Sunday, October 25, 2015

Character Traits – it’s all in the details

I was having a conversation with someone the other day who tried to butter me up with compliments before turning on me like a rabid dog.  It wasn’t pretty.  I still run the conversation over in my mind, wondering whether there was something I could have done to change the outcome but realistically, the only way the outcome could have changed is if the conversation had never happened at all.

People react differently to situations based on their emotions, experiences, current mood, background, education and training (or lack thereof), expectations, fears and desires.  We might think we know what to expect of ourselves, or from others, when a situation arises but how we react today to a situation could be completely different than how we might react to the same situation tomorrow. 

We react differently to situations based on the above reasons, but another reason is due to our character traits.  Whether a person is confident, determined, conservative, good-natured, sensitive, unforgiving or diplomatic, our character traits say a lot about how we’ll respond to any number of situations.  It’s what makes each of us so different from the next because our past experiences and the baggage we carry from those experiences, while possibly similar to others, are uniquely our own.

As we deal with individuals in our personal or professional lives, we might have certain expectations with regard to how we believe someone should react or behave, but unless it’s someone very, very close to us, we really can’t know what they’ve experienced and how or why they may react to a situation the way they do.  Due to that, we just can’t always know what might set someone off, make someone mad, or even cause them to be anxious or miserable.

What’s interesting about human nature makes for interesting fiction, if we can give our characters believable character traits and back stories.  The difference between true life and fiction is that, while I might not know what will set off the guy in the truck sitting next to an SUV at a stop light, if I were to be the author writing about the character in the truck, I would know his back story, birthday, sign, fears, desires and current mood so that I should know exactly how he might react to the loud music blaring from the SUV next to him.

Another difference between true life and fiction is that, if a situation doesn’t quite turn out as you’d like in real life, there’s no taking it back, but as an author, you can play around with characters and their situations until it feels genuine, plausible and gives the story movement.  There’s real freedom in that ability but it’s never a guarantee that it’ll make writing easier because as the characters are created, they also develop, they transform and they tend to make decisions dependent of what you’d expect of them.

I’m still learning about my characters and their character traits and I know the back stories of some, but not all of them.  Some of those back stories will be explained, some will not, even if I do discover them, but it is with that information that I try to get a sense of how the characters should respond to different situations.  Like real people, characters in books are individual personalities with their own backgrounds and experiences, who then create a constantly changing fictional world as they react to those causes and effects.

With that said, I will also say, it really is a truly beautiful thing to create literary babies who become complicated characters.

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