bother. Four years ago I would never have considered myself a non-fiction writer but some 400 blogs later I don’t have much defence left. Non-fiction suited what I needed to write at the time and so that is what I wrote and it’s so much easier than fiction.

Glad to see I’m not the only honorary woman out there too.

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