Writing Dynamic Characters: Know What They Don’t

Internal Conflict by Simon de Bakker from FlickrWhether you’re writing a great zombie book, an action-packed thriller, or a thoughtful piece of literature, the bulk of your work will be carried along by your characters.

There are dozens of articles all over the internet that discuss how to write strong characters. Many of these articles suggest outlining a character’s personality by getting to know certain qualities they have. What makes them laugh? What makes them cry? What makes them angry? What will they stand up for?

Things like that.

These are great exercises and can add a lot to your character, but if you push them just one step further things can get much more interesting.

How do you push something like that one step further?

By keeping this in mind: people do not always know themselves.

I’m not even talking in a philosophical sense here, or maybe I am actually, but I’m not going to quote ancient Greeks or Zen Buddhists.

This is, instead, pretty basic psychology. The device used to define what a person knows about themselves even has a fun name. It’s known as a Johari Window (though the drawing on that wiki page is confusing as hell to me).

Basically it breaks down like this, if you ask a group of people for a description of somebody in that group, with that individual also being asked for a description, you will get a fascinating spread of opinions. With the Johari Window it gets more science-y because they have a set list of words and ask everyone to delineate, “Yes this describes the person,” or, “No this does not describe the person.”

In the end there are four possible results for  a word. For example let’s go with the word “Funny.”

  1. The person thinks they are funny. The group thinks the person is funny.Nine Out of Seven by Thomas Lieser from Flickr
  2. The person thinks they are funny. The group does not think the person is funny.
  3. The person does not think they are funny. The group does think they are funny.
  4. The person does not think they are funny. The group does not think they are funny.

This opens up the possibility of a character having a trait that they are unaware of, or believing they have a trait that most people would say they do not. Instead of, “What makes them angry?” You can start to toy around with, “What would other people say makes them angry that they think they’re calm about?”

Let’s use an example and visit with Ranger Ramone again.

Ranger Ramone and his crew rode into the little town. The paint was cracked on most of the buildings and as their space-horses clipped along in the dirty street everything remained quiet.

They approached a large building at the far end of town. The high pitched sound of a piano playing and the low rumble of a crowd could be heard through the windows.

“Must be the saloon,” Ranger Ramone said as they stopped their space-horses out front.

“Ranger Ramone, look!” Miguel said, pointing to a sign posted out front. The sign bore a picture of a space-horse in a circle with a thick red line through it.

“They don’t like space-horse riders in this town,” Miguel said. “We’ll have to stable our horses beyond city limits.”

“I hate horse-racists,” Ranger Ramone said, glaring at the sign.

“That really upsets you,” Miquel said.

“You’re damn right it upsets me!” Ranger Ramone yelled.

That’s…well it’s weird…as things always are with Rarnger Ramone. I have no idea what a space-horse is or why a town would outlaw them. But, hey, it’s a big galaxy.

The point is that we have a situation that is making Ranger Ramone angry. And this anger is obvious.

It is also kind of boring.

Let’s say we switch this up and instead of putting Ranger Ramone’s anger into number 1 above, “The person thinks they are angry. The group thinks the person is angry.” Let’s put it into number 3, “The person does not think they are angry. The group does think they are angry.”

Ranger Ramone and his crew rode into the little town. The paint was cracked on most of the buildings and as their space-horses clipped along in the dirty street everything remained quiet.

They approached a large building at the far end of town. The the high pitched sound of a piano playing and the low rumble of a crowd could be heard through the windows.

“Must be the saloon,” Ranger Ramone said as they stopped their space-horses out front.

“Ranger Ramone, look!” Miguel said, pointing to a sign posted out front. The sign bore a picture of a space horse in a circle with a thick red line through it.

“They don’t like space-horse riders in this town,” Miguel said. “We’ll have to stable our horses beyond city limits.”

Ranger Ramone didn’t move. He sat in his saddle perfectly still, unresponding, just glaring at the sign with its angry red slash through the space-horse.

“You alright?” Miquel asked.

“I’m fine,” Ranger Ramone said, still staring down the sign. Occasionally his narrowed eyes darted over to the windows of the saloon.

“Well, we should see about putting the space-horses up. There’s sure to be a place outside of town.”

“Easy as that, huh?” Ranger Ramone asked, spitting the words at Miquel with disgust.

Miquel was startled and unsure how to respond. “I…yes, Ranger Ramone. Isn’t that how it normally works?”

“Normally,” Ranger Ramone said under his breath with disdain.

“Are you okay, sir?” Miquel asked.

“I’m fine,” Ranger Ramone barked, swinging his space-horse around wildly, her hooves pawing at the air dangerously close to some of the members of their group.

This is ever so much more fun. It breeds conflict all over the place, it adds a sense of mystery, and we have the chance to let characters show their personalities in how they respond to misplaced anger and an unsettled boss.

Now I’m not saying that every feeling your characters have should be unknown to them (though that would be a wild ride). Plenty of our emotions are known to us as well as to others.

But there is more to a character than what makes them laugh. Things can run deeper than that and the people around them can interpret their actions in a number of ways.

And adding those layers can take a flat scene and really make it pop.