Today I want to talk about an interesting facet of being human, one that can very much influence character development in our fiction and help make our characters–whether protagonists, antagonists, or supporting cast–feel more “real.”
The idea for this post came to me reflecting on one of my favorite prayers. I try to say it every morning (or at least most mornings.) It rings very true to me. I like this prayer because I know myself well enough to know that my greatest weakness are probably not what I think they are, nor do I really understand my strengths.
(That’s going to be the main point of this post, by the way: how well do we really know ourselves? How well do our characters? So bear with me.)
The prayer comes from Thomas Merton. The part of it that concerns me here is as follows:
“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following Your will does not mean I am actually doing so.”
A lot of us, a lot of the time, have trouble understanding who we are: why we feel the way we do. What our true needs are versus what we think we want or what we claim we are entitled to. What will bring us true joy and true peace.
This is part of being human. We don’t always (if ever!) see the big picture or how we truly fit into it. Sometimes we misinterpret what we should deem failure as success, or success (growth, development in virtue) as failure because it accompanies a worldly fall.
Sometimes we do the right things for the wrong reasons. Sometimes we can make good faith errors, making an imperfect choice out a genuine desire to do good and to promote good.
I can’t imagine there isn’t a person alive–let alone a writer, as much as we are deep thinkers and like to analyze everything, like to break everything down and assign it meaning–who can’t say, “This thing that happened three or seven or fifteen years back, I judged it one way at the time, but when I look back I can see that it actually came about for different reasons than I believed and had different long-term results than I expected.”
This can be true for our characters as well. Reflecting on this theme, a handful of implications for developing realistic characters and engaging plots jump out:
- If you are writing a novel that takes place over an extended period of time, a realistic way to show character growth is to have such enlightenments dawn upon characters: have them change the way they view a major life event as they move on from it, year to year.
- If you have a third person narrator, one way to create distance from a character you don’t want readers to like, or to prove a character wrong, is to have a narrator hint (or even state) how incorrect a character’s view of himself or of events actually is. This is perhaps best done subtly; it’s not something to hit a reader over the head with.
- This can also be a way to prove a genuinely good, likable character human: even the best of us can misjudge ourselves, believing our strengths greater than they are, or misdiagnosing our weaknesses.
- This is also something that can help advance a plot or cause conflicts for a character to overcome: our misunderstandings of ourselves can get us into trouble or cause personal crises when something happens to make us realize, “I’m not really that good at this. I was just a big fish in a small pond,” or “I always thought I was patient, but my real strength is persistence. Getting up time and time again after I fall.”
- An epiphany moment–realizing that “this didn’t happen for the reason I thought” or “This situation isn’t what I believed it was and didn’t have the consequences I thought it would”–an epiphany moment can make for a powerful psychological moment. It can be a good way to bring some action, some motion and momentum, into “downtime” scenes or scenes where little real plot development occurs.