How Your Subconscious Affects Your Character Interactions

When I was editing Shards last year, I came to a realization about my own writing, and I’ve since talked to several other authors who have confirmed that this happens to them as well.

As an author, you’re privy to information your readers don’t have. And that means you know a character’s true stripes, even if your other characters, and your readers, don’t figure this out until later.

And it turns out that what you think about a character can subconsciously affect how your other characters view that character. For example, if you know you have a character that turns out to be a bad guy later on, then your other characters may view that character with suspicion for no obvious reason in your early drafts.

With the first draft of the first book (say that five times fast) of my high fantasy trilogy, one of the characters does some bad things by the end of the book, but the other characters were mean to him from the get-go, which was confusing to the readers.

There was no reason for the other characters to not like this character. He’d done nothing bad yet. But knew he’d be bad in the end, and apparently that came out through the other characters without me meaning it to.

Luckily, this is something that is fixable and you can train yourself to stop doing it.

However, I was poking at that same fantasy trilogy earlier this week (see last post) and I discovered that, without meaning to, I’d accidentally done it again, but in the opposite direction. Instead of characters treating a bad character suspiciously with no justifiable reason, I had bad characters treating a character like she was good, and would always be good, and it wasn’t even worth it to try and corrupt her, because she would obviously never be corruptible, never mind that it is in these people’s characters to try and corrupt everything they touch.

And what I find most interesting is that, in the five years since I wrote this particular draft of the first book, I’ve had probably a dozen people read it, and not one person ever realized (or at least pointed out) that fact (some of these same people read the earlier draft with the bad person suspicions and caught that one handily). I mean, not even me, til a few days ago.

Which brings up an interesting question–do we, as readers, more easily accept a character as unilaterally good? Do we look at a “good” character and think much along the lines of the villains–that a hero is incorruptible, that they can’t be made to falter, so they need to be defeated straight out rather than through manipulation? Do we automatically assume a character is good until they do something that makes them otherwise?

I went to a panel at a writing conference about mysteries once, and one of the panelists said that they couldn’t know who the murderer was while they were doing the actual writing because otherwise too many clues snuck in. Interesting how the author knowing something can unknowingly affect the story.

Have you encountered this in a story, or in something you’ve written yourself?

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