f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: Day 4 of Characterization – “I Was Wrong”

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Friday, November 19, 2004

Day 4 of Characterization – “I Was Wrong”

Fooled you.

This post is not about me being wrong. I am wrong, quite often in fact, but we’re not going to dwell on those moments today. Today we’re going to talk about the little trick of letting your characters be wrong and how that can bring some much needed “reality” to your work.

I know I’m beginning to sound like a broken record but I first realized this trick in Richard Russo. In his Straight Man, his main character, a professor, looks at one of his colleagues as an adversary. By the end of the book, this character who had originally played the role of “villain” turns out to be something completely unexpected. Or think of Boo Radley in Mockingbird. (Yes, these are the only two books I can draw examples from. I need more time to read at home. Anybody want to babysit for a month, or three?)

I liked the trick so much I borrowed it wholesale for my novel Quinlin’s Estate. Many readers say their favorite character is the one who goes from perceived threat to friend. Partly, I think this is because such a transition ensures a richness and vibrancy to their character. Also, the path from “bad guy” to “good guy” is one that specifically places the character in readers’ good graces. We almost like the character more because of the distance they’ve come.

Likewise, a character can fall. We sometimes choose poorly in our friendships. Or our romantic relationships. The “unwise” boyfriend is a staple of women’s fiction, but I don’t think we’re ever truly surprised when the bad boy turns out to be bad and stable Mr. Darcy must swoop in to save the day. It’s harder for an author to turn a character who we initially like into someone unlikable. I’m actually having a hard time thinking up examples. Anybody want to help me out?

Anyway, this post is mainly talking about how secondary characters can change. The key though is that their change is reflected through your protagonist…and thus he or she must say, “I was wrong.” We talked about change on Monday and admitting you were wrong or you failed is a significant, but also small, example of change that can occur.

Too many characters are always right. (Re)read The DaVinci Code and see how many times the main character is wrong. There’s one (supposedly) HUGE unveiling at the end, but that’s not being “wrong”—that’s being bamboozled by a sociopath. The entire book simply reinforces the main characters’ “rightness.”

That’s fiction, not life. Life is mistakes and misreadings and misinterpretations and generally being a prat because we all see through a glass darkly, our eyes seeing mostly what we want to see. So don’t be afraid to let your characters be wrong—they’ll seem all the more human for it.

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Go to Day 5 of our discussion of Characterization.