Monday Motivation: Treat your characters with utmost respect

 In Monday Motivation, Richard Beynon's blog

You’re sitting opposite someone on a train. She is deeply engaged in a book and you take the liberty of examining her closely. She’s attractive and you enjoy your silent interrogation of her person. You note the brightly coloured scarf wrapped about her throat. You remark the perfect skin, only very lightly made up. You watch her lips, which occasionally move almost imperceptibly as they half-form the words her eyes are reading. You admire the brooch on her lapel, the earrings that glint amidst the folds of the scarf.

If you’re a man, you might intrude a little more. You might in your imagination flirt with her… You might imagine the flirtation leading to something more interesting… A meal, perhaps to begin with, while you beguile her with your best stories… And then, who knows?

Or, if you’re less lascivious than this, you might allow your thoughts to play with a different set of questions. Is she a student? After all, her glasses suggest a certain studiousness. The speed with which she turns the pages of the volume in her hands point to a sharp and agile mind. Perhaps she’s not a student, but an associate professor, perhaps of… literature? Sociology? Electrical engineering? Perhaps she’s on her way to an academic conference.

And then, while these thoughts run through your mind, you realize with a start that she’s stopped reading and is instead looking at you. You’ve been caught. You feel a wave of heat rise through your face.

Her expression is not one of irritation, though. There’s an air of curiosity about her.

“I was wondering what book you were reading,” you manage to blurt.

She turns it. It’s a copy of Martin Buber’s I and Thou.

Anyone read this? It deals, ultimately, with precisely the situation you’ve just experienced on your train. You observe another human being and play with various scenarios. During this “scenario building” stage of your relationship with the pretty girl, you’re treating her more or less as an “it” – a puppet to be manipulated and enjoyed in your imagination.

But then the object of your study addresses you, eye-to-eye, and quite suddenly you’re flushed into the open. You’re obliged to speak, to engage with her, not as an object, but as a subject, as a fellow human being due all the deference and respect you hope others would accord you.

Now, it seems to me that although characters in a book are not human beings; although they’re our creations who’re obliged to kick when we instruct them to do so, to weep when we tell them to weep, to bury a dagger in the breast of an enemy when that feels dramatically appropriate, nevertheless they deserve our respect. Although they are merely characters in a fiction, in a very strange way they have half a foot in the real world.

After all, they’re capable of wringing tears from us, or having us cringe in embarrassment when they commit some terrible faux pas, or inspire terror in us when, in their quest for their goal they subject themselves to unbearable risk…

We have created them, as Frankenstein did his monsters, out of various bits and bobs that came to hand. A memory of a friend, the shadow of a mother, the determination of an acquaintance. Put all these together and the character that emerges from the mist is, remarkably, something very like a real person, with traits and habits that persist over time; with a more or less consistent temperament; with a set of beliefs (or not) that move him or her to behave in ways that make sense to an observer.

And it’s that consistency, those beliefs, that temperament that we must respect, just as much as the eyes of a stranger, meeting ours, compel us to treat her as a person whole and entire unto herself.

If the writer, drunk with her own power over her characters, has them perform tricks for the reader that stretch them beyond their capabilities, then we will lose faith in them, and in the writer. The characters will be revealed as puppets and little more, and the author as a puppet master who too carelessly lets us catch sight of his prestidigitations.

Happy writing,


Read Jo-Anne’s latest blog: ‘Writing Secrets: Write with more flow – use a character

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