Better than They Know Themselves

Feline self awareness“Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?”

~ Henry David Thoreau (Walden)


Most readers and writers agree: the most memorable part of a story is usually not the plot, but the characters. It follows that as writers, we need to know our characters very well. And if we do our jobs, by the end of the book the reader will know our characters very well, too.

But something I haven’t seen discussed very often is how well do these characters know themselves? Most books have a transformational journey for the protagonist, which often results in the protagonist learning something about herself that she never knew before. That can be a very rewarding literary device, but it’s not the only angle worth exploring when it comes to the character’s self awareness.

Another literary device that can provide both powerful character insights and some tremendous entertainment potential is to let the reader see things about the character and/or his situation that the character himself cannot see. You’ll encounter this a lot in humorous stories, where a character is either operating on a misconception, or is lacking a crucial piece of information. Mistaken identity stories capitalize on this, and many romantic comedies use a misunderstanding between the two main characters to amp up the conflict.

But another very effective use of this approach is to reveal more about a character by showing how blind he is to something that is apparent to everybody else. When it becomes clear that the character views himself in a completely different way than the rest of the world does, the effect can be very telling – and often very humorous, like the worker in the movie Office Space who angrily maintains that he has “people skills,” while his demeanor strongly suggests that those skills are perhaps not so finely honed after all. (Caution: video clip below contains some minor swearing.)

She’s got a way about her

One reason this approach is so effective is that we know people in our own lives who are like this. I worked with a woman once who was incredibly bossy, condescending and blunt. She would never give an inch on any disagreement, and she put no effort into being tactful when debating an issue. The result was that she came off like a human bulldozer, and most of her colleagues fell into the habit of not opposing her, simply because she was so annoying that it was easier just to let her have her way.

I was always amazed by her unapologetic air of brash superiority, until one day she told me something that changed how I looked at her. We were talking about some work-related challenge we faced in getting one of our executives to agree to some proposed initiative. She told me she wasn’t worried, and that she was sure she could convince him, saying, “I’ll persuade him to go along with this, because I have a nice way about me.”

Fortunately the floor was carpeted, because that prevented my chin from being injured when my jaw hit the floor. As I gathered my wits (and my jaw), I realized: She actually believes this! She thinks that she gets her way because she is so pleasantly persuasive. And because I’m a writer, my next thought was: This is SO going into one of my novels!

Not fooling anybodyThis conversation had a remarkable effect on how I dealt with this woman from then on. Instead of being irritated and frustrated by her, I found that her warped self awareness became a source of amusement, like the balding guy who’s convinced that his elaborate comb-over is fooling everybody.

I’m sharing this story because we can use this to great effect with our characters, showing their insecurities, their denial, their view of themselves, and – possibly most powerfully – the true motivation behind their sometimes baffling behavior.

Lest any of this seem mean-spirited, I hasten to add: nobody has 20/20 vision when it comes to self-perception. For example, I suspect there are some people who don’t see me as the same ruggedly handsome towering intellect whom I’ve come to admire. And hey, you might not look as much like Angelina Jolie as you think. But exploring and revealing how a character views herself can be a powerful way to make sure that the most important person gets to know the character: your readers.

Bad guys, tourists, and Kenny G

So far I’ve been focusing mostly on the humorous potential of this approach, but it extends far beyond simply going for a laugh. This is also a great way to present an antagonist. After all, other than Dr. Evil from the Austin Powers movies, the reality is that most bad guys do not think of themselves as bad guys. They just have differing desires and motivations than the protagonist, and – in a fully fleshed-out antagonist – they have what they consider to be a perfectly good rationale for what others perceive as “bad guy” behavior. Done well, this can even make us root for the villain. Thomas Harris’s memorable serial killer Hannibal Lecter comes to mind: a villain who only kills (oh, and also eats) people who are rude.

The reality is that most bad guys do not think of themselves as bad guys. They just have differing desires and motivations than the protagonist.

Other excellent examples of characters whom the readers can see far more clearly than the characters can see themselves are Macon Leary from Anne Tyler’s wonderful novel The Accidental Tourist; or Pat Peoples from Matthew Quick’s brilliant debut novel The Silver Linings Playbook. In Macon’s case, he doesn’t realize how bizarre his personal habits have become, as he pulls further and further away from the outside world, wrapped up in his grief over the death of his son and his failed marriage. And Pat in Playbook is unaware of how scary his barely contained rage, obsessive behavior, and delusions about his ex-wife are to everyone around him. Both Tourist and Playbook combine the tragic with the humorous, which is kind of how I see life. So I consider them both to be powerful examples of creating memorable characters.

Note: If you’ve only seen the movie version of Playbook, do yourself a BIG favor and read the book. While the movie was entertaining, the book is far more emotionally stirring, and there’s a recurring Kenny G theme that is both chilling and hilarious. And yes, I’m talking about that Kenny G.

Playbook is also an excellent example of a character revealing more than he realizes to the reader using a first-person point of view. So we have the protagonist speaking directly to us about himself, and yet we as readers can see far more than his words reveal to himself. Seriously, this is a marvelous book that is a must-read for any writers interested in exploring characters with mental illness.

A genre-agnostic technique

Romance novels often use this technique as well, putting two people in conflict with each other, who can’t seem to realize that they were meant for each other. Meanwhile, we as readers want to grab these people and shake them, and yell, “Kiss each other already, dammit!” As predictable as that response may seem, it also means the author has done her job successfully, by eliciting that reaction from us.

Bullies, buffoons, cannibals, madmen, and lovers – I hope I’ve shown how universal this technique can be, regardless of the genre(s) in which you write. So I hope that as you develop your characters and increase your knowledge about them, you’ll consider letting your readers in on some secrets to which your characters are oblivious.

I mean, what your characters don’t know can’t hurt them, right?

Or maybe it can.

And maybe that could be the basis for a damn good story.

How about you?

Have you noticed this technique before? Have you used it in your own writing? Who are some other memorable characters who unknowingly tipped their hands to the reader? I’d love to hear your input, so please chime in. And as always, thanks for reading!


About Keith Cronin

Author of the novels ME AGAIN, published by Five Star/Gale; and TONY PARTLY CLOUDY (published under his pen name Nick Rollins), Keith Cronin is a corporate speechwriter and professional rock drummer who has performed and recorded with artists including Bruce Springsteen, Clarence Clemons, and Pat Travers. Keith's fiction has appeared in Carve Magazine, Amarillo Bay, The Scruffy Dog Review, Zinos, and a University of Phoenix management course. A native of South Florida, Keith spends his free time serenading local ducks and squirrels with his ukulele.


  1. says

    Loved this post. I can’t say I’ve intentionally done this in developing my characters for my fiction, but once in a while a character will tell me how they view themselves and it’s often a surprise. And then I’ll second guess it and think, is that right? Oh yeah, it does fit.

    That woman, Keith, that you’ve described as ‘pleasantly persuasive’ is sooo familiar to me … I think it’s my mother.

  2. says

    Character development is my weakest area, said every writer ever. Including this one. But I have learned to take my antagonist and other less desirable characters and dig deep into their psyche. Yesterday I happened to be working on the jerk neighbor dad from my middle grade novel. The guy is a louse, no questions. But it’s lazy to just make him a louse and walk away. I asked why he’s like that, and I came up with a good, and very sad, background. He thinks he’s a good husband and father, though others see him as abusive. That even led me to re-thinking my protag’s mother. To my 11 year old hero, she’s an average mom. But digging into her past led to some worrisome behavior in the present. The behavior can never make it onto the pages of my MG novel, but they explain the actions that do make it. So, yeah, I’m getting a little bit better at seeing characters through their own eyes. Just one paragraph of that vision can change an entire novel.

  3. says

    Love it love it! This device can be used to humanize good guys too – if they don’t see themselves as heroes, but their actions say they are, readers will probably accept them/connect with them more.

  4. Edi B. says

    Liked the term “genre-agnostic.” Loved the guy with the hair. But most of all, enjoyed the way your post made me think.

    What happens when two people with identical blind spots clash? I shared an office with a woman who was critical, harsh, and dogmatic. Another coworker entered the room one afternoon and said, “I’m going to tell you what’s wrong with you.” For the next 20 minutes, she told my office mate that she was critical, harsh, and dogmatic. She used her tongue like a blunt instrument, much like my office mate was wont to do. It was like looking at identical twins, one of whom was calling the other one ugly.

    Another thought: Looking at ourselves through the lenses of others can still give a distorted picture of who we are. Depends who’s doing the looking, what they need from us, what they expect from us, and what incident from the past—tiny or momentous—first crystallized and colored their impression of who we are.

    Creating characters and relationships is complex work. Back to it…

  5. says

    Great post! And I feel as though scales have fallen off my eyes. I’ve only been aware of this in comedy and when an antagonist has been well developed.

  6. says

    I will preface my comments by confessing that my math skills are weak.

    110% of what I write is character-based, because without characters, a story will be a musicless instrumental that nobody can read, and will probably piss off 120% of the reader/listeners.

    Specifically addressing humor and comedy, the down-pegging of a character who is pompous without credentials delights us by appealing to two of the most basic of human instincts: self-preservation and revenge. So what that the character doesn’t know (s)he is an ass?! It’s more fun and self-elevating for the reader that subject character remains unaware of this fatal flaw.

    And for the writer, creating and transporting the character through the story is tremendous fun, a contagion that happily infects the reader.

  7. says

    “Have you noticed this technique before? Have you used it in your own writing?”

    Oh, definitely. One of the reasons I’m a slow writer is that I can’t decide scenes from the pov of my villain are done until the first reader (me) feels she is justified in taking charge and getting her own way, because ‘Why NOT me?’ is her modus operandi.

    It takes a lot of work – because she has some of the things in her personality that I suppress so strongly in mine.

    Writing Bianca is always work – but so far, I love it. And as long as my small band of readers still admit to being reluctantly fascinated, I’m on the right track.

  8. says

    Excellent post! You offer wonderful insights, Keith, as do the follow-up comments.

    I’m tickled by your observation, Alicia, about the effort it takes to flesh out a character who acts in ways you suppress in yourself. Makes me think we are merely directors of a cast of unruly actors bringing tons of ego and demands to the table. Hey, wait a minute … maybe we are?

    I’m still not sure if I’m a pantser or a plotter. But one thing I’ve observed is that I learn more about my characters when writing off the cuff scenes, for it is in those they often reveal quirks and buried feelings. And though not intentional on my part, I have sometimes gone back to those scenes and observed what Keith describes, that the characters have inadvertently shared aspects of themselves of which they aren’t aware or don’t fully understand.

    • says

      Extreme plotter here. If I know where I’m going, the how is the fun part, including the characters and their why.

      I have a bunch of posts on my blog about using Dramatica to plot – that’s how extreme. For me, it also results in writing long on the WIP, because when I explore the connections I have to write them. Since it all connects up in the end, it’s worth the effort, but the journey is long: one story morphed into a trilogy the total approx. length of Gone With the Wind. (I have written a short mystery and a full-length play the same way, so it isn’t the program, it’s what you decide to do with it).

  9. says

    I can’t think of any examples today, Keith, though I am a bit all over the place this week. I just wanted to post this comment to thank you for your post and for these ideas – I will soon be turning to my new WIP again and will think about how I can instill some dramatic irony into my characterizations.

  10. says


    Chiming in late here from north of the 49th and west of pretty much everything.

    I teach that self-awareness on the part of a character is the way to disarm what may be hard to like about them. The dark character who knows he’s miserable and wants to change is a lot easier to take than a character who is just plain miserable.

    Your riffs are great too, glad to see them out there. Thanks also for recommending The Silver Linings Playbook (the novel) which is indeed excellent.