On letting characters be human

When humans act like humans, and rabbits act like rabbits...
When humans act like humans, and rabbits act like rabbits…

Characters are human. (Well, unless they’re rabbits, or purple aliens from the planet Zog.) That being so, they need to act like humans. (Or rabbits, or purple aliens from the planet Zog – but if you want the reader to relate to them, they’d better act at least a little bit like humans too.)

The most difficult thing I found, writing Speak Its Name, was letting characters act in ways that are damaging, malicious, or just plain stupid. I am, myself, pretty conflict-averse, and would like nothing better than for everybody to sort out their differences over a cup of tea. But not all my characters are, nor should they be if I want my book to be at all interesting, and sometimes I have to just let them have a row. As a reader, I often find myself muttering ‘No! Don’t! Run away now!’, knowing all the while that yes, they’re going to stay right there and do it. Because that’s who they are, that’s how they’re written, and if I were them and I were in that situation I’d probably do exactly the same thing. As a reader, I have a certain detachment. As a writer, I have to step back and let them ruin their own lives.

The only story I have come across where nobody acts out of either incompetence or malice is The Martian, and the only reason that gets away with it is because the inhospitable expanse of space and the implacable nature of physics provides enough challenge to drive the plot. Elsewhere, we rely on human frailty and incompatibility to do it, and there’s plenty of that around.

People are not perfect. People say the wrong thing, people act selfishly, stupidly, irrationally. They do the right thing for the wrong reasons. They do the wrong thing for the right reasons. Why should fictional people be any better than the rest of us?

Then there’s ‘use your words’. It’s excellent advice for the real world, but until the real world actually starts acting like that, it’s not much help for fiction. Yes, the plot where the heroine never tells the hero that the man she was hugging was her brother is a cliché, but has anybody actually written it since about 1895? It’s irritating because it’s not believable, but unbelievable competence is just as irritating.

‘I feel that if a person can’t communicate, the very least he can do is to shut up,’ said Tom Lehrer, and in real life that’s what most people do. Expecting all of your characters to communicate all of the time is implausible, even if – no, particularly if – it’s about something very personal and important. Doubly so if they’re from a background that expects them to – what’s that revolting phrase? – keep calm and carry on. Let’s just say that I was not at all surprised when the marriage of Amy Pond and Rory Williams broke up.

What I really want is consistency. I can just about believe that the entire cast of The Martian would maintain the peak of competence for the duration of the action, but only because they’re very highly trained astronauts and scientists, and only just about. You can give me a character who uses their words if you like, but you’d better make me believe that they were brought up to it, or that they’ve done a lot of work on their communication skills.

Theoretically, it ought to be possible  to write a convincing story where the heroine has a very good reason for not revealing her brother’s identity, and the hero is just the suspicious, possessive type to jump to conclusions. In Speak Its Name I have one character who withholds vital information from everybody – almost including herself – for a good third of the book because she honestly believes that this is the kindest and best thing to do. Humans don’t always act for the best, and nor should characters.

Having said all that, I was very relieved indeed to have an excuse to take out the next two weeks’ worth of deleted scenes, because I actually didn’t enjoy letting one of my favourite characters act like an idiot.

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