Writing Right with Dmitri: Borrowing Behaviour
Friends, do you have an acquaintance/neighbour/coworker/loved one who drives you nuts? Don't get mad: get even. Use them in your next short story.
One of the reasons our made-up characters are so boring is that they're completely imaginary. Not only do they frequently have no redeeming social value, they just as frequently don't have any interesting foibles. Why not borrow some from your neighbours? Unlike a cup of sugar, they won't miss them, and you don't have to pay them back.
Now, before you get too excited, let me warn you: nobody is 100% good or 100% bad. Not even the person whose face just sprang, unbidden, to your mind's eye. Once upon a time, even that wretched excuse for a human being must have done something nice…um, well…okay, we'll make an exception for him. But everybody else on the planet is a mixture of good, bad, and quirky qualities. Don't make them one-dimensional.
Also, don't trash on them. If you pick a quality that really gets your nanny, don't run it, and the character, into the ground. If you do, you're building a straw man, and it will show. Nobody will go along with it. You've actually got to try and understand your characters and their motivations. You know what? That's good for them, it's good for your fiction, and it's good for you, too. Maybe, by making up a story, you could figure out how to deal with that exasperating behaviour in RL. Very useful, especially if the person in question isn't a mere acquaintance you could hide from, but a real friend or loved one whose behaviour in one particular area is straining your relationship. In that case, though, you may not want them to read your story. They might misunderstand your motives.
Finally, the most important thing you need to remember about borrowing behaviour you don't like is that you've got to get inside it to talk about it. You can't describe the behaviour from your outside POV. You have to figure out how to motivate your character to duplicate the behaviour. This is as good as a scientific thought experiment. You may figure out how people tick. You might even make (or keep) a friend.
Example: You have spent years thinking, 'Why, oh why does Bill, my supervisor, react in a obstructionist way to every suggestion for improvement of even the slightest aspect of the work routine? I'm only trying to help.' So you want to include that quality in a character in a story. But you can't just have them act like that and irritate your main character. This will backfire on you, big-time: your readers won't believe you. Also, they will think your character is fussy and self-righteous. So you need to describe that behaviour from the inside. And for that, you've got to figure out why Bill the supervisor's doing it.
Bill the supervisor is insecure. He's 45, going through midlife crisis, and he's suffering from imposter syndrome. That's where he thinks, incorrectly, that he's faking his own abilities. Bill has become secretly convinced that he's been promoted above his pay grade. He's afraid that someday, somebody will figure this out. So when the workers in his department make suggestions, especially halfway good ones, he goes into panic mode. What if they're right with this suggestion? What does that do to him? Why didn't he think of that? What if his boss finds out and decides Bill's a waste of space? How will he get by?
Worse: what if the new idea is wildly successful, and Dave, who suggested it, gets promoted above Bill? Oh, the shame of it. Also, the suggested change, while more efficient, would require Bill to alter his own daily routine. And that's work. Maybe more work than Bill feels able to take on at this point.
So, thinks Bill, no. Don't be too accepting of new ideas. Better to stall. Give yourself time to think things through, decide where your own interests lie. But Bill can't tell you that. So he chooses a less direct way, by throwing up barriers to change. And that makes sense – to Bill. To a person who hasn't been in Bill's head during this whole one-sided conversation? Not so much.
Now, if you work these things through, you get the following payoff:
- You have understood more about human behaviour.
- Your characters will be way more interesting.
- Somebody may read your story, and it may help them: either because, right now, they've got a Bill in their lives, or because, right now, they're experiencing the kind of panic Bill did. See? This is useful stuff.
One final word: remember that nobody is one way all the time. Qualities like the one in our example make up only a tiny portion of the totality that is a human being. Also, such behaviours are temporary things. Don't believe me? Actual degreed psychiatrists tell us that when we wake up at what FWR calls 'stupid o'clock' and can't get back to sleep until we go down and check that the back door is locked, even though we know we locked it, like we do every night….actual degreed psychiatrists inform us that in that moment, we are clinically insane, even though we will go check the door, climb back into bed, and get up in the morning and take the train to work and be just as normal as anyone else. We're all a little nutty, and a little irritating, and a little confused, from time to time.
Writing about these foibles and tics of ours isn't being 'critical'. It's being honest. I hope I've shown you how helpful that sort of writing can be. Still not sure you believe me? Go back and re-read some of your favourite Terry Pratchett stories. Sure, they're fantasy. Sure, they have a lot of jokes in. But pay attention to the characters. They act like people you know. They have good qualities, and not-so-good qualities. Pratchett doesn't beat up on them. But Nobby is lazy, filthy, and generally a mess. One whole novel is about Sgt Colon, usually a loveable guy, who turns into Captain Queeg when left in charge of the Watch. And you know you love those stories. What's not to love? Human beings are our own species: the one we know the best, and sometimes the least.
Nihil humanum a me alienum puto, as Terence said. Always try to approach the so-called 'negative' aspects of your characters with goodwill and understanding. Maybe, if you're really lucky, somebody else will be able to do that for you.