As a writer I tend to observe people. You never know when someone is going to start acting like a character in a novel. A novelist’s job is to portray characters as three-dimensionally as possible, right? So you have to do a lot of research into human behavior to see what characters do. It’s like people-watching in the mall on a universal scale. The art of writing is making characters that are as realistic as possible.
Okay, but here’s the thing about characters, about people, and about realism. People are not normal.
Have you ever heard the expression “the truth is stranger than fiction”? Nowhere is this more true than when it comes to personality. Let me tell you, I’ve met some strange people in my life. Would you know that they’re strange from the outside? Absolutely not. To all the world they seem as though they are as normal and average as a brown paper bag. But when you start to look inside of that bag things get funky.
I have a friend who is attractive, extremely fashion conscious, and relatively quiet in a professional or unfamiliar situation. From the outside I’m not sure if you would pick her out in a crowd as someone different or noteworthy. She also happens to be seriously OCD, keeps a drawer full of return envelopes for bills that will never be used and saves the backing off of address labels because she absolutely cannot throw them away. And she has a lot of rubber bands. Sound familiar at all? OCD is more common than you might think.
I have some other friends, a family, that a lot of people would never give the time of day to. As a group they are not the most attractive people on the planet. They’re all overweight and have a sort of droopy, far-away look that they inherited from someone. A lot of people write them off at first glance. But in reality these are some of the most brilliant, creative, evolved people that I know. We have had discussions that have boggled my mind and turned me on to a whole universe of thought. The mom in this family, who is only about 10 years older than me and in the wrong light bears an unfortunate resemblance to a toad, has some of the wisest, most erotic insights about sexuality that I’ve ever heard. But would you know it to look at her? Never.
I know another guy through cricket that is charming, handsome, talented, and makes me want to punch him in the face almost every time I see him. He’s a complete douche … but at the same time I can’t stay angry with him. I just can’t. Because along with being a total asshole he’s also an impish little boy all grown up.
I’m pretty goofy myself. I have a horrible temper. I tend to get massively upset about things at the drop of a hat. But I also cool off and get over it just as quickly. One day I’ll be ready to cut you open and deep-fry your liver and the next I’ll make you a batch of my secret recipe chocolate chip cookies. But I’m not pathological in any way. I just deal with my emotions immediately and intensely instead of letting them sink below the surface and fester (like some people do). I’ve had to deal with a lot of crap in life and this is the method that works the best for me to process it. That and writing about it.
So what’s the point of all of these observations?
Simple. Looking for a good, deep, three-dimensional character for your next novel? Look no further than the people around you.
There is no such thing as a “normal” person. Oh, sure, the media tries to tell us that there is. Sitcoms all across TV have tried to tell us that normal people are all around us, that they have perfect hair all the time and live in houses that are always clean. From movies we learn how “normal” friendships work, how we will be BFFs with our childhood buddies forever … except when it comes time to plan a wedding. Over and over this image of happy, normal people who think what they’re supposed to think, dress the way they’re supposed to dress, and interact with the world the way they’re supposed to react are thrown at us. But you know what? You know why reality TV with it’s crazy, over-the-top, certifiable characters is so popular right now? Because at heart we’re all more like that than we are like the sitcom friends.
Alright, what do we, as writers, do with this observation?
Well, we can start by not churning out cookie-cutter sitcom characters in our novels. It may work on TV, where the lighting is good and the attention-spans are short, but “normal” characters just don’t fly in fiction. Literally, if you happen to be writing Fantasy. But sometimes I feel like writers of all experience levels fall into the dull pattern of creating characters that are shiny and perfect. Maybe they do this because they think that characters with ginormous quirks won’t come off as credible.
I find this particularly in Romance. The heroine has to be smart and sassy and perfect and the hero has to be hot and masculine and perfect again. YAWN! One of the best compliments I’ve been given about my novel The Loyal Heart is that the hero turned out to be someone other than who they expected him to be. Why? Because he wasn’t the hunky good guy. I have another hero in an upcoming novel (with an oh-so exciting working title of “West”) who is a middle-aged OCD shopkeeper with glasses. And he’s awesome! Because the true heroism of that character comes not from what people expect him to be but from the very unexpected (even to him) part of him, it makes him all that much more fabulous. At least in my opinion.
So let’s see some abnormal characters out there! Go walk around Wal-Mart and call it research. The world is so much more interesting because of all of the weirdness it contains. As writers that’s what we need to be capturing.