We writers can go lots of places to find lists of questions to help us get to know our characters better and to lead us to twist the screws tighter to make them have to change. Writer Unboxed’s own Donald Maass is the king of questions that make us think more deeply about our own story and about all stories.
I’m only going to add one: a simple, powerful question I learned from a journalist, that I now ask of every major character I’m writing:
What do people get wrong about you?
When I first heard it, I didn’t care about the question’s ability to help me understand my characters; I was too busy trying not to cry. I was at a conference session led by journalist, Da’Shawn Mosley, dutifully taking notes about his interview process and how he gets reluctant subjects to be more forthcoming, mentally congratulating myself that my last interview question (Is there anything I haven’t asked that you want to tell me?) was the similar to his 2nd last, when he came out with that powerful question and it pierced me and I thought of nothing but my answer to it.
You see, I was attending the 18-people-in-attendance conference with my ex-husband. Our 21-year marriage had ended because of his infidelity and arrest for a sex crime. It was an ordeal to keep myself and my children as well adjusted and financially stable as possible, to set and maintain healthy boundaries, to not let my anger fester into bitterness, to not lose myself to grief. He’d been the one of the most trusted persons in our circle, and I had to, over and over, break the news to people and then comfort them—when I was the person most hurt.
But if you saw us together you wouldn’t guess any of that. Four years after his arrest and two years after I forgave him, we talk easily and seem completely friendly. Don’t get me wrong, I’d still rather never see him again, but I don’t have that choice. We have children together, we go to the same church, and I’d invited him to take part in the grant funding the conference, so his presence in that room was entirely my fault. But then he chose to sit at my table for dinner, when he could have sat at 2 other tables, and my, “This will be fine,” “I am strong enough for this,” self-talk cracked and I created an oddly intense interaction while I was leading the discussion that may have contributed to one of our table mates not returning the next day.
Because the thing that people get wrong about me is that I may be strong, but it takes a toll.
Despite the passage of time, and the counseling, healing, and forgiveness, I have emotional scar tissue. Mostly, it doesn’t bother me. Sometimes, I’m grateful for it, because of how the experience changed me. Other times, the scar tissue gets irritated and I get a pain flare. So when people see us talking together and then tell me it makes them so happy, I smile and nod, but it scrapes at the scar tissue. When my family invites him to events that I’m not going to be at, and don’t tell me about it until later, it feels like the wound is re-exposed. And when I obliquely lash out and someone else is hurt, I feel guilty for dribbling blood on them.
All of that whirled through me while I tried to maintain the fiction that I was continuing to listen to Mosely talk and that it didn’t bother me that my ex-husband was there, and would be there all weekend.
So what do my story and that one powerful question have to do with our writing?
Figure out what people get wrong about your character and you have an engine for conflict and tension. Our characters’ emotions run deep. Their pasts are complicated (we know because we’ve made them so). And the people around them will keep having opinions about them and bringing up their pasts—other characters will pick, pick, pick at the scar tissue.
They don’t even have to be mean to do it. The people getting me wrong are perfectly nice, often wonderful and very supportive people. Of course, characters also do it in response to their own emotional scar tissue. Think of Professor Snape’s constant cracks about famous Harry Potter, arrogant Harry Potter–Snape’s history of bullying from Harry’s father and love for yet rejection by Harry’s mother, not to mention his bargain with Dumbledore to save Lily that made him live a double life yet didn’t work because Lily died and Harry lived, bled all over every interaction the two of them had.
Answers to “What do people get wrong about you?” can help you find your characters’ emotional scar tissue so you’ll know how best to get them to expose those wounds in each other, over and over. You’ll be able to design action that will rip that scar tissue right off, leaving them exposed and vulnerable. You might even choose to develop strengths in your character that lead directly from how they manage those exposed wounds. Your characters will either learn from the experience and change for the better because they’re the protagonist, or they’ll nurture those wounds and feed off them because they’re the antagonist.
Since I consider myself a protagonist, what did I learn from encountering the question that weekend? That I need to start writing about the end of my marriage. That the time for the abundance of caution is over and it’s time to tell my story before my wounds start to fester.
So what are some good fictional examples of characters picking at each other’s emotional scar tissue?
Or, if you dare, what do people get wrong about you?