Human beings are pattern making animals. Even the most spontaneous and untidy of us enjoy, in some parts of our lives, to establish categories, to sort and order, to make connections and so to draw inferences. We create structures around these patterns and these patterns allow us to predict outcomes. However, the more such patterns and expectations are reinforced, the more our brains go into autopilot. That is why cliches are so deadly: we’ve heard them so many times that our brains switch off. Psychologists have long stated that what makes the brain sit up and take notice are things that are out of the ordinary – or, more powerfully, when something strange, a small hiccup, an unexpected detail, is found within something that we thought we knew and understood. This peaks our interest and makes us want to find out more. The experience is new and fresh and makes our brains wake-up.
As writers, we can give our readers the comfort of familiar patterns and situations but our job is also to surprise, to jolt, to wake-up. One of the best ways to do this is through character. There is something wonderful about establishing a character with whom the reader can identify or whom the reader readily recognises: this moment of recognition make the reader feel involved and empowered: he’s just like…she reminds me so much of… But then comes the power of a little twist. Something unexpected. The jolt I mentioned. I believe that, when we come to know most people, we have this experience: we form an initial impression, often from scraps of information and observation and then, if we have the honour of getting to know them on a deeper level, a complexity is revealed. The paradoxes and contradictions and anomalies that lift us from the stereotype and make us richly human.
I’ve recently read Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread. Anne Tyler is a master at presenting the deeply familiar and then surprising us with a subtle detail. Here is a wonderful description of a character whose name fails to match up with his appearance or personality:
Abby had always thought Red’s good looks didn’t go with his name. He should have had red hair and that pinkish skin that went with it; he should have been freckled and doughy. Instead, he was all black-and-white, lean and lanky, with a boyish prominent Adam’s apple and wrist bones as distinct as cabinet knobs. Today he was wearing a T-shirt that was more holes than fabric, and khakis with dirty knees. He could have been one of his father’s workmen.
Why this exercise works:
As discussed above, it gives readers that wonderful balance between experiencing the comfortingly familiar and that jolt of surprise: this alchemy provides for a wonderful reading experience. It also bypasses cliches and stereotypes.
Exercise: 20 minutes
- Choose a character you are working on in a novel, a play, a short story etc. or create a new one from scratch (choose a gender, a name, an age).
- Give your character one telling detail: a name which has specific connotations; a way of dressing; a particular socio-economic background; a cultural or religious affiliation; a geographical location; a house; a car; a job; a hobby; a skill; a way of talking or moving etc.
- Think of how the telling detail you have chosen above had connotations of a particular character of a kind your reader would be familiar with. What kind of person does your reader expect your character to be from the detail you have given them? And now choose a conflicting detail – or set of details. Again, this could be a name which has specific connotations; a way of dressing; a particular socio-economic background; a cultural or religious affiliation; a geographical location; a house; a car; a job; a hobby; a skill; a way of talking or moving etc.
- Consider what this conflict between the expected and the unexpected elements of your character reveals – how does it make your character more complex and deeper? How might it relate to the plot or to the relationships your character has?
- Now write a paragraph, like Anne Tyler’s, which presents this anomaly. You could show it through the eyes of another character, as Tyler does here (Abby is reflecting on Red), or in the first person as a character reflects on him or herself. Like Tyler, be brutally specific (don’t you love, ‘wrist bones as distinct as cabinet knobs’?); this specificity is what will make your character come to life.
- Apply this same process to other characters you are working on.
- As mentioned above, make more notes on how this anomaly you have created affects your characters’ relationships, his goals, the obstacles he faces, the outcome of the story.
- Ask yourself whether your character is aware of the anomaly: if so, does he or she use it to his or her advantage; does he or she find it difficult or embarrassing; if not: what problems does he or she face when others mention or react to the anomaly?