One thing that I’ve found over the years is that people are generally really bad at judging themselves. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been told something about myself that I would never have considered a defining factor – but when enough people say the same thing, there’s got to be something to it.
Apparently I’m scary (that’s the most common one). I’ve never been able to see that one, especially since I’m one of the most conflict-averse people on the planet. I’m also ridiculously stubborn, though, and when it comes to something I think needs to happen or be said I tend to go all mulish and not back down. Maybe that’s what gives the “scary” vibe?
What I have figured out is that people who are stressed lose all their “polite” filters. Someone who is overwhelmed is going to show who they are without any of the things that typically get self-censored because it’s not polite. I can guarantee that the more stressed I am the worse my language gets, and the more sarcastic I get. If I hit vitriolic, I’m probably on the edge of a barrage of language most foul. That’s actually my protective layer, which lives under the assorted filters I use to stay more or less polite. What’s under the protections is the – horror of horrors – nice person who mostly wants to just get on with life and hang out with friends now and then.
Suffice to say it takes rather a lot for me to lose the protections.
Any character is going to have the same kind of traits. They’ll have a surface set of filters that they use so they can keep themselves from violating whatever the manners of their world dictate, ranging from the highest level of society they frequent through to the least couth. Under that will be a set of rather less sophisticated filters that you could call family manners – the way they act when they’re in private, or with people they trust.
Those who have been hurt in some way or bullied will have a protective layer to keep unexpected attacks on their person at bay. Some people have a stoneface to keep attackers from realizing they’ve hit anything sensitive. Others will crumble at the first sign of hostility so nothing more sensitive gets touched. Some will play up a supposed weakness to hide the real one. And some will go the way I did, with a heavy layer of bitter sarcasm – which is one of the more active defenses, because it doubles as a counterattack. Or at times, a pre-emptive one.
Of course, since people have real issues judging themselves, they also often don’t know what their vulnerabilities are, which means the defensive mechanisms they build up tend either to not cover enough, or to cover everything and not let anything else get in. Some truly interesting character development can come out of that kind of mess, which in turn can lead to all manner of misjudgments that will drive a plot interesting places (and an author insane).
I just wish the Author On High would quit with the plotline that goes “take tightly wound character and stress the heck out of them then watch the fun.”