The Inscrutable Character

...your thoughts on Ginger's character have made me think that perhaps I have struggled too hard to 'understand' [my character] as a copy of me...and see her for who she really is! Which lends to a question I have been wishing to ask for a while and perhaps you can tell me your thoughts. As we write early on in a tale and encounter those type of main characters who decide to keep secret their temperament and nature to a great deal till chapter eleven in the book; until 'then' how do you work out the ins-and-outs of their character in reference to dialogue, thoughts and interaction with the other characters without becoming too contradictory or confusing? 

This is a splendid question, one which I had not thought of before.  There are countless factors that go into making the "inscrutable character," but hopefully I will be able to touch adequately upon a few of them.  Disclaimer: in writing this post, my subconscious yanked on my sleeve and reminded me that I like to write big, red-blooded people, not teenage girls in high school, and that severely dictated the tack I chose to take while writing this piece.  I have worn down the welcome-mats of the minds of Hercules and Adonis; the brain of the average teenage girl remains shrouded in mystery, even for me.

it's natural

First of all, as a way of limbering up to this new thought process, please remember that people are contradictory and confusing, and while you certainly don't want to make your characters bipolar (unless you intentionally want to write a bipolar character), it makes them realistic to allow them those contradictory beliefs, thoughts, emotions, and actions with which real people are plagued every day.  Pay attention to that as the writer, but do try to give them as unstudied an air as possible.

the great man

In a conversation with my father about keeping one's mouth shut, he remarked that he considered that great men have often been those who kept their own council.  I had to agree: the people I have looked up to in literature have been those whose gravity and silence have unintentionally lent them what some people might call an aloof air.  They were not blabs.  They kept their word, and they did not speak their words often.  They had integrity because of that, which is something that is often remarked upon in the chapters of Proverbs - and, indeed, is a virtue to be found in all cultures.  This is a trait that is independent of personality.  Some personalities will naturally tend against the keeping of one's council, but it can be done.  Protagonist and villain alike may express this virtue.  I know that mine have.  My protagonist of Adamantine is a great one for keeping his thoughts to himself.  My villain of Plenilune, also, has the habit of holding his cards close to his chest. 

the wild card

Some characters will keep their inside selves secret by presenting a different face to the world.  This is called duplicity.  Sometimes it is employed to keep the character safe, sometimes it is employed to save others; I have used both methods.  Sometimes a character is unaware of this Janus aspect: this is called irony.  And this is where the real problem begins: how do you portray these two sides in these situations? 

The back pocket character.  This is a ploy I use most often.  When I have a character such as the "great man," who plays his cards very close to his chest, I need to have an intimate character to come alongside him and interpret for the reader.  They are generally good friends, or the one is a great admirer of the other and able to be often in that character's presence, enough to get to know that character to a degree unknown to the rest of the people in the book.  To the others, the "great man" may be silent, brooding, distant, abstruse, bewildering, eccentric.  He is looked upon with a kind of mingled awe and misapprehension.  To the friend he is in many ways understood, and in those ways that he is not understood he is forgiven.  This method is used of the famous Artos in Watch Fires to the North.  The book is written from the character Bedwyr's point of view, and so the reader is allowed an outside view of the character Artos.  It would overbear the book too much to get into the great man's mind: we are allowed to see him through his friend's eyes, and so, in a way, we are able to come to an understanding.
"I have perhaps drawn his portrait clumsily, but he was not an easy man to know."
The first person.  In the first person, you get a front-row seat of the character's thought processes.  While he reasons why he is being duplicitous, the reader will naturally be abreast of the situation.  This can be seen in a novel like C.S. Lewis' Till We Have Faces - an excellent book, full of inner turmoil and duplicity masterfully delivered to the reader.

Making the reader the back pocket character.  I use this ploy in The Shadow Things and Between Earth and Sky.  While the main characters of both stories have good friends, in their way, there is no one quite equal to share the characters' thoughts and so the reflections are divulged through the process of third-person past-tense prose to the reader.  There is a great deal of introspection (though not, I trust, in the dull and drawn-out way that is like being tortured); when the character does do something spontaneous, the reader has come to know him so well that no explanation is needful.  The reader has become the character's friend.

Keep in mind the reason for the duplicity.  Unless the character is naturally quiet, there is usually a good reason for the character to keep his mouth shut.  A character of mine was badly betrayed: he has created the habit of keeping himself to himself to avoid being hurt, and laughing to cover the pain.   He has a naturally spirited disposition which demands a kind of outlet, but he has also a great reason for anger and resentment - which makes the "wild card" aspect of what he might say or do all the more interesting for on-lookers and reader alike!

Keep in mind the reveal.  If you do plan on pulling the sheet off your character's duplicitous nature, foreshadowing is a great ploy.  Everybody loves it.  Drop a few hints!  Make another character suspicious!  You choose!

We are all confusing, contradictory, duplicitous, and ironic at times.  Our characters will be also.  This is a good thing!  But the base of all these reactions, I have found, to make a situation comprehensible to the reader, is friendship.  It is impossible to understand anyone apart from some degree of friendship.  It may be another character, it may be the reader, but someone must befriend the inscrutable character to make any sense out of the inscrutable mind.

5 ripostes:

  1. Your comments about the great man put me in mind of Kipling's words when he said, "If you can make one heap of all your winnings, and risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss / And lose and start again at your beginnings, and never breathe a word about your loss." There's a great trend in this day and age for everyone to come out with their deep, tortured emotions; to dredge every little memory up once more and relive it for the sake of cleansing oneself and bonding with one another. While genuine Christian fellowship is a good thing, there are elements of one's life that should remain between the man and God. The habit of gritting your teeth and speaking only "when you can improve the silence" is one of the most admirable traits in a man, as you said, and I think that's why I gravitate most toward characters of that ilk. There's a rare beauty in in keeping one's own council that is little found elsewhere.

  2. Ah, you've done it! I think Adara needs someone to be more of a back-pocket character...her aloof personality is related to certain (undercover) occurrences; however, she needs someone to lighten her up a bit or, like you said, translate to the reader.
    But aside from that, I read an article the other day that this post put me in mind of; that there are 4 traits that make a character memorable/relateable/loveable: heroism, sacrifice, redemption, and justice.
    I believe I need to apply this to Psithurism a bit more...

    This has been a jolly good read, my friend! Lots of food for thought! Excuse me while I pin this...

  3. So far my books have been focussing on friendships and relationships. Often my character will have close friends with whom he talks. Eric and will are used to opening their souls to each other for the simple reason that for ten years they had no other companions. Roddy on the flip side had a great many and always kept his own counsel. But once the barriers are down and he and Eric become essentially brothers there are occasions where they get down to brass tacks and tell each other their thoughts and why's and wherefore's. But most of the time I just rely on the thoughts of the POV character as shown through the prose.

  4. Elizabeth Rose - Kipling's "IF" is one of my favourite poems. ^.^ Unfortunately it did not come back to me while I was writing this post, so I'm glad you brought it up. It first perfectly. And in general I think man's fallen nature tends toward blabbing, always has, and that social media has given him a very easy outlet for that blabbing tendency. A lot of pain and heartache arises because people can't keep their mouths shut and their hands off the keyboard. My father pointed out that this is a great source of strife and division in the church as well.

    "Jacqueline, DEAR. Do not SPEAK unless you can IM-PROVE the silence."

    Bree - You're so welcome! Always glad my rough-and-ready approach to writing produces some kind of help for others. I'm really looking forward to reading Psithurism when it is completed - but no pressure: no need to rush. I hate feeling pressured, and I don't want to pressure other writers. :)

    Anne-girl - I know Abigail is a great one for writing the friendship between fellows. I can, and do (in fact I'm on the brink of writing a whole pack of young bucks), but I tend toward a situation such as Bree has with Adara and Adair, a man and a woman working with and off each other, interpreting each other; that sort of thing. But it sounds as though you've got a good system down-pat. :)

  5. Thank you so much, dear Jenny! This post was such a help - I do find like you, that the imagination of the characters of my pen are "big, red-blooded people, not teenage girls in high school" - figuratively, if not physically. So even with this WW2 novel I am writing, with a fourteen year old girl, I am almost seeing her and the people inhabiting the word-at-war with her are people of the stuff of legends... a deepness of spirit and purpose, a defiance of this drudgery of the Machine of petty squabbles and finery. And so the characters reflect that sort of thing, I hope. It's hard to explain, and even harder to write... it didn't seem such a challenge in a more ancient setting such as Ancient Rome. Twentieth Century England and Australia has its own charm on the characters, but sometimes... there is a dreariness about it all that rubs off on the characters - their interaction with each other, their dreams, etc.

    I think those two points you set in this post have struck me in a helpful way indeed 'specially: the beneficial-ness of a friend-comrade to pull the finer shades of a character's heart and soul (funny thing this, the last few days a background character-friend of Jane has appeared to be more than just a 'friend' and a true-comrade spirit and in the way you said in this post, has helped me find Jane's voice the better!) The other point you made, of the goodness of having people who know when to keep their mouths shut and keep peace... :). Indeed, that's such a good one.

    Thanks again!! :)