Thursday, April 5, 2018

What Would A Woman Do? (Ask Deeper Questions About Your Characters)

As I've mentioned before, I lurk in a goodly number of online forums where writers and hopeful writers congregate. Places where we share updates on our work, gripe about markets, and try to offer constructive criticism on each other's work. However, there is a constant question that crops up in these groups that always makes my blood pressure rise a bit. Not because it's a bad question, but because in order to ask it in the first place the writer has to have already missed the point so completely that no answer will be helpful.

What would a woman do in this situation?

Gee, I wonder...

You're Asking The Wrong Question

To be clear, the above example is just one of the thousand heads on this hydra. It might be asking what would a Muslim person do in a given scenario. It might be asking why a man might not want to have sex. It might be asking what an Indian man, or a Chinese woman, would do in response to a certain event.

That isn't specific enough to get any meaningful answer. Go back to the drawing board.

Time to read the fine print.
If you want to understand what makes a person (or a character) take a certain course of action, you have to understand who they are as a whole. You can't identify one aspect of them, and then use that single aspect to dictate the entirety of their behavior. Every person is an individual, and the same stimulus might cause wildly different reactions in different members who fit under the same umbrella.

Let's go back to the guys and sex thing. First up is Jake. Jake is a deeply spiritual young man, but in addition to this he wants to make sure that any actions he takes (including physical intimacy) is an expression of his affection and love for his partner. So, while he might be a handsome young man with a lot of admirers, Jake isn't going to respond to a come-on at a bar, or someone trying to get into his pants at a party. Because those kinds of things are not what appeals to him, and he is repulsed by that sort of shallow interaction.

Next up is Shaun. Shaun is very sex positive, and he supports other people's right to do what they want with whom they want. However, Shaun himself is asexual, and he has no real desire to have sex with anyone. So no matter how physically attractive society might find someone, or what kind of romantic attachment he might have, sex is never going to be something he's really down for. He might have tried it in the past, or be willing to do it for a partner he cares about, but it will never be near the top of his to-do list.

Those are just two examples of how two characters who share a single trait (both are men, in this case) might have totally different reasons for similar behavior. And you get the same thing no matter what single trait you're using. Because yes, someone's age, gender, personal tragedies, family status, nationality, appearance, etc. are all individually important... but you can't figure out what actions they'll take until you know how all of those traits interact to cause a decision.

Make A Fully-Developed Character (Then Ask What They'd Do)

You need more than a single feature of a character before you can predict their actions. Even if it's something specific, like being an ex-paramilitary CIA operative. If you put two individuals in the same scenario (let's say they're walking past an alley, and they see a guy getting physical with a woman, who is clearly saying no), you'll get two very different responses.

This might be one of them.
Adam has seen this before, and part of him wants to help. But he knows he doesn't have all the information, and acting might lead to worse problems. There are too many variables, so he puts his hands in his pockets, and walks away. He puts it out of his mind, but the next few days he avoids watching the news. He doesn't want to add that woman's body to the bill he's already carrying, just in case something did happen. On the other hand, Katherine doesn't hesitate. She comes up behind the man, slams her heel into his knee, and when he cries out, hammers the side of his neck. She puts an arm around the distressed woman's shoulders, and leads her out of the alley. A good deed done, and something to soothe her conscience when the bad dreams try to come for her.

So, the next time you try to figure something out, don't ask what a woman or a Christian, or a teenager would do. Ask what Cathleen, or Clarence, or Henry would do, when faced with a given scenario.

And if you don't know enough about them to answer that question, keep digging, because you haven't unearthed the whole of their character yet.

That's all for this week's Craft of Writing. Hopefully it got some wheels turning. If you'd like to check out more work from me, then take a look at my Vocal archive. If you want to keep up on all my latest releases, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you want to support me so I can keep making content like this, head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page, or Buy Me A Coffee. A little help, goes a long way!

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