How well should your characters know themselves?

Who are your characters really? You might know. But should THEY?

Who are your characters really? You might know. But should THEY?

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.

20 responses to “How well should your characters know themselves?

  1. I’m never sure if I do this or not. I tend to believe that a person is so fluid that one can only know themselves for a brief amount of time. A person always has to reflect and evaluate their progress. At least if they’re doing something beyond Netflix marathons and hiding in the house. As far as fictional characters, I have every big moment alter them in some fashion. It might not even be apparent since people in real life react differently to situations. A big battle might have one character bawling at taking a life while his/her friend is drinking and already talking about the next one. I guess a third-person narrator would help here by revealing the inner turmoil.

    • Great insight. Character growth can be subtly portrayed….a character who is becoming tougher, growing thicker skinned, might not bawl as much after battle two or three. A narrator doesn’t even have to make the contrast explicit, just mention that he was doing something else that did not involve bawling after a few battles under his belt.

      • One thing I do wonder about is the retention of flaws. Most people want to see their characters rise to perfection, but that seems unrealistic to me. So would you say it’s possible to evolve a character and retain some of their original negative traits? Would the character have to even notice these issues?

  2. I’ve always been very fond of characters who are very self-aware — partially because self-awareness is often coupled with intelligence, and I really like reading about clever characters. That’s one of the reason I really enjoy the Artemis Fowl series (the first few books in it, anyway) — Artemis is such a flawed character, but he’s also very aware of that, and it makes for really entertaining reading.

  3. My series covers a long period of time, and the characters become people they never expect to be. The fun part was going back to drop a few hints in the early books, and even have one of my characters flippantly muse as to who would fulfill a certain destiny, and even mock it, not knowing it would much later be him.
    Those are always my favorite stories to read (and watch as movies), because I think when we’re all old and look back on our lives, we’ll realize just how many twists and changes our personalities have taken, and we’ll be surprised to see just who we actually became. Truth will be more fascinating than our fiction!

  4. I had a very major realization a couple of years ago that altered my history completely. When I was in school, I viewed the world one way and there was one guy in particular who seemed to me to be downright nasty. He often made comments that back then I thought were made with the intention of being mean. I felt he was mocking me and I felt he was toying with a friend of mine.
    Then a few years ago, I happened across him on Facebook because he is still good friends with another friend of mine. When I looked at his profile, I saw a completely different person than I thought he was. He was in South America on a grant helping people and doing research to further help people and he had been there for many years. He is married with children and he is a genuinely good person, as I found evidence of in not only his posts but comments made to him from people I know.
    When I thought back to school times and the things he had said and done that I thought were insincere were in fact sincere and well intentioned and other knowledge about this friend of mine I had thought he was toying with, it turned out, she was not the person i thought she was and she had been deliberately misleading me.
    The realization that due to my personal view of the world at that time and my own insecurities and misconceptions and inexperience – that I had completely misread not only this guy but so many others. It dawned on me that things I had taken badly back then were not intended as I had thought. For the first time, I looked back on my entire life from an outside point of view rather than from inside my own jaded mind and saw clearly how things had truly happened. It was an epiphany for me and completely changed my point of view about my interactions with others and my interpretations of their motives and my perception of events.
    This has inspired me to write characters who suffer from the same flaw that I myself did – they only see things through their own emotional perceptions and often these interpretations and subsequent actions are not what an outsider might expect.

    • I appreciate your honesty in this comment. I think we can all think back to our high school years and realize that our teenaged brains really had no idea how to perceive correctly, interpret rightly, or understand fully!

    • Thank you so much for sharing this. I’m glad you realized the truth. You are definitely not alone in having misjudged people or being misled by people we thought were our friends. It’s a good story to keep us all humble and to remind us we can never truly know what is inside someone’s heart, even when we think we have a decent idea.

  5. That is one of my all time favorite prayers. It encapsulates, for me at least, everything that religion is supposed to be.

  6. In GWTW, at the end of the book Scarlett wonders if she truly ever understood anything – herself or the men she loved. She gains a small bit of self knowledge, but not much. This was realistic and in keeping with her character which was not an introspective one.

    Sometimes I think few people gain self knowledge. If we’re lucky we get the small flashes of epiphany you mentioned. I don’t much like characters who understand everything they do and why they do it. I don’t think it is very representative of humanity.

    Interesting post!

    • I agree, this was in keeping with her character for sure. Sometimes, just a realization that we are wrong or that we don’t know much/anything, is a huge advancement. That was the case, I think, for Scarlett.

  7. Pingback: 02/13/15 Link Pack | I make stories.

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