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Tuesday, October 04, 2011

It's All In How You Look At It

Two of the fields on my rarely used character sketch worksheets are: How does the character perceive him/herself? How do others perceive the character?

To give an example, I'm required to go through assorted training classes for my day job. One was a two day training class in Human Factors. On the second day of class, the instructor made some comment about my being an extrovert. It stopped me in my tracks and I was like, whoa! Not only am I not an extrovert, I'm also shy and tend to be nervous in situations with people I don't know well. I also tend to be quiet in those types of situations. So who's right?

Let me explain what the instructor saw. I'd been through enough other training in the recent past that I'd learned a few things. 1. when the instructor asked a question of the group, no one would answer. 2. the lack of response dragged the classes out even longer than they were already. 3. If someone gave the right answer, things moved much, much faster.

So whenever a question was thrown out to the group and no one else immediately spoke up, I would give the answer to get the class moving. I hate sitting there with crickets chirping. "Anyone? Anyone? Bueller? Bueller?"

The instructor perceived my willingness to speak up when he asked a question as outgoingness. But I'm far from outgoing; I was answering questions as self-preservation. It made the class move faster. I also had some hope of getting through the course material ahead of schedule on day 2 so we could be dismissed early.

Despite my speaking up in class, it actually shocked me that he thought I was an extrovert. I had to take a mental step back to assimilate that and figure out why he could possibly believe something so false.

To bring this back to writing and characters, how your character behaves in certain situations will shape how other characters see him/her. Maybe your character answers all the questions in a training program, so one set of people see her as outgoing, but she stands in the corner at a house party. Those people will perceive her differently. Other characters act on how they perceive the hero/heroine. Maybe the instructor asks the heroine to lead the discussion on day 2 of training. He asks because he sees her as outgoing, not realizing that she's dying over the thought of being in front of the class. (This did not happen in my class. :-)

So it's not enough to just know that your character is perceived differently by his mom than by his sister. You have to have these characters behave in a way that fits their expectations of who the hero is.

I've been dealing with some of this in one of the Works In Progress (WIP). My hero has long hair, stubble, and is hanging out with secondary characters of questionable morality when he meets the heroine. My heroine isn't going to treat him the same way she'd treat a clean-cut man who worked for a charitable organization to feed starving children. There's going to be a big dose of wariness on her part. There has to be because of her perception of who and what the hero is.

Perception always colors reality. IMO, of course.