Mismatched Pictures #characterization #conflict #amwriting

If you ever have trouble getting enough conflict in your story, or if characterization ever has you buffaloed, try this out.

WhatsWrongIn one of the many writing classes I’ve taken, the teacher said that we each have at least one picture in our heads of what we’re like. Sometimes we have one picture of what we want and intend to be like, one picture of what actually are like, and one picture of how we think people perceive us. Sometimes we have more than one picture of how people perceive us, depending on the people, on how we think we’re presenting ourselves, what our mood is on a particular day, and so on.

Your character has those pictures, too, whether you want to explore them at all or not. If there’s a grating discrepancy between picture one and picture two, or between either of those pictures and any of the third set (you character’s perception of someone else’s perception), there’s conflict. If there’s a grating discrepancy between either or both of those pictures and reality, there’s conflict.

If there’s a grating discrepancy between different people’s perceptions of a character, there’s conflict. How many times have you said or heard, “I don’t know what she sees in him,” or “Why are you still friends with that creep,” or “I don’t think that was her motivation at all; you’ve always had it in for her, but I don’t think she’s like that”?

Did you ever see Galaxy Quest? It’s a wonderful movie in more ways than I can say, but one of the really well-written and well-acted scenes was the one where the actor who played the captain in a cancelled but popular sf show, a man so full of his own importance he can’t be bothered to respect his fellow actors, overhears people mocking him as a has-been. It shatters his self-image, mostly because his self-image is entirely externalized: how he perceives himself is identical to how he believes others perceive him. When that shatters, he has to rebuild his self-image using only what is actually inside him as materials. Plus, you know, save the universe and stuff.

A WRITING PROMPT FOR YOU: How does your main character see him/herself? Is that realistic? Do the characters closest to him/her share his/her picture, or have different ones?

MA

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I was born in Louisville, Kentucky, but now live in the woods in southern Indiana. Though I only write fiction, I love to read non-fiction. The more I learn about this world, the more fantastic I see it is.

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One thought on “Mismatched Pictures #characterization #conflict #amwriting

    • Author

      Marian Allen
      Twitter:

      January 25, 2016 at 8:34am

      Thanks, Dan. It was so funny — This post had barely been published when Charlie started talking about how he’s one way but pretended to be a different way in front of the classroom and assemblies in order to engage the kids, and how he now wondered if the other teachers perceived him in a different way. It took me a minute to explain why I was laughing at his angst.
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  1. Holly Jahangiri
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    January 25, 2016 at 8:28am

    Excellent points.

    You forgot one: If how you perceive your main character is vastly different from how they perceive themselves, there’s conflict. 🙂 And if you win, odds are the book won’t be half as good as if you shut up and listen.
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    • Author

      Marian Allen
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      January 25, 2016 at 8:41am

      Have to disagree about that. Bud Blossom thinks everything is all about him. If I didn’t win that wrassling match, there would be nothing but Bud Blossom stories, he’d be the undisputed hero of them all, and everybody else would be an idiot. SOMETIMES you need to listen, but sometimes you’re better off firing that character and writing a different one. You can always give that fired character a different story later.

      I did forget this one: If the way you cause your audience to perceive you character is different from how the other characters do, there’s dramatic irony. Snape.
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      • Holly Jahangiri
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        January 25, 2016 at 9:32am

        I’d definitely agree with firing a few of them! (Don’t fire me, though, please!)

        I do remember having to threaten one, once – threatened to send my 13 year old male protagonist to school in his big sister’s clothes if he didn’t stop pouting over my switching from 1st person POV (with him as the protagonist) to 3rd limited omniscient (so I could get into others’ heads more). But mainly that was to get him to stop moving around my mental stage like a freaking PUPPET. (They can be so deadly DULL when they’re pouting.)

        I’ve never been able to dictate my characters’ character, though. Odd. I can write their lines, but if they can’t deliver them credibly, we have to negotiate a rewrite. I throw them into situations and storylines, but then more often than not, they tell me how it’s going to go down. My characters are better at plot than I am, so my best course of action is to shut up and take dictation.

        ‘scuse me, gotta run – I think I hear the doorbell. If it’s those nice young men in their clean white coats, I’ll send them your way next. They have such lovely baskets.
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      • Holly Jahangiri
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        January 25, 2016 at 9:35am

        If Bud were one of my characters, another would pop into my head to put him in his place. I wouldn’t be able to change him, but another character might. 😉 It’d probably be some variant of “Fred,” now that I think about it. You know, Fred of “Eradicating Edna.” Fred doesn’t suffer fools gladly. If Bud still didn’t cooperate, I’d chuck Edna at him.
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  2. Jane
    Twitter:

    January 25, 2016 at 8:58am

    Good question: How DO my vampires perceive themselves? Well, they’re not all angsty about it, that’s for sure. After a couple centuries, you can really get used to yourself.

    And then BA BOOM! You find out something that rattles you down to your socks. When push comes to shove, you might say.

    P.S. I’m sure there is little cognitive dissonance between how Grigori sees himself and how others do. Could be wrong, though!

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    • Author

      Marian Allen
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      January 25, 2016 at 1:38pm

      Which others? I have a feeling he sees himself as a much better person than Callie does, and that his enemies have a far different opinion of him than his friends and/or allies. Grigori is a complex character, for sure!
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      • Jane
        Twitter:

        January 26, 2016 at 7:02am

        Just like Fred Saberhagan’s Dracula: Drac thinks of himself as a MUCH better person than he actually is. Or so you’ve told me!

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  3. Nate Wilson

    January 25, 2016 at 1:43pm

    I do enjoy when a character’s perceptions of herself run counter to how other characters (or readers) perceive her.

    In my current novel, this comes into play most with the main antagonist. Others’ initial impression of him is the same as his own, but it quickly diverges once they get to know him. Whereas I hope readers’ opinions of him will also change over time–but in the opposite direction. (I admit it’s all a bit confusing without the specific details, but never fear–it’s confusing with them, too.)
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