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Friday, May 20, 2011

The Psychology of Character Development, Part VI

I was going to continue with the personality disorders this week, but I figure those will keep. Instead, I think I’ll blog about a couple of old-fashioned concepts like honor and integrity. It’s easy to behave in an honorable fashion when things are going well. Really it is. And, it’s also easy to hold up that integrity banner, smile pretty and pretend your principles are bulletproof.

How about when the going gets tough, though? Are you (or your characters) able to do the right thing in the face of unfavorable odds? When they don't do the right thing, have you built in enough by way of explanation for how they're operating in the world? Nothing grates quite so much as a one dimensional antagonist. 

I had an unsettling experience this week that’s driving this blog post. I suppose I’ve had such good luck soliciting services over the internet, I simply assumed everyone I found through that venue would be a decent sort. Ya know, truth, justice and the American way and all that tripe. Heh! I feel like a bit of a rube admitting that. But, yes, I’ve always tried to be honest and forthright. I do what I say I will, even if it inconveniences me and I expect the same from others.

Well, hey, I hired someone. I did my part. I paid them. Told them what I wanted. They promised me a sample of their work so I could have input along the way. Never got that sample. Nope. Got a finished product that was way off the mark. Not very close at all to what I’d requested. I asked for changes and was told I didn’t know what I wanted, that they knew better than I, etc. "No changes," I was told. "Take it or leave it."

My honor is intact. My trust in the universe is sorely shaken, however.

Shamelessly, I’ve been trying to see what sort of story person I could build out of the aggressive soul who took advantage of me. Since character is the name of the game here, the person was opportunistic. And, on top of that, I think they’ve been far more successful in years past than currently. However, they could be living off past glories and have an inflated—if not narcissistic—view of their skills and abilities. That’s why I got the “I know better than you lecture”, because they truly believe it.

All really good authors (and I’m certainly not saying I am one) are able to get inside their characters sufficiently to build convincing motives for how the characters behave. If I’m correct and the one who screwed me over really is captain of a wagon that’s rolling down the hill, that would explain a lot. Like how they thought because they gave me a “price break” I should bow down and be happy with whatever they gave me. If they’re used to commanding a much higher price for their work, they would feel that way.

All righty, then. We have the underpinnings for a credible story character. They’re maybe in their forties, or perhaps even fifties.. Old enough to have had a successful career. Unfortunately, that career was tied to an industry that’s fallen on hard times here of late. Since I just got back from a conference where I listened sadly while some of my favorite authors shared about how they can’t make a living anymore, I’m guessing that could be a key element in someone who’s turned into an angry, bitter curmudgeon. Anyway, without too much work here, I’ve managed to come up with a sketch for a character I’m sure I’ll use sometime. What makes your characters click? What’s the grit in the oyster that creates that pearl otherwise known as personality?

As an aside, men often tie their self worth to their careers, women to their families. Bottom line is our self concept needs to link to us. To who we are independent of families and careers. One exercise I’ve often had groups do is to turn to the person next door and describe oneself without mentioning anything about one’s family or what one does to earn a living. That tends to stop people cold. Who are you when you strip away wife, mother, son, engineer, doctor, lawyer, teacher? Go ahead, try it. See what you come up with.


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