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Today’s article is in some sense about the opposite of my last one on the fundamental attribution error. That article is all about what happens because we can’t see deeply enough into the minds and lives of others. This one is all about what happens because other people can’t see into our minds.

The illusion of transparency

As usual, psychologists have a name for this, the “illusion of transparency.” What it means is that we tend to over-estimate the degree to which people can see our own mental states: our hopes and dreams, our desires, our attitudes, our beliefs, and our emotional states. We think it’s obvious when we’re frustrated, or confused about something and want someone to explain more, or stressed out from working 12 hour days non-stop. We think these things are on the surface, and that people will thus react to us as we would wish, without us having to tell them what we want or need.

But they don’t, because in fact our inner lives are not so obvious to everyone else. That’s the illusion: we’re not as transparent as we think.

Misunderstanding, resentment, and conflict

Much like I talked about a long time ago in my article on inner vs. outer character arcs, the illusion of transparency creates a mismatch between how we see ourselves and how other people see us. We see our inner self, with all our strife and troubles, while other people only see the calm facade we project on the surface.

It’s not hard to see how to build this into a rising-tension sequence. Take two characters. Let one of them do something that is hard for them, that represents real effort and struggle. Something for which they wish want a bit of recognition.

Maybe it’s an employee and her boss. Let’s say the employee volunteers to do some large, yet tedious, pile of work that nobody else wants to touch. Like, say, manually verifying that the shipping addresses of all 10,000 customers in the database have a valid zip code. Perhaps she does it because she’s new and isn’t secure in her job yet. Or maybe she’s angling for a promotion. Whatever the case, she sucks it up and does the job, staying late every night and coming in on weekends for two weeks straight until it’s finished.

But of course, she doesn’t make a big deal about it to anybody, because that would be fishing for compliments and she doesn’t want to come across a needy drama queen. So she just mentions in her weekly meeting with her boss, “Oh, and I took care of the zip code thing. It’s done now.”

And he says “Oh, great. Thanks. Now, what about the marketing proposal for Zipco Industries?”

To her, the bags under her eyes have never felt larger or looked darker. She feels frazzled beyond belief. But he can’t see that. She’s still putting her best professional face forward. As far as he can tell she’s fine, so it’s on to the next order of business. He misses entirely her need to be recognized for the yeoman effort she put forth. There’s the misunderstanding.

Next time a nasty pile of grunt-work comes along, guess who gets asked to do it? That’s right, the gal who did it last time without making a big fuss about it. Now, not only was her effort not recognized, but she feels penalized for doing all that work by having been given yet another crappy job to handle. Cue some resentment.

Another round of absent recognition is sure to follow, until ultimately something gives. This mis-match between how she perceives her efforts and the recognition she feels she has earned, versus how her boss sees her will boil over in a fabulous, juicy rant. “I work myself to rags around here, and what do I get? Nothing! Not a word of thanks. Not a pat on the back, or a little bit of a bonus, or even a measly comp day! Well you know what, you insensitive jerk? You can take this job and shove it!”

And that’s part of the fun of novels: letting our characters do the stuff we wish we had the sheer temerity to do in real life.

No, it’s not hard at all to see how the illusion of transparency can lead people into some seriously conflict-laden situations. And we have no one to blame but ourselves: first, we make the mistake of over-estimating the degree to which others can see how we feel. Our indignation at the way we are then treated (or feel we have been mistreated), then causes us to commit the fundamental attribution error by assuming the worst about the people we feel have done us wrong. In fact, they didn’t do anything wrong. It’s not their fault they aren’t telepathic. We’re not as transparent as we think.

Empathy, kindness, and compassion

Of course, there’s a flip-side too. Some people are weirdly good at sensing what’s going on with the people around them. Some people just know when you need a hug or when to say “hey, wow, that was great lasagna. Can I have your recipe?” or whatever it might be. Some people seem to have the magic x-ray glasses that do render others transparent.

We call that “empathy,” and people who have it tend to respond with shows of kindness and compassion. So as writers, if we want readers to believe that a character is empathetic in that way, we can simply show them doing or saying just what another character needs right in that moment. This is the person who, unbidden, plops down on the couch and hands their distraught housemate a dish of ice-cream, then casually asks “so, how was work today?” Small acts of kindness, or simply of caring about how someone else is feeling, are gold for portraying your novel’s sensitive people.

Empathy, maliciousness, and manipulation

Then there’s the dark side of empathy. It’s not a rule that empathetic people are kind and compassionate. It’s only a tendency. Some of them use their power for evil. I mean, if you have a knack for intuiting people’s emotional states and emotional needs, it’s easy to manipulate them. At your whim, you can give them what they want, withhold it, or hold it out as a promise in exchange for something else.

These are your “users,” your emotionally manipulative types who never need to raise a hand in anger or resort to violence because they have a much more powerful tool at their disposal: the ability to twist other people’s emotional states and needs to their own ends. As writers, we can use this dark side of empathy to create some seriously wicked characters. These are people who immediately spot what kind of emotional interaction someone else is craving, and then ponder how they can turn it to their own advantage.

Getting in your characters’ heads

Making good use of the illusion of transparency can be tricky for writers, because to us, all of our characters are perfectly transparent. We’re the ones who decide how everyone feels; to us, there’s no mystery about that like there is with other people in the real world. This is where you need to practice that controlled multiple-personalities technique I wrote about back in April. In any interaction between characters, you have to work hard to keep each person’s mental state clear in your own head, so as to create believable interactions between them.

The danger, since characters are so transparent to us, is that it’s all too easy to let our characters slip into the same compassionate insights we have for them, even if that wouldn’t be realistic or wouldn’t fit the situation. And when that happens, you lose hold of the very source of conflict that the illusion of transparency would otherwise provide.

June 08, 2010 22:41 UTC

Tags: character, illusion of transparency, emotion, conflict, empathy

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The joys of a perfectly boring character

The other day I did an article about creating a loveable jerk as your protagonist. Let me be clear: I am not now going to suggest that you also set about creating a protagonist who is an utter bore.

A boring supporting character, on the other hand, can be a delight for readers.

It’s not that boring characters are, in and of themselves, interesting or delightful. That would be something of an oxymoron. What boring characters can do is create interesting and delightful situations for your readers to enjoy.

Why boring is fun

Ok, it’s not fun. In real life, boring people aren’t fun at all. Nor are they fun for our protagonists to deal with. But they can be fun for readers, because bores can be a great source of laughs. In particular, they can serve as hilarious obstacles between your protagonists and their goals.

Humor comes when the boring person—often un-knowingly—skewers the protagonist on the horns of an uncomfortable social dilemma: how can she get the bore out of her way without being rude? Obviously, most protagonists are socially adept enough that they can empathize with other people. This empathy is the basis for a strong form of social inhibition, in which the protagonist doesn’t want to be rude to the bore because she doesn’t want to hurt the bore’s feelings.

Dr. House doesn’t have this problem. But then, he’s a jerk. He doesn’t care whose feelings he hurts. If your protagonist isn’t a jerk, it’s only natural she will try to deal with bores using the same, polite techniques that work for regular people. She’s trying not to bruise anybody’s ego. Except that bores, by their nature, don’t respond to those techniques like normal people do.

It doesn’t take much imagination to see the many ways these mismatched interaction styles can lead to uncomfortable, frustrating, and potentially humorous situations. Is your protagonist rushing to get the kids out the door for school? Have a boring neighbor drop by to borrow a light bulb, but first spend 10 minutes explaining the backstory behind how her own bulb came to be burnt out. You get the idea: making your protagonist deal with a complete bore on top of what’s actually important to her in the scene can be a humorous way to follow that old writer’s adage, “when in doubt, make it worse.”


The central trait of boring people is social cluelessness. Whatever thoughts are bouncing around inside their boring little heads, those thoughts don’t intersect strongly enough with reality to give these people any insight into what other people think about them. The problem is, cluelessness is itself internal to the bore; it’s invisible from the outside. Yet, as a writer you know better than to jump inside the heads of all of our minor characters. And you do, right?

What you need is something external to show the reader. As a writer, put yourself into the bore’s shoes—it’s controlled schizophrenia again—and ask how you’d reveal yourself without knowing it:

  • You would be into something nobody else cares about. Find something truly meaningless in the grander scheme of life, like perhaps the subtle differences between different brands of styling mousse. Then talk about that whenever you can, with great passion and enthusiasm. Talk about it in great detail, too, as though other people actually know what the hell you’re talking about, and as though they share your fascination with the subject.

  • You would interrupt people with random, barely tangential stuff. This is especially effective when the normal person is trying to explain something to you, such as why that clunking sound from your car’s engine compartment might be something you want to have looked at. By all means, interrupt with a five minute digression about seat belt design from a thing you saw on the Discovery Channel one time. Don’t forget to double your bore-o-meter rating by coupling this with the technique of assuming that having had even the slightest exposure to the subject—say, having once overheard some guys in the high school cafeteria talking about what they were doing in auto shop that day—makes you as much of an expert as the normal person who’s trying to help you understand something.

  • You would go in blind. Initiate social interactions with normal people without first checking to see whether such interaction is necessary, welcome, or even marginally appropriate for the normal person’s situation. Don’t sweat it! Just barge on in and start extolling the joys of the new imported French styling mousse you ordered from the internet. Whatever they were talking about can’t possibly be as important. Oh, and don’t forget to fill them in on all the details of the website’s order form and the problems you had even ordering the mousse because you refuse to upgrade to a modern browser. That’s key information!

  • You would be oblivious to anyone but yourself. This doesn’t mean to be a raging egomaniac (although bores sometimes are). It just means being blind to the subtle cues normal people drop in the context of normal social interactions. Be so inwardly focused on what you want in the moment, on what you personally hope to get from the conversation, that you entirely forget to consider that the normal person may, just barely, maybe, quite possibly, have some needs of her own.

The boring view of rudeness

Having decided how to show the bore’s total boring-ness, what’s your protagonist going to do about it? In seeking to avoid being rude, what she’s really doing is seeking to avoid being blunt. A regular person knows to drop subtle hints, because regular people pick up on those and respond appropriately. When you’re overly blunt towards a regular person, this comes across as rudeness because it implies that you don’t think the regular person is smart or socially savvy enough to pick up on those clues. That hurts their feelings, and there you go: social inhibitions kick in.

Here’s the kicker: The boring person doesn’t see it that way. The bore is in fact, not smart or socially savvy enough to pick up on those clues. That’s why they engage in boring behavior in the first place! They literally don’t know any better. Your subtle clues won’t register with them. How do you get the bore out of your way without being rude? Simple: You don’t. Boring people, by their nature, need to be dealt with more bluntly. It’s the only way.

Being blunt without being mean

Watching your protagonist squirm on the hook, struggling to escape without resorting to rude bluntness, can be comedy gold. But at the end of the scene, she’s going to have to get rude. There is no other escape. She will eventually have to force herself to let go of those social inhibitions, and do something that feels completely horrible. Still, your protagonist has options. She can be blunt in a neutral way or in a mean-spirited way.

She might say “I’m bored now. Goodbye.” Or hold up her hand and say “I need to stop you there. I don’t have time for this.” If she’s feeling mean, she might say “Shut up and don’t talk to me anymore. You have nothing interesting to say.” Or, perhaps, she might just walk away, leaving the bore in mid-sentence. To her, that’s such a breach of ordinary social protocol, she can hardly bring herself to do it. But then, she’s a normal person. For your readers, who are mostly going to be normal people too, they’ll get the humor in that moment.

Also remember, much of the fun of a lively novel is watching characters do and say all the things we can’t get away with in real life. So don’t be afraid to let loose! Whatever the protagonist does, she’s not going to get out of the situation without doing something that would seem rude to a normal person. The only differences are in kind and degree of rudeness.

Yet from the boring character’s perspective, the moment may well not feel blunt or rude at all. The bore may just nod and say “oh, ok,” then go off in search of another victim. The bore may even feel a certain affection for what just happened. What the bore just experienced was (at last!) someone speaking their language. It could be, in fact, that the protagonist’s bluntness, effective though it was in the moment, only makes the bore more eager to speak to her again later...

April 21, 2010 22:45 UTC

Tags: character, boring, clueless, interaction, empathy

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Six tips for using backstory to create compelling characters

One of my followers on Twitter, @kateblogs asked me for some tips on backstory. I’m not surprised. At writers’ conferences and anywhere published authors and book agents take questions from the audience, there are always questions about backstory: how much to create and how much of it to include in the book.

Unfortunately, those are the wrong questions. Effective use of backstory isn’t a matter of finding the ideal amount. The right question about backstory, is “How do I use backstory to create compelling characters?” So that’s what I’m going to answer.

I have six main suggestions. The first three are strategies you can use for painting a character’s broad strokes in a way that is effective for the story, compelling, and also something you’re going to enjoy writing. The last three are more detail-oriented techniques you can use to flesh out those broad strokes.

  1. Create what the story demands. You’re probably not starting from a totally blank slate. You probably have a premise in mind for your story. Is it a young-adult adventure? A heist caper? A murder mystery? That’s good, because your premise can guide you in constructing your backstory. For example: In 2007, I wrote a young adult adventure set on the Pony Express Trail. It’s a western. My YA audience suggests that the protagonist should be about 16 years old. Naturally, such a story has to take place in the American West. All together, this pointed very clearly towards a backstory about a boy whose parents were homesteaders. He was born back east, but moved west at a young age with his parents, and then grew up as a farm boy. It’s not an amazing stroke of creative genius, but it is what the story demands.

  2. What is the character’s wound? Elizabeth Lyon, in her book Manuscript Makeover, has the great advice that memorable, realistic, vivid characters always have some sort of emotional issue they’re dealing with. She calls it their underlying “wound.” Whatever it is, it’s the thing that drives the character arc that runs in parallel with your overall story arc. For my Pony Express novel, I needed a wound that would serve to create conflict and problems for the main character to overcome. Ideally, it would be one that also relates well to the underlying premise. The Pony Express famously employed a lot of orphans, so I made my main character an orphan. I killed his parents off in a fire when he was 12 years old. His wound is that he’s angry: angry at the world, at fate, at God for taking his parents away and destroying his life. He has quite a temper, which gets him in trouble frequently. Learning to rein in his temper over the course of the book’s adventure is his character arc.

  3. What do you love (or hate) in a character? I firmly believe that nobody can write a good novel if they don’t themselves like the story and the characters they’re working with. And why would you even want to? So while you’re thinking about backstory, think about the kinds of characters you love to read about in the genre you’re writing. For example, I’m sick to death of fantasy novels where the main character is a king or prince, or when they start out as a nobody but turn out to be the long-lost heir to the throne. It’s been done to death. So for one fantasy novel, I gave my main character a backstory that was as completely run-of-the-mill ordinary as I could. I made him an ordinary kid, apprentice to the village blacksmith, in a piddly little town out in the sticks. Lost kings and princes may be dramatic, but they’re a lot harder for readers to relate to, and I’ll take empathy over cliche drama any day. So ask yourself, in your genre, what kinds of characters do you love? What kinds do you hate? What kinds have been done to death? Let that guide you in creating your characters’ backstories.

  4. Conduct an interview. The first three questions gave you the broad outlines of your character. Now start to flesh her out with an interview. Write up a list of questions. Longer is probably better. The trick is to start with easy stuff, like “where were you born,” “how old are you.” Work up to more personal questions like “tell me about your first boy/girlfriend,” but keep the questions focused on things that aren’t likely to have any real bearing on your plot. Finally, start asking harder questions, the kind you’d find in a serious job interview: “How do you motivate yourself to do things you need to do, but don’t really want to?” “Tell me about a time when you really failed at something and what you learned from the experience?” “Tell me about a serious disagreement you’ve had with someone, at work or in your personal life, and how you handled it.” After you’ve written the questions, answer them in the order you wrote them. What you’re doing is mentally sneaking up on the character. Answering the easy questions gives you time to train yourself to think like her and imagine what it’s like to be her. By the time you get to the serious questions, you should have a pretty good handle on who she is. Their answers serve you two-fold: on one level, the answer to “tell me about a time when you really failed at something and what you learned from the experience” gives you some interesting backstory. But on another level, it gives you insight into the character’s deeper motivations and emotional issues that are critical in portraying a realistic, distinctive person on the page.

  5. Write her eulogy or curriculum vitae Imagine the future, after your heroine has died. What would loving friends and family say at her funeral? How would they sum up her life, her accomplishments, and the essential elements of her personality? What funny little stories would they tell? Thinking backwards from a future perspective can be an effective way to generate backstory. If you want a less maudlin take on the technique, write their C.V. entry instead. Imagine that your heroine has been selected to be featured in the next edition of Who’s Who, and you’ve been tapped to write her entry. Imagine she has already succeeded or failed at whatever your premise suggests she’s going to try, and look back from that perspective.

  6. Get quirky This is the fun part. Brainstorm a bunch of random, weird stuff. Quirky hobbies, skills, or experiences your character might have. Maybe she used to be a skydiving instructor. Maybe she collects underground comic books from Soviet Russia. Maybe as a hobby she makes paper and binds it into handmade journals with beautiful deckled edges and dyed endpapers, which she sells at local street fairs. Maybe she makes her own cheese at home, and has built a special aging room in her garage. Think up a dozen or so downright oddball details. Then pick one or two to actually include for real in the character’s background. Now answer the question “how did she come to have those skills?” Write a little story or vignette explaining how she got hooked on Soviet-era comic books or whatever you end up choosing. The reason for doing this is because real people aren’t all-business. Yet too often, writers reveal nothing about their main characters that isn’t directly related to the plot. They miss out entirely on the character’s personal life. Everybody has a personal life, so spend some time figuring out what your character does with hers.

To sum up: Use whichever of these strategies and tips appeals to you. Don’t imagine that you have to do them in order, or even that you have to do them all. If anything, do the very opposite. Pick one, do it for a while, then switch to another. Skip around, jumping from one strategy or technique to the next as the material you discover about your character leads you. For instance, in stumbling upon a great quirk to include, you might realize that the quirk can be related to the character’s emotional wound. So spend some time interviewing or eulogizing until you discover a solid connection between the two. For example, maybe the character’s mother was from France and constantly bemoaned the lack of good cheese in America, so she took up the craft of cheese making in order to satisfy her mother’s yearning for a really good Roquefort; now that her mother has passed away, the cheese making remains as a way for her to hold on to that relationship.

You may or may not ever actually use any of this backstory in the book. But if my experience is any indicator, you will. In my next post, I’ll tackle in greater detail some techniques for using backstory material effectively in the actual implementation of your plot.

September 22, 2009 17:28 UTC

Tags: character, backstory, premise, emotional wound, empathy, motivation, emotion

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