Sparked by Words

Why did bespectacled Clark Kent slip into a telephone booth, change his business suit to the caped Superman onesie, and then fly to rescue the damsel gripped in the clutches of a criminal megalomaniac? To his ordinary fellow journalists at the Daily Planet, mushy mouthed Kent couldn’t save a mouse from its shadow, but to us fans, Superman could save the world. His humble Earth parents imbued him with moral urgency, and otherworld Krypton filled his core and gave him the ability to fly. Superman always had the incentive and power to challenge evil.

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In your newest novel, a burning building might propel your character Bumble Butt to rush in to try to save the screaming kid trapped inside, but the guy wouldn’t otherwise put himself out to interfere with the kid’s mom making him eat mush for breakfast. Radical circumstances force radical behavior but rash change doesn’t come from nowhere. And it’s unbelievable in a story. The internal compass only changes direction because of a violent eclipse to the magnetism that otherwise points north. Maybe pseudo-science can explain it, maybe a real PhD doesn’t recognize the concept, but we readers must believe it’s possible.

Malcolm’s position as the safety engineer at commercial building sites marks him as a fussy stickler for correct head gear, accurate weight and structural measurements, and pre-tested physics standards applied to real life situations. An entire chapter was devoted to his obsessive work safety concerns in the book our writer’s critique group read for KM, one of our members. I love KM’s story, and I respect him as a person. However, when Malcolm allowed his twelve-year-old daughter to drive the car late at night down a busy highway, he acted out of character. It just wasn’t in his nature to act with such reckless disregard of law and safety, especially with his child. I asked KM if Malcolm had been affected by a drug that had impacted a few other characters in the story. KM said no, he’d thought about his own father letting him drive under similar circumstances.

I don’t know anything about KM’s dad, if the guy was an irresponsible fool, or a drunk who made bad decisions under the influence of alcohol, or was simply trying to gain favor with his kid in the middle of a nasty conflict with KM’s mom. My husband taught our underage sons to drive in the empty parking lot of a school, hubby in the passenger seat. My dad let my kid brother drive the truck on our rural property, dad in the passenger seat. A midge of danger in both cases, but no other vehicles and no one else was around in either instance. Whatever terrible lack of judgment KM’s dad exhibited, it didn’t align with rule-stickler Malcolm. One factual out of context real world incident doesn’t make for a fun jaunt in a story if the genetic material doesn’t mesh with the character’s behavior. Otherwise known as not being believable. Yes, story is story, and KM gets to write his as he chooses. I have no idea whether he’ll make adjustments based on my observations or if he’ll dump me and my crit in the trash can. I suspect I won’t be the only reader to find this scenario suspect if left as originally written.

The characters I write are birthed in my imagination, as are yours. Besides the partly formed personality you read in my pages is a fully dimensional individual residing in my notes. If Kate, star of my book Kate, starts to spin like Super Whirligig, it’s up to me to have presented her previously as having top-like interests in getting dizzy and steel pointed toes that can pierce anything. Otherwise you’re just not going to believe she can drill right down through the earth to find the lode of golden ore at the bottom of a pit.

Superman can fly, Kate can spin, but I’m not sure Malcolm thumbs his nose in the face of safety. He’s a safety engineer, for crying out loud. A safety engineer lives safety first, last, and always. Or prove me wrong, Super Writer.

 

Superhero image courtesy of Clip Art, public domain

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Comments on: "T is for True to Character" (36)

  1. A little off subject. This reminded me of a writing quote about creating these characters we love and then doing everything possible to torture them. Great post about keeping our characters in character. We have to make these people believeable and life like. Acting out of character will feel like running our nails against a chalkboard. Not going to work.

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  2. My father taught me to drive in a cemetery…acres and acres of curving roads and hills and grim reminders. Your evocative writing powered up that memory, and I appreciate it, Sharon.

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    • Thank you for the comment, Bonnie. But driving in a cemetery – was he trying to make a point? A gruesome reminder. I bet you’re a very good driver.
      My parents hired a driving school for me. My mother had no stomach for it and my dad wouldn’t take time to teach me.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Well done. There’s nothing that bugs me more than an out-of-character … character. Same with friends, BTW. Doesn’t mean I have to be able to predict their actions, rather I like characters (and people) with a strong moral core that drives their lives.

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    • I think that’s why we’re friends, Jacqui, even though we have many differences of opinion. I have complete respect for you and I think you do for me. We each have that moral core that says honor above all. (Well, almost all.)

      The out of character – we’ve talked about this one before. Remains true.

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  4. I like torturing characters slowly, drip by drip until they just can’t take it anymore–but I love them! I really love them!

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  5. How did you know the hero of my new story is Bumble Butt? Mr Butt is a nuclear physicist at MIT who works evenings as a bartender at the local saloon. He wants to win the cake decorating contest at the state fair this year, having come in second for 3 years in a row, and is saving his tips to buy frosting.

    Thanks to your timely post I am thinking I should change Mr Butt’s profession to something more aligned to his aspirations. I’m thinking either a golf pro or an undercover agent for the CIA . . . or maybe a safety engineer?

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    • Cake decorating? I don’t think so. I’m thinking more along the lines of Mr. Bumble Butt making safety pins. Straight pins would be a danger in his hands. In fact, everything he does is a danger to humanity. He should stick with bartending at the Long Last Launch Saloon. But golf pro would work also. Like fishing and bowling, it’s just an excuse to get drunk.

      Let me know if you need any more help with your new book, Judy. You know I’m always here to serve.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. You got it in one Sharon. You have to believe the character and once you don’t have that belief you don’t have the story either. I think you can get away with more in fiction as readers are more willing to let go of reality but if it doesn’t seem plausible and the characters don’t act in character I agree it is a lost cause.

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    • I agree, fiction will let you get away with a bit of artistic license, but too much veering away from what’s plausible, and you may lose your audience. There’s also the genre of creative non-fiction that lots of folks are exploring. Stories based on fact but allowing more stretch than traditional non-fiction. It gives enough room to fill in the blanks that solid research sometimes doesn’t reveal. It can hide certain events (criminal or ethical lapses or irresponsible juvenile behavior) and the names of people who don’t want to be revealed. I originally thought about trying this for the family stories, but I don’t know enough and would be creating more than the genre can tolerate.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. When I was about eight, my uncle sat me on his lap and let me steer his car down a public road for a few minutes while he controlled the pedals. My seven-year-old brother asked for a turn too and my uncle laughed and said, “No, you’re too young!”

    At the time, it didn’t strike me as strange, but looking back on it now, it was sheer idiocy. It was also just about the only “kind” thing that uncle ever did for me. He was a terrible bully and a thoroughly unpleasant individual.

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    • Bun, I knew there had to someone out there in the world to prove me wrong. 😀 Of course, people do act out of character in real life, and some people are altogether impulsive. In a book, however, we only have a few pages to meet a character, and the face the writer presents of that character has to be fairly consistent. That’s all I was saying – a safety engineer would be so unlikely to let a kid drive a car in traffic. In the actual chapter we read for our member, the action was even more dangerous, but I don’t want this blog to reveal every detail. (I’ve disguised the actual story we read.) Trust me.
      Your uncle let you drive (but not your wee little brother.) Safety engineer wouldn’t.

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      • I should have led into my original comment a bit differently because I actually fully agree with the point you made in your post. Sudden out-of-character moments are not a good way to build believability into a story. Conversely, someone acting wildly out of character can be very powerful and dramatically effective if it is adequately explained.

        Actually, even my own anecdote supports your original point. Only when I was a boy did I think my uncle’s behavior was uncharacteristically kind. As I grew older, I realized his action was foolish, impulsive and completely without regard to other people’s wellbeing. Being a selfish, impulsive jerk was entirely within character for him.

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      • The proof afforded by time and maturity. Kids often sense the core of people but don’t usually have the experience or vocabulary to describe their points of view. Writers must have an intentional focus. I think we are on the same page.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I think so too, Sharon. 🙂

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  8. I drove for hours on gravel roads with my dad. He drank Pabst Blue Ribbon beer and tough me directions via the sun. I was 14. My nickname is still Homing Pigeon.

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    • There’s your story, Audrey, and the title: Homing Pigeon, the story of a girl growing up on the back roads and open plains of Nebraska, who wanders away for a while and finds that Nebraska calls her home many years later.

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  9. Good point. Character change just can’t pop out of nowhere. In my opinion, if there is a dramatic change then it happens slowly and there are events that lead to the change.

    Shalom,
    Patricia

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    • Yes, that makes sense. Events or conditions cause character changes as in real life. Earthquakes happen because of underground tectonic shifts, making something else give. Same in story.
      Shalom as well to you, Pat. Thank you for stopping by.

      Like

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