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Remember This… About People When Developing Novel Characters

Written by Vicki Hinze

On September 21, 2006

WARNING: this is a no-edit zone….

There’s an in-depth article on characterization in my online library on the website, so I won’t get into the gritty details of development here. But I will share a few tips on character potential. In novels, this potential too often ends up being missed opportunities because the writers fail to engage it.

When developing your novel characters, remember that…

1. People never see themselves as bad people. They don’t see the things they are doing as bad things. To them–even if they’re off their rockers–their actions are logical, reasonable, justified and often essential.

2. People go to amazing lengths to justify their actions. They want to do something. Something unacceptable to others (whom they want to think well of them), something outrageous (in the eyes of those they want to respect them), something stupid (that results in bad things happening by anyone’s standards), something they know is wrong themselves, and yet they will rationalize and justify that action so that they can do what they want to do and they don’t have to feel badly about doing it.

An example. A mother wants something done but doesn’t want to do it herself. She has (or permits) her child do it instead. But she knows this act was wrong, and so to live with herself (and not consider herself a bad mother), she removes herself from parental accountability, denying her own part in the action (and thus, personal liability for it). The child committed the act when the mother was unaware. (“I didn’t know. I was in the shower. I was asleep. I was at work.”)

3. People often assume they know what others are thinking or doing. Sometimes they’re right, but far more often, they’re wrong. They assume based on their own perceptions and how they would react in a given situation. But the other person sees events and reacts to them through their own perspective. This generates quite a bit of conflict in relationships. Encourage characters to make assumptions that are to them logical and reasonable and perhaps even inevitable–and let them be wrong.

4. People are flawed. And the flaws people are especially quick to pin to others, like insecurities based on assumptions, are often qualities of the person doing the pinning. But s/he doesn’t see them when looking inward, only when looking at others–typically others with whom s/he disagrees on this issue or on unrelated issues. Let your characters function with their insecurities and fail to see them for a time but levy them on others. The reader will immediately see that the character is missing the trees for the forest. People often miss that what they project is what they own.

5. People notice whatever has their focus. We’re bombarded with sensory input all the time, but what we tend to notice is whatever is on our minds at a given moment. If we’re shopping for a car and debating between a white one and a blue one, we’ll notice how many white and blue cars we see. Red ones get ignored. If someone close to us has just divorced and has changed substantially as a result, we notice what we hear and see in the information flow on divorce and people changing–for better or worse. If someone tells us about a good book, we notice that book, that author and his/her other works–and we’re surprised that they’ve been around so long and we avid readers have missed them on our radar. We notice what holds our focus, and our characters should, too.

6. People make judgments All of us make judgments based on appearances, attitudes, opinions. We might consciously say that we don’t want to judge, but we already have–and so has everyone else. It’s part and parcel of being human. To make assumptions based on previous experience, whether inherited or learned firsthand. If you touch a hot stove, you’ll be burned. That’s a judgment call. If someone draws a gun on you, your judgment is that they’re capable of shooting you–and well might do it. If you befriended someone with a penchant for specific things, the next time you run into someone with that penchant, you will attribute traits of the friend onto this person. They might or might not be accurate, but subconsciously you connect the two on the basis of their penchants.

7. People hang on too long. Something isn’t working. Something isn’t right for us. Something is performing poorly. We see it, know it, and yet we tend to hang onto it anyway. People do not like change. They ignore it to avoid it. Deny it when they can’t avoid it. Ignore that they’re denying it. And deny that they’re ignoring it. They go to extreme lengths to avoid having to go toe-to-toe with change and actually do something about it. Why? We’re comfortable with the devil we know, even if we know it’s a devil. Change is new and stepping into the unknown. It might be better, but it could be much, much worse. We don’t want to risk it, so we stay where we are with what we’ve got. Fear is the culprit. And it seems to be a universal trait in people to change only when it gets in our face and we can’t find any other way to get rid of it. Then we act.

8. People are basically good. And bad. And indifferent. They’re never better than when they have a lot at stake. Never worse than when what they have at stake will be impacted in a way they don’t want to be impacted. And never more indifferent than when they don’t have a horse in the race.

9. People manipulate. If the facts don’t suit them, or sit easily on their shoulders (or heart), they’ll filter those facts through perspectives that are less glaring and harsh and more favorable to them. They don’t always do this deliberately or consciously. Often it is old wounds within themselves that have people sliding up those protective shields or molding facts to make situations easier for them to swallow. Some feel the world owes them, that the rest of world exists to benefit them. Some have no conception of compassion, of community–if they want it, they should have it, and damn the consequences to anyone else. Except these people often don’t extend their thinking beyond themselves far enough to grasp that there are consequences for and to others. They’re too self-absorbed.

10. People often deny doing exactly what they’re doing when they are doing it. Ever hear a snippet like this? “Boy, I’d like to give her/him a piece of my mind. I won’t do it because I’m ________, but if I weren’t, I’d tell him/her ________.” Or have you ever been shopping, considered the salesperson rude, and left without a purchase, but steamed? Yet you never told the salesperson you were insulted/steamed. You never said or did anything–until later, when you complain to tons of other people where it would never accomplish any good.

People don’t always mean what they say. They don’t always say what they’re thinking. And they often get a gut full of resentment or anger or outrage and never say a word to the offending party. Whether it’s good manners, a fear of confrontation, or just an aversion to dealing with anything unpleasant, you can’t depend on them to speak up, speak freely, or even to speak. The same should be true of characters. Often, the unsaid is more potent than any words uttered.

A note on the library. It’s free, but you do have to sign in. I personally approve every request. For years, the library had an open-door policy. Then several people started selling my articles to other writers, and so I went to a sign-in–not to know who’s in, but to keep those who sold the articles out.



Vicki Hinze


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