Every Sunday, the feature SHANNON MUIR’S MYSTERY OF CHARACTER on SHANNON MUIR’S THE PULP AND MYSTERY SHELF focuses on the art and craft of writing from Shannon’s perspective, or gives you insight on her process as an author.
This special run from February 11th through 14th is to give a taste into this regular Sunday feature.
This installment features Shannon looking into depth of character, and how much is revealed about character – if at all – can affect plot.
This combines and revises three past columns that Shannon Muir did for a sister site.
A while back, while on an author panel at a luncheon, I was asked how I define the importance of “mystery of character”.
My response focused on the idea that I prefer that characters not be easy to guess at. While archetypes and stereotypes can help the readers achieve some sense of familiarity, to me that also runs the risk of being predictable. I prefer to write multi-faceted, flawed characters, that sometimes can leave the reader guessing of their true intentions. In real life, people aren’t always easy to figure out, and as much as reasonable I like writing about characters that are similar.
However, I must make clear this is not the idea of making a character behave inconsistent just to suit plot needs. Any changes in attitude must be justified. Perhaps the character only acted a certain way for a while in order to mislead people to gain trust to learn the truth, and after that a true nature is apparent. I’ve not written a story of this nature, but changes in personality and attitude might underlie some psychological trauma that is key to the character. In short, even what appears as surface inconsistency must still have a solid reason and purpose. That character’s description can help set the tone for first impressions about him or her. In turn, this can set a story’s tone and expectations. However, the initial idea people get of a character may not be accurate.
It’s challenging enough sometimes to develop characters that an audience will believe in. When things can become even more challenging is when that character needs to pretend to be another identity altogether to accomplish a goal. Not only does the added persona need to be believable to the readers, but the readers also need to be convinced that those the disguise is meant to mislead are sufficiently fooled.
This challenge I struggled with in one of my short stories, “Tragic Like a Torch Song,” in the anthology THE DAME DID IT, available in e-book and print. To explain the dual identity setup would be too much of a spoiler, but let me say that it required a lot of effort on my part. Not only did my female character need to be someone else, she needed to pretend to be another person in a time where women would have limitations on what they would normally socially be allowed to do. As a writer, I loved the challenges it presented, and I hope the readers enjoy the results.
There’s also the saying of faking it until one makes it. If a character pretends to be who he or she is not from the outset of the story (and the reader is unaware this is indeed the case), and the reader doesn’t have any frame of reference as to how the character should be, it could skew a reader’s view of the story world. For this reason, unreliable narrators should be used eith a great deal of restraint.
Some thoughts until next time!