Writing Excuses 13.14: Character Nuance
Key points: Characters who contradict themselves have built-in conflicts, and are more realistic. Motivations, backstories, and emotions are often intricate and self-contradictory. Let your characters wear different hats! External presentation and internal story are often different. What we believe about ourselves and what we try to project to others are often inherently contradictory, which makes us human. Imposter syndrome, the more your career improves, the more awards you get, the less likely you are to think you deserve them. Your internal map may not keep up with external changes. These are ripe areas for character conflict. Nuance lets you signal to the reader that the character is presenting, lets you hang a flag on contradictions. Think of the character as an ecosystem, and you present different features at different times. A character with questions feels more real. A character’s beliefs, their motivations, may not always match their MO, their how, their toolkit. Characters should have multiple goals. Think about creating your character as world building, answering why, the past, how, experiencing the current moment, and with what consequence, what effect. Putting different hats on your characters? Think about the worlds that you jump between. How you code switch, changing vocabulary and speech patterns, shared experiences. “While you are telling a story about your character, your character is also telling stories about themselves to other people.”
[Mary] Season 13, Episode 14.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Character Nuance.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Amal] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Maurice] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Amal] I’m Amal.
[Maurice] I’m Maurice.
[Brandon] We’re going to talk about characters who contradict themselves.
[Brandon] It’s one of my favorite topics for this year.
[Mary] Well, it’s because, for me, this is a thing where the character just comes with baked-in conflict, and also, for me, is something where they are most realistic. Everybody is made up of conflict all the time. Like I am, just as a very simple real-world example, I am afraid of heights. But I also perform with marionettes and worked on Elmo in Grouchland, and they had to haul me 40 feet above the stage floor and drop me, and I was fine, because I had a marionette in my hand. But the idea of doing that exact same thing for fun?
[Brandon] Yeah. I mean, I am a liberal rationalist Mormon.
[Brandon] Right? You run into this all the time, that in the real world, people have very intricate and often self-contradictory motivations and back stories and even emotions about various things. But in books, it seems like a lot of the time, you’re like, “We are going to paint the sketch of this one person.” I want to talk about digging in and making characters self-contradictory or wear different hats or these sorts of things. Just giving our listeners tools were approaching it. So, using examples you’ve used from your own stories or you’ve seen done really well, how do you actually do this without making characters just seem irrational, just…
[Maurice] Well, I think one of the core aspects of just being human is… I look at myself and I go, “You know what, there is the story of Maurice.” There is the story of how I project myself to you guys. But then there’s the story that goes on inside Maurice, that says, “You know what, these people might secretly hate me. Or I’m not that smart. Or I’m not that handsome.”
[Maurice] But… But that is…
[Mary] We didn’t object to the I’m not that smart.
[Maurice] But that’s what it boils down to, there are lies that we believe about ourselves versus what we try to project to others. I think that’s one inherent contradiction that frankly just makes us human.
[Brandon] Right, right.
[Mary] Let me tell you guys one that all of you are experiencing, which is imposter syndrome. It gets worse a lot of times that the more your career is going forward… Like Amal just won a whole bunch of awards…
[Amal] It is true. It is true.
[Mary] What happens a lot of times with these things is that you have an internal map. Circumstances change so that your internal map no longer matches the landscape that you’re actually moving through. This is why I said these are such ripe potential for character conflict. Because when you create a character who has self-doubt and is masking it… That’s one of the things that you can do the nuance is make sure that their internal life is different and signpost to the reader that they are deliberately presenting themselves. That’s one of the ways you can keep a reader from going, “Well, this character seems contradictory,” is to hang a flag on it. What you can do then is have a character who actually becomes less and less secure, the more they succeed as they are going through a story.
[Amal] I really love that example. Especially because there are actually ways to make that not seem contradictory as well. I think maybe that is part of the nuance is showing how those two seemingly paradoxical things cohere. If someone is becoming more and more… Just to use totally not myself as an example. If someone is winning all sorts of awards and things, and at the same time feeling less certain about their career, then that can be because it’s like you’re rising up on a great height and the fear of falling is that much greater. Those are two things that are related to each other and they’re not irrational. If put that way. There’s… in fact, if you were to really dig into the logic of it, there’s no reason why one success should lead to another, anymore than the sun rising one day means the sun is definitely going to rise the next day. It’s like an old logic problem. So I think showing up how those contradictory things can coexist is a big part of nuance. I think part of that is looking… Maybe one way of looking at it is to see a character as a terrain or an ecosystem, an environment, of which you’re emphasizing one feature over another at a different point. So the fact that you’re focusing on the river doesn’t mean that there isn’t also… I don’t know… Moss, something that doesn’t have to do with rivers. But you’ll focus on the one, then you’ll pull back to the other. These things will be interrelated, but it might not be obvious at first.
[Brandon] I… When I’m trying to develop characters, I’m also trying to look at like what are the cores of who they are, and where will the cores of who they are brush against one another. Right? I always find that a character who’s questioning is like… Is always going to feel real, is always going to help with this. It’s that little hanging out lantern on it. If you take the character… Like, like… Totally unlike me, who maybe really, really, really likes sciences, rationalist, all these things until the question of “Does God exist?” comes up, and they say, “Of course God exists.” You look at those… That conflict and what is causing those two things. I think that maybe it’s this way in real life. Maybe not. But I think most of us at some point do have those questions. Well, maybe. Maybe not. And they think about it. I don’t know. Characters who are thinking about things and actually asking the questions that the reader would be asking, I think gives the reader in some ways the permission to say, “Oh, okay. This character is of two minds on a topic. I will be willing to go with them on either of these directions.”
[Amal] Absolutely. I think that there… We can also talk a little bit about the difference between a character’s beliefs and a character’s MO. Right? And how those things can be in conflict in ways that need resolution. Here, I’m going to like go hyper nerdy and ask if any of you…
[Mary] That’s the way we love it.
[Amal] Has anyone here heard of sorting hat chats?
[Amal] So, sorting hat chats is a… It’s a work of art, it’s a work of genius…
[Amal] It’s basically a bunch of Harry Potter fans got together to make the sorting hat system work in Harry Potter. The way they do this… I think Navah Wolfe as described this as like INTJ for nerds, or something like that? Whatever that… Myers-Briggs for nerds. That’s what she said, crossed a little bit with horoscopes. Where basically, instead of being sorted into Hufflepuff, Gryffindor, Slytherin, and Ravenclaw, you’ll have a primary house and a secondary house. Your primary house is your why… It’s like what is… Your motivations, your deeply-held beliefs about the world. Your secondary is your how and your toolkit. So you can absolutely have like a Huffle/Slyth or a Griffin/Claw and stuff. Those things are fraught with conflict, and yet they’re also endlessly resolvable with different frameworks to put around them.
[Brandon] That’s really cool.
[Amal] It is so great.
[Brandon] It is really, really cool. That would make… That would make some good homework.
[Amal] Dude, figure out who you are or who your characters are… By the way, it’s on Tumblr. Sorting hat… I think it’s sortinghatchats.tumblr.com or just Google sorting hat chats and it will come up. There’s a master post that explains everything in great detail. And there’s no quiz. Crucially.
[Brandon] Wow. That’s awesome.
[Amal] There’s no quiz. You just have to read… It’s literally homework. You have to read so much stuff and then figure it out for yourself. Your sorting of yourself is obviously the canon. It’s canonical. So…
[Brandon] Maurice? Let’s stop for our book of the week, and you are going to tell us about Buffalo Soldier.
[Maurice] Oh, Buffalo Soldier. Yes. Buffalo Soldier is my novella from tor.com. It takes place in my steampunk universe. So what we have is… We have an espionage agent who is recently from Jamaica. He has taken… Basically taken a child from Jamaica out of… From the control of the government. The government had created this child as a part of their experiments. He’s basically the clone of Haile Selassie, as you do…
[Maurice] So he’s… They are on a trek through this steampunk vision of America, going through the nation state of Texas, and trying to make their way to the West Coast that is still controlled by the Native Americans. So it’s a tale of espionage and intrigue, running through this new landscape, while being chased by agents, assassins, and giant robots.
[Amal] That is amazing.
[Brandon] That’s at tor.com?
[Brandon] You can just go read that on tor.com. Right?
[Maurice] Oh, no. It’s a… One of their novella series.
[Brandon] Oh, their novella series. Okay. Great.
[Amal] That is awesome.
[Mary] Can I jump on something that Amal said, which was she was talking about thinking about the person as an ecosystem. It suddenly, like one of those moments of epiphany… That I always talk about a character should have multiple goals, right? That we don’t have a single goal. When you have a character who seems un-nuanced, it is because they usually have one goal and it’s not in conflict with anything else. But it occurred to me that if we actually do think of it as an ecosystem and think about your character as… Creating your character as world building, that a lot of these things will pop into place. We’ll talk about backstory later, but the three world building questions that I always tell people to ask are why, which is the past, how, and that was the thing that made me go “Aaaa,” which is how they’re experiencing the given moment, and the with what consequence, with what effect? I think that one of the things that you can do with a character is begin to look at how these different aspects of self interact. So if we go back to something I talked about previously, where we have role, relationship, status, and competence. In each case, they’re going to have their own story about how they get there. I’m going to use my mom as an example, and she has actually okayed this. So mom comes from a family with a… Like, when there was a point where she actually literally had a dirt floor. When you meet her, you have no idea that this was her past. At all. She’s incredibly polished. She presents as if she’s old Southern money. Part of it is because she is constantly compensating for her backstory, for her why. So her how is that she’s constantly compensating and trying to present herself as incredibly polished. Whereas her internal life is what will people think? That is the thing that is… That is the fear and the goal that is driving her, frequently.
[Mary] She’s a really… Mom’s fantastic.
[Brandon] So let me pitch this one at you. A lot of times, we wear lots of different hats. Our surroundings, the group that we’re among, is going to severely change how we interact with the world. How do you write characters this way?
[Maurice] So this is been something that I struggle with, quite often, actually, because I end up jumping from… I call it from world to world, personally. Because I’m black, and then I have to… I’m in the white world a lot of times. Then, plus my family’s from Jamaica, so I’m going to have to go interact with that world for a while. So one of the things I realize is… Thinking of myself as a character, is… just one of these subtle things is how I code switch from environment to environment. I’m going to sound this way, hanging out with you guys. I’m going to sound a little bit different if I’m on the corner hanging out with some of my [fellows]. I’m going to sound a little different, I have a different vocabulary that I’m going to be using and a different cadence and all that, that I use in that situation versus when I’m hanging out with family. That’s just one of those little things that go into building… Building myself as a character for example.
[Brandon] Thinking of it, with family, I mean, it plays into the history that you have with each of these different groups. The shared experience, the things… The stories they’ll share, and things like this. You’ll have a different experience hanging out with people who have been at science-fiction cons a lot, than you will with people who’ve grown up in Jamaica. You’ll have a shared experience with each of them. I think maybe that’s something to drill down into for the characters. Because I’ve noticed that I don’t do this enough in my writing. Right? It’s one of those things that I feel like will make my writing more realistic, if I can learn to do a better job of it.
[Amal] I think even like digging deep into that idea of different hats… What does it mean to have different hats? It means that you’re using some kind of sartorial signifier to move through different environments in different ways. I think of like… I think this was… Again, I’ll be talking about Jo Walton’s books, because I love them.
[Amal] She had… She is very good at nuanced characters.
[Mary] She is.
[Amal] She absolutely is. In fact, this was not the book I was going to talk about, but in her book My Real Children, she is looking at one character in two alternate realities, in a kind of sliding doors-esque situation. So there’s one character, but with these life choices goes there, and with these life choices goes there, totally different. But no, thinking of the hats… She wrote a book years ago called Tooth and Claw, which is like Pride and Prejudice with dragons. There are… They have a law system, like humans do, and they have barristers who have to be in a court of law and they have to wear their wigs and stuff. One lawyer representing the family explains that he’s going to use that wig in different ways at different points. Where if he wants to appear like a country bumpkin who doesn’t know what he’s doing, he’s going to fumble his wig a little bit before the judge. You basically… In this court system, you have to switch wigs when… In a really fluid way, when you’re making arguments or something like that. That’s… It’s been years since I read it. But when he’s not trying to make himself appear this way, he is going to move as fluidly as he knows how, because he’s very, very competent. But when he wants to signal something else, he’s going to do that. So I think that just thinking of different hats as not just a kind of facile way of talking about different roles, but really thinking about what it means to be representing, be… Just like what does that hat mean about your environment, about the people you’re going to interact with.
[Mary] The thing is that… And this is very meta… While you are telling a story about your character, your character is also telling stories about themselves to other people.
[Amal] [gasp] That’s a good way of putting it. Yeah.
[Mary] I mean, that’s… Every time we say something, there’s something that we’re trying to accomplish. Sometimes it’s because I’m just trying to look clever, and wow, that backfired. Sometimes it’s to get information. But there’s always a reason behind that. There’s a way you’re trying to present yourself. There’s different aspects of yourself that you bring to the fore depending on the situation that you’re in. So I’ve talked on previous podcasts about objective versus super objective, which is a theater thing. That your super objective is kind of your overarching, primary driving force. Like vanity. Or safety. Or something like that. There’s some thing that you’re driving towards. Your objective is the concrete thing that you’re trying to do in that moment. Often, what you choose for objective is wrong. This is a thing that I think you can do with trying to create nuance for your characters, is to let them be wrong about things.
[Brandon] Well, we are out of time. It’s another one of those topics we probably could have gone on for hours and hours. I’m going to use a director’s prerogative and say our homework is going to be… Yeah, we’re going to do the thing Amal suggested.
[Yay! Sorting hat chats!]
[Brandon] Sorting hat chats. Go look it up. Read it and sort yourself or one of your characters into one of these houses with subhouses. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.