It’s easy to make characters’ self-perceptions accurate. It’s simpler for the writer, and for the reader, though it’s probably less satisfying for both. But a couple of things I’ve stumbled across this morning gave me interesting ways to break this pattern.
For real human beings, accurate self-perception is hard. I have a wobbly grasp of my own abilities at the best of times. I thought I was good at painting until I made a blobby mess of our bannisters yesterday, while my career trajectory has been marked a lack of belief in my own aims. Insight is hard work, and we often don’t even know we need to do that work.
When writing characters, on the other hand, it’s self-deception that’s tricky. You as the writer have a clear idea of who this person is, and you want to get that onto the page. One of your mechanisms to achieve this is through their self-perceptions, so it’s natural to default to making them accurate. If you’ve got more than one point of view, or an outspoken companion, you can slip in a different perception of the character, but that’s likely to be about emphasis or style rather than capability.
For example, I’m currently writing a story with two central characters. One is a grizzled veteran who likes to get physical, the other a city girl who prefers sophistication and manipulation. She thinks he’s a dullard, but his ability to fight has never been called into question. The things that she challenges him on, like his ability to navigate the city, are the areas where he’s actually weak. By my standards, I was challenging myself writing these two characters. But in terms of self-perceptions, I’ve taken an easy route.
So what’s made me think about this differently?
Han Solo, bigger hero than he thinks
First, have I read this article on Han Solo, especially the last point – that Han isn’t actually confident in his skills as a captain and pilot. It might seem counter-intuitive, given his attitude in the Star Wars films, but it made sense to me. He’s not so confident in his skills, so he over-compensates by bragging. But the truth shows in his actions. He’s like some people who aren’t confident in their social skills, but try to cover for it by being really loud and brash when they’re on show.
Except those guys don’t hang out with a wookie.
Just world fallacy – I totally deserve it
Then there’s the just world fallacy, as explained in this vlogbrothers video:
People want to believe in a just world, so they believe that they’ve earned what they’ve got, even if the evidence doesn’t support this. Remind you of any politicians you’ve heard? What, most of them? I agree.
We do see this one played out in villains sometimes, where they truly believe that they deserve the riches and power they’re trying to haul in. But we also see a lot of villains who don’t buy into their own status, who justify it through ideals or just giving in to villainy – as Keanu Reeves put it during his screen foray into Shakespeare, ‘at least I am a plain speaking villain, dude’ (alright, the ‘dude’ may have been unspoken, but it’s there in his voice). Maybe this is an aspect of psychology we could play with more.
In conclusion, ignore me
What’s the point of all this? Well, mostly to gather these thoughts in one place for my future reference. What can I say, I write these posts, sometimes they’re for me.
But beyond that, if you’re writing, maybe have a go at using the just world fallacy, or someone more skilled than they are confident. And if you’re reading – which you are, you’ve just read these words, this sentence was a trap! – let me know what you think about this. Can you think of similar aspects of psychology to use in stories? Of other examples of this in books and films? Then comment below.
And thanks to occasional commenter Jon Taylor for putting me onto that video.