There is a phrase bandied about that irks me more than just about anything I’ve heard over the course of my 20-year career both as a novelist and a TV writer. This expression is often used as a copout by—quite honestly—inferior storytellers who don’t want to do the work of making characters multi-dimensional or who simply don’t have the imagination capable of accomplishing such a task. The first time I heard it was in a writer’s room for a TV series, and I felt like a “hack” because the phrase had been unleashed on me as a response to a pitch I’d made for a particular character’s story arc. The next time, it was probably uttered by an agent or a producer and then by an actor or two until I began to realize the point of voicing such a phrase was usually not to encourage imagination, creation, and evolution of story and character, but to stop it dead. The phrase is very simple yet always effective. It’s, “Oh, this character would never do that!”
Those seven words strung together are the biggest, most damaging lie anyone can tell a writer about their characters. What’s worse, most writers wilt immediately after being slapped by such a statement, and scurry back to their keyboard trembling with embarrassment. To those writers I say, step away from the laptop. The best characters ever written are just like real humans in the most important way possible—they are capable of anything!
Case in point: I remember visiting my therapist during a particularly disastrous breakup with a man I never should have begun dating. I cried my eyes out to said shrink filled with anguish, not just because my heart was broken but because I was mortified by the mess I’d made attempting to force the relationship to work. And no, I will not get into those embarrassments here. Just trust me when I assure you that my personal character had seen better days. I mean, I was a clever guy who’d not just managed to make it out of the backwoods of Missouri, I’d graduated with honors from one of the top art schools in the world and begun a career as a highly paid television writer! To make matters worse, I’d even read books about love addiction, and I’d already been in therapy on and off for over five years. How could I have clung so desperately to such a toxic situation and not seen my absolute foolishness?
Long story short: My therapist asked me if I’d ever heard the account of the NASA astronaut who pulled on adult diapers and drove through the night to attack her ex-lover’s new girlfriend in a parking garage in Orlando? He reminded me that astronauts are some of the smartest people on earth. They are rigorously vetted to be stalwarts of mental fortitude and impeccable character. Yet here was an astronaut who basically lost her shit and did the unthinkable. Given that particular example, you wouldn’t believe how much better I suddenly felt about my own shortcomings. But the point is, if you put people in the right (or wrong) situation, they’ll do the unimaginable, and the same is true of characters you write. Only, you get to imagine it!
Literally, your characters can be capable of anything. And this is why it irritates me to no end when someone says, “Oh, this character would never do that!” If you give them a psychological reason for doing something, a hero will turn into a villain, a saint into a sinner, etc. And an audience will go along for the ride if they understand the psychology behind those decisions. But you as the writer must understand that psychology first!
My latest novel, Still the Night Call, is about a young dairy farmer in the Midwest who is planning his suicide because he has no hope for his meager existence. It was inspired by a conversation I had with my gardener who told me that he’s from Guatemala and has a degree in biology from a top university there. However, when he arrived in America his degree was essentially worthless, so he turned to mowing lawns to feed his small family. I couldn’t stop imagining what it must be like for him to toil away under the sun knowing he was capable of far more than what most people might envision. I wanted to write a story about this plight.
Then, I began reading article after article about dairy farmers all across the US killing themselves at unprecedented rates because their industry is literally drying up beneath them, and I thought perhaps, having grown up on a farm in Missouri, I would be better equipped to tell the story of a young dairy farmer from the Midwest than I might a young man from Guatemala. The premise was essentially still the same: I wanted to write about a character who had a much richer interior life than the caricature people on the outside would presume from looking at him.
For the 32-year-old dairy farmer of my novel, Calem Dewayne Honeycutt, I had to create a guy who was modest enough to enjoy the seeming simplicity of rural life, but sharp enough the reader would care about him, his view of the world, and his impending suicide. He could speak in a plain manner but he had to think in a complex one. I tell my students in the college writing course I teach at the University of Southern California not to judge the characters they write but to love them—even the villains.
You must get cozy with your character’s darkest thoughts and their deepest dreams. You must embrace the things that make them a little weird, because we all have our quirks, our secrets, our obsessions, and our sins, and those are the most interesting parts of not only us as humans but of the characters we write. And no, those things don’t exist in a vacuum; they exist for a reason. Find out what that reason is. Understand your characters first in order for your audience to understand them later. And if, when investigating the depths of your characters, you realize they aren’t interesting to you, I assure you they will not be interesting to others.
In Still the Night Call, Calem is a white, straight, man working a small, dairy farm with a dog and house and loving family, yet he’s meticulously planning his suicide. He’s smart and capable, yet he feels he has no choice but to blow his head off. Why? This is the question a good therapist will ask any patient over and over: “Why?”
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For me, Calem’s “why” had to do with feeling hopeless. His parents are about to lose their farm, which means he’s about to be out of a job. He's also been sick, and the hospital bills have piled up, meaning he’s late on his mortgage and soon the bank will come for his house. Then, there’s the failure of his romantic relationships, which have left him feeling almost inconsolably lonely. The rural Eden in which Calem lives has become a slough of despond, a terrible nightmare he's determined to escape.
In the end, even with Calem I hit various walls not sure what his next move might be or how his character might feel as his story progressed. In those times, I leaned into another tool a psychologist might implement to help their patients. Do the opposite of what you’ve been doing. Try something new! It’s an idea that is certain to send every person who believes characters must behave a certain way roiling. But try it. Take a step back from your story and ask what you yourself or most other people would do in a given situation? Then, write your character doing the exact opposite.
On occasion this will lead to a dead end. More often than not, it will unveil entirely new dimensions of your story, your world, and most importantly… your characters. Of course, doing the opposite must still make psychological sense, though you don’t always have to explain how until later on in your story. But trust me, when your character consistently does the opposite of what the reader is expecting and what other writers might write, you’ll find people eager to turn the page. If you’ve found yourself bored working on your own story, you’ll suddenly find yourself reinvested too.
Finally, you must be honest. Any therapist will tell you breakthroughs happen when a patient is ready to remove the rose-colored glasses and look at the reality of their lives. You must be the same way with your characters. Honesty is sometimes hard. It will reveal things you don’t want to see about characters, but more than anything, your audience will know when you’re pulling punches, withholding story, and not being candid with them. Truth is always more interesting than fiction, except when fiction is brave enough to show us the truth humans hide. This is where we discover the heart, the meaning, the theme of what we are trying to say through our characters. It can lead to a breakthrough moment.
For me this came after I had already finished over three quarters of my novel. I was nearing the end, and I realized there was a greater truth than just the story of a white, straight dairy farmer feeling like he had no place in this world. It was that for some straight, white men in the Midwest, feeling like you have nothing to lose can lead to something worse than death, it can lead to radicalization.
Going to therapy won’t solve all your problems in the real world and a psychological evaluation of your characters won’t fix everything in the fiction you are writing. Truth be told, sometimes good analysis can even expose whole new issues about your work that will have to be addressed. Still, my therapist told me the best reason to show up for therapy is simply to explore the possibilities, and he was right. When you open yourself up to doing the same with your characters, not only will you discover they are capable of anything, you’ll learn that you as a writer are able to accomplish a lot more, too.
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