Thursday, April 13, 2006

Judge of Character

I always write here about issues that I come across in my fiction writing as I come across them. Hence I wrote a post about hard characters to write a few days ago.

And from there I always branch out into other things too. Well, we call that thinking, don't we?

After writing about my characters and analyzing them a bit in the post, I noticed how much emphasis I put on certain traits of the characters I write. I noticed I used the word 'smart' several times to describe them and it got me thinking. Do I really pay that much attention to that in real life? When I meet people, is that the what I care about - how smart, wise, or intelligent they are?

If so, isn't this view simplistic? And do I then transfer that to my fictional characters and make them somewhat flat with the main characteristic always being smart or not? It worried me.

At the same time, these past few days I've spent a lot of time with family. Spending time with family is different than spending time with friends. For some reasons we - and I think it's most people, and if not then just I - expect a lot more from family members. Things I wouldn't pay attention to with friends, I do with family. I want perfection in both character and relationship with family members. Impossible of course.

I was afraid I also transfer this into my characters.

I looked back and checked some of my writing to see if I transferred this ridiculous notion that family should be perfect and that people's most important trait is their brains.

I'm happy to say that I think I'm safe. As far as family relations go, I believe I draw an accurate imperfect picture. As far as smarts it's a bit more complicated. Yes, I do put emphasis to that effect in my characters, but I put emphasis on other characteristics as well that balance its importance.

I'm probably thinking too much about it, but after that post I just couldn't help it.
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Jennifer said...

My characters, when I do basic descriptions of them, usally include the word smart, but I realize that rarely are they 'smart' in the sense of beyond normal.

They're 'smart' in that they try to learn things, are willing to learn things.

That said, neither have I written a 'dumb' character. Mine all seem to have some common sense and basic ability to get through life.

I'm not sure if this is because I write for children or if it's something more. But I've always found that 'dumb' or overly 'smart' characters aren't always the most interesting or compelling. In fact sometimes they can be annoying.

I think I try and make my characters the average everyday girl or boy that's appealing. That has something to offer the reader, that the reader will get attached to, root for...

Jean said...

Fascinating thoughts. I'd never considered this before. As I ponder it, I wonder if the smart is really a term that can be accurately described. Lynne Johnston, the cartoonist who pens "For Better or For Worse" has begun featuring a mentally challenged character lately. This character, created with the assistance (as I understand it) of a mentally challenged adult who works with Lynne, has some insightful comments--as I suspect most mentally challenged people do at one time or another. Smart is relative and variable. Even the most intelligent people do dumb things sometimes or fall short in the common sense area.

To turn this around, how would you create or portray a "dumb" character? Would they always be that way? Coming back to "real life," do you know people who are always dumb? How do you define it?

Great question, Melly.

ME Strauss said...

Great question on so many levels. We sort of notice only the people at the extremes--the ones we like and the ones we really don't, the characteristics we like and we really don't . . . I can't smell and a friend started to realize how often she commented on smells in her house as a result of my being around.

I think when I say something in my writing about a character it's so the reader doesn't misinterpret what he or she is doing. So maybe you're just protective of your characters. (smile)

Melly said...

Jennifer, you're probably right, although I do tend to have excessively smart characters, at least one per story. And that might be because I write more sci-fi which lends itself to that.
But is there a quality that you pay attention to more than others? Say, kindness?

Jean, thanks, and of course you're right. Intelligent and smart people can be quite stupid in other areas. Most common, social ineptness - almost cliche the smart geek nerdy type.
Dumb people - oh boy. To be honest, I never tried, and this is exactly why I got worried. Do I always write the same characters? Even if this particular character is developped, can I not write another? And how bad is it to have a few strong characters I always use? I don't know.

Liz, protective is a good way of describing it, I guess.
Yes, we do notice the exremes, and perhaps that's why we write them. Good point :)

Jennifer said...

Yeah my characters all have that 'kindness' factor which makes them likable. I think I try mainly to make a character that kids can relate to. One that will push the limits every now and then. One that gets yelled at for doing something they shouldn't have. One who can laugh, tease, get angry, be happy...

I think I have a different perspective though. When I'm writing for 10-13 year olds I really make sure the readers can relate to them, and kids relate to characters totally different than adults.

I know when I wrote my Young Adult novel, I had to change my take on characters slightly. I had some truely 'evil' characters...they were supposed to be bad. They were supossed to have qualities that made you not like them. And then I did have some characters that had the 'smart' syndrom :D

ME Strauss said...

I've been thinking about this, Melly you say you always have an intelligent character. Jennifer, you always have a kind one. I always have one who says the unexpected funny stuff, someone light-hearted.

Hmmmmmm. I think the picture is getting clearer. :)

Pat Kirby said...

Well...I cut family and old friends a lot of slack. I expect family to drive me crazy (you can't pick 'em) and old friends get an automatic "get out of irritation free" card by virtue of longevity.

As I get older, however, I'm much less likely to suffer fools. I really don't like stupid people. Hubris? You betcha. But nothing irritates me more than people who blunder stupidly through life, usually at the expense of others.

So, while I don't expect people to be geniuses, I want them to exhibit a lot of common sense. In my arrogant little world, the absence of common sense and critical thinking ability is stupidity. Lacking that, they don't make the friend list. (I can be polite, but never more than that.)

While I won't describe a character as smart, I do try to give them common sense, protagonists anyway. I think this is a reaction to reading too many romance novels where the heroine is an over-emotional, over-reacting, ninny.

I do like kindness. Again, as a reaction to the "bitter, tough girl with a chip on her shoulder," protagonist that is typical in many urban fantasy series, I try to go the opposite direction and give my character compassion

Also avoiding the usual convention--family estrangement--I gave her a kooky family that drives her nuts, but she loves them anyway.

I guess those are my "character patterns."

Benji said...

Characters don't exist in a vacuum. There has to be some overly with setting and situation. If all the elements of a narrative are active, then they will all unavoidable bleed into each other.

Furthermore, stories aren't about characters, they're about the actions of characters. So why observe bodies at rest? My question would be, how do they move? Or, what is their mover? As if they have an internal formula that will dictate their response to stimuli, and will also, over time, dictate their own identity.

Jennifer said...

romance novels where the heroine is an over-emotional, over-reacting, ninny.

Oh my god! Those books never make it to the esteemed spot on my book shelf. In fact rarely do they hold my attention. I need a character with substance (sp). There's gotta be something there to them other than the 'blonde syndrom'


Melly said...

Jennifer (1) - I thought you would have a kindness factor. It's our hangups (for lack of a better word) I guess.
Other than a few short stories, I haven't written YA, and it makes sense to me that kids relate somewhat differently to characters. I think that master at that is J.K.Rowling. The way Harry Potter and the other characters changed as they grew older is exactly how I'd imagine a good YA writer would do it.

Liz, oh goodness. I hope no one thought that because I concentrate so much on intelligence that I think I am. It's just a hangup, you know, being always afraid to sound stupid...
But I see where you're going with this. Even if it is a hangup, it's my hangup and it comes across. Same thing with you and Jennifer. Makes so much sense :)

Pat, you're a much better person than I am. While I never get mad (as in not talking) with family and good frineds, they do tend to drive me nuts more than casual friends would. Maybe I expect too much, who knows???
Maybe trying to brake norms and patterns is your think just as it is with your character - what do you think?

Benji, interesting points. Of course characters don't operate in vacuum, but that formula that you talk about, is that their charactersitics, what defines them?
I like how you connect the actions with the traits of the characters.

Jennifer (2) - me too :)
I feel the same way.