“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!
This 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!