Thinking the Unthinkable

We humans are really good at walling off things we don’t want to consider, and adding thorns, “here be dragons” signs, and assorted other warn-offs so we don’t accidentally stray that way. What lives behind those walls are the unquestioned assumptions of a world-view – and it’s a writer’s business to get past the warning signs, creep through the thorns, and climb the walls, because what lives behind them tells you how a person sees things and how they’ll react when stressed. And we do stress our characters, right?

So what does it look like behind that wall?

Well… Look at your own life. What do you assume and believe? It ranges from the little things (do you walk on the right or the left side of the path? Trust me, this depends on which side of the road you drive on. I grew up in Australia and everyone walks on the left. In the USA people walk on the right. And then there’s me. Depending on which set of instinct are in charge I can end up on either side and really mess things up) to whether you believe authority figures can be trusted (no. Never. Ever.). They’re like the comfort blanky you grab as a child when you want reassurance: they show up most when you’re tired or stressed because that’s when the filters go away.

I’m a bit of an odd duck on this one: I have a very strong set of defenses that have their own effective personality. They are the sarcastic, cynical bitch-queen who sharpens her claws on fools (I try to keep her controlled). Over that is the public face: quiet, competent, with a tendency to ask the questions no-one really wants to answer. When I’m under stress I tend to fall back to the defences. What’s underneath those is much more trusting. Also tends to be a tad on the gullible side. It’s a long time since I’ve been fallen back to that.

The reflex beliefs also live in the layering for me: the deepest part would like to be religious but tends not to want to believe anything she wants to believe because that’s always too good to be true. That part also starts from the presumption that most people are honest and helpful, and that people mostly want the same basic things (enough to eat, a chance for kids to make a better life for themselves). Of course, she also thinks she’s normal, so there’s that issue with anything she believes. The bitch-queen doesn’t believe anything until she’s seen it for herself, and usually killed it (metaphorically, at least). She trusts only after someone has proven themselves worthy, but once she does she stays loyal – and heaven help you if you earn her trust and then lose it. She’s the one who’ll dismiss any misdoings from politicians with “yeah, typical of the bastards”. She also gets that someone who’s been raised to think that sacrificing himself for his god is the ultimate achievement will want that over the more normal things people want. I suspect it’s a good thing I fall back to her rather than to the more naive critter she protects.

It feels weird talking about this, which is why I’ve pulled it back to third person, but understanding how this works and that most people do this to some extent (although not usually to the level of an entire separate personality – which was deliberately built. I’m an overachiever) is important to getting under the skin of a character to where you can be that character while you write from their POV. The more convincingly you can do this, the more ‘real’ that character will read. This also prevents fiascos like modern feminist dogma being spouted by Regency Misses or worse by neolithic males. You can’t put aside your core beliefs to write as someone with different beliefs if you don’t actually know what they are.

And the real fun comes when they have to change. More on that some other time.

7 thoughts on “Thinking the Unthinkable

  1. It “is important to getting under the skin of a character to where you can be that character while you write from their POV. The more convincingly you can do this, the more ‘real’ that character will read.”

    The ability to live thousands of lives – mostly the interesting bits – vicariously, is why humans love stories. I would never want to BE the Count of Monte Cristo – and his life digging that tunnel must have been excruciatingly boring for years – but I love reading about his revenge.

    Ditto writing about my beautiful actress’s comeuppance – but that’s just me. I understand why she does what she does – and I sympathize, truly I do – but we really can’t condone that kind of behavior, can we?

    BTW – thanks for the blog topic for today!

    1. Thank you for the endorsement. I try to come up with interesting writing-related topics – although they usually end up all over the map like this one with its shadings into psychology and the like. That’s writing for you – little bits of everything thrown into the soup.

  2. Some non-fiction writers can put you inside the viewpoint of other characters almost as well as fiction does. One of the best historians I’ve read has a gift for making you furious with the characters she’s writing about, then firmly reminding you that they could not know at that time what the consequences of their actions were. The guys didn’t have the experience, didn’t have the tech, didn’t know where to look for historical accounts that might have explained why what they though had caused earlier conditions was not the real cause. The reader really remembers the story, and the problems, much better because the author managed to do such a good job at getting inside the minds of the men involved and showing what they could not have known.

    1. That is a magnificent gift. Which author is this? I should put them on the list of “read when I’m next looking into that period”

      1. “Forest Dreams, Forest Nightmares” by Nancy Langston. It is about the Blue Mountains in Oregon and Washington state.

  3. My main default is passive-agressive. Fortunately that doesn’t seem to leak into any characters, else I’d have to kill them so they didn’t bore the readers to death.

    1. Hee! Passive-aggressive can be done well, but it takes a careful hand. Of course, passive-aggressive works really well for the irritating supporting character – the nagging mother, or the sidekick who’s actually running the show. Also a passive-aggressive villain’s henchcritter can be a lot of fun.

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