I was going over some of my writing workshops recently, and ran across this excerpt in my non-verbal communications course. This is in response to students who were having trouble with the unconscious aspects of non-verbal interactions, but it also provides some tips on becoming your characters, which is why I’m posting it today.
The best way to write a character, villain or hero, as a three dimensional being is to truly understand them. That may mean you have to put yourself in a place where you have attitudes and support positions that run counter to your actual thoughts. It’s hard to train yourself to be open to the possibility of multiple answers, and even multiple correct answers, but it’s critical if you want your characters to have confidence and presence when they are not analogues of you.
I’ll tell you what really made the difference about this for me. Luckily it happened in 9th grade so I’ve been benefiting from the flexibility since then, as have my characters. I haven’t enjoyed all the skins I’ve inhabited, but though some are abhorrent when I reread those sections (the villains of course), they are true to the characters, how they would think, react, and project their opinions on others.
Here is my turning point:
My 9th grade geography teacher did a lot with interactive history/locations.
One of our assignments was a debate. We each took sides and argued the case. My assignment was a stone with Viking writing found in the US (true or plant). (This was when it was still being debated so the facts were unclear.)
Note: I went to confirm the name (memory being what memory is) and my best guess is the assignment was about the Kensington Runestone.
I did my research, had my facts in order, and wiped the stage with my opponent. I’d become a “Stone is true” fanatic. I’d absorbed the truth I had proved beyond a doubt into the very fibers of my being so that nothing could shake it loose, so that my confidence radiated as strong as any of my words. This non-verbal language may have had at least as much to do with my winning the debate as my actual words.
And as I was basking in my grand victory, my teacher gave the second part of the assignment: to switch sides.
I thought she’d given me an impossible task. How could I prove something I knew to be true (after all, I’d proved it already) to be false?
Only I really loved this teacher, and I really wanted to show that love in the only way I could, by acing her class.
So I went back, I looked at every point I’d made, I researched counter evidence for every factor, and by the time my turn came again, I was just as articulate and adamant about the reverse argument as I had been before. Inside and out, I owned the truth of what, a week before, I’d shown beyond a shadow of a doubt to be nothing but lies and trickery.
What this showed me in a pure, concrete way, was that there were always at least two sides of the story, and both could be equally convincing and compelling depending on the person making the argument. It made me less likely to glom on to one idea no matter how logical it seemed, because now I can’t help but look at the opposite side and figure out that as well.
Maybe it would be worth performing that experiment yourself. Get some friends together and try to absolutely convince them of one thing, only to turn around and absolutely convince them of the reverse. You know it’s coming, so it won’t be quite as much of a shocker, but I’d bet you and your friends would find the experience eye opening.
The appeal of good versus evil is in its simplicity, but the stories that will twist around in your gut and make you squirm are the ones where you have to ask yourself what you would have done in the same situation, and would it have been the right choice.