How does your character want to change the world?

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‘Should’ is a very powerful word. No other word shows us so well the ways we want to change the world.

How’s that?

It is through the word ‘should’ that we judge what is good and bad. Your boss ‘should’ consider how the employees feel. Your mother ‘should’ get herself to the doctor. Your girlfriend ‘should’ get her car in for an oil change. The bank ‘should’ have given you notice about rate changes.

All these little ‘should’s mount up. Oh, if only we were running things, the world would be a perfect place!

As we go through our days our critical eye scans the people, processes and things we come across. Just like Goldilocks, we judge each as either inferior, superior or just right. The highways are badly designed. Look at that guy driving like a maniac. Gosh, that girl is gorgeous. How can a bank teller not know how to process a foreign exchange transaction? Oh, here’s one of those new streetcars, I like how silent they are; finally our city has done something right!

The word ‘should’ is all about judgement. This should be that way, not this way. That should be this way, not that way.One thing is good and another is bad. The judgements are typically more negative than positive because these are our attempts to make the world perfect. Nudging things this way and that. It’s human nature.

How does a writer use this? To uncover what’s going on under the surface of your character’s relationship to the world.

Before you write a scene, consider what each character thinks the others ‘should’ or ‘should not’ do. For example if we were to consider the relationship of a married couple, we might consider what they think others should or shouldn’t do:

Martha thinks her husband Jason should…

  • Be making more money
  • Treat her like a woman once in a while (which means telling her she’s beautiful)
  • Stop bugging her about her drinking

Jason thinks Martha should…

  • Stop drinking (she’s downing almost a bottle a night on her own, for crying out loud)
  • Show some gratitude for all he does
  • Get a job

Each of us attempts to change the world in ways that range from the blunt to subtle.

“Are you sure you really want to do that?”
“It would be nice to afford a vacation once a year, but not on what you make.”
“Are you sure you want another glass of wine tonight, dear?”
“What have you done to your hair?”

“How dare you?”
Translation: You’re acting bigger than your britches and I’m going to bring you down a notch because you have no right to be different from what I expect you to be.

One common attempt at behaviour modification is to globalize:

“All you ever want to do is sit on the couch.”
“You never listen to me.”
“You’re always so mean.”

The other character, the person who is being accused of ‘always’ or ‘never’ doing something, tends to become defensive.

Having your characters globalize is useful, because we all do this, don’t we? But it is also a writer’s trap. The back and forth of accusing and defending can turn into “tit for tat”.

“You never listen to me.”
“Yes I do.”
“No you don’t.”
“Oh no, I do!”

Most readers want something deeper than this. They want a distillation of the conflict, not every moment played out in minute agony. Unless, of course, that agony is true agony. (But I digress.)

If a character is judging everyone else, they are usually doing the same to themselves. So, after you’ve looked at how your character is judging everyone else, you need to apply the same brush to their thoughts about themselves.

In the mirror, some of us see someone who ‘should’ get her hair done. Who ‘should’ exercise more, eat better, drink less, call her mother, and on and on. Some of us, however, suspend our judgement. We have reasons for the spare tire of flab around our middle, for our callous behaviour to a colleague or friend.

The act of exploring what characters think everyone else “should” be (doing, thinking) is to give you insight into the relationships beneath the gloss they show the world. Those insights help you to develop characters that breathe and thus write richer, more complex scenes.

And remember, it is not what a character says that reveals their character. It is what they do.

Actions always speak much louder than words.

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