Writing Dissonance: Dissecting the Independent Character

There’s a phenomenon among writers of fiction: the idea that your characters are ALIIIVE! and making all these weird decisions by themselves, often screwing over any plans you had for them in the first place (or second, or third…). It’s creepy when you think about it, in a rocking kind of way; but I’ve been thinking of late about how this is really just spooky thinking. There must be, argues a part of myself, a real, rational reason behind the living, seemingly independent, character.

Speaking of parts of myself, I realized that’s exactly what’s going on.

Ever notice how, during times of stress or big decisions, you end up arguing with yourself about the best course of action to take? This is a normal part of being human, to contain within yourself multitudes. Whether they’re generated as you grow up and develop, or whether they’re different opinions you hold, they’re still just parts of yourself.

I shouldn’t really say “just”; they’re rather important components to your personality. In a way, their conflict defines who you are.

And when do we run into the independent character(s)? That’s right—when they’re fighting against us or each other.

My conclusion is that, since we imbue our fictional characters with parts of ourselves—I mean, that’s one of the best ways to write characters that read as real on the page—those parts can, and often do, come into conflict. If parts of yourself really admired the others always and forever, you’d be at least a little narcissistic; so naturally, these parts of you just don’t get along. The more distinct these parts, the more conflict is likely to be generated.

We like our characters to be different from one another, oh yes. Conflict is thus guaranteed.

And so, for me at least, the spooky thinking falls away, replaced by psychology.

Is this a terrible thing, to dispel the magic in favor of the scientific? I don’t think so. No matter how you define it, through fiction voodoo or psychological principles, the chemistry still happens, and still drives your story into wonderful, or at least different, territory. And this explanation gives you one path to creating realistic characters that come to life: use those parts of yourself that conflict.

Now I’m thinking about the character that’s an empty shell on the page. Is the principle of parts-of-yourself-conflicting-on-page why the character conflict between the lack of author self and other characters can feel so much… less? I’ve no doubt there are writers who can pull this sort of story off with aplomb, of course; writing takes all stripes. But it sounds damned hard to me.

Applying this principle further: writing a character with depth involves parts of themselves that conflict with each other. So use multiple parts of yourself (or heck, maybe even of those folks you know pretty well) that conflict to create a dynamic, deep character. Who’s even more likely to conflict with others and with you.

Durn characters, doing what they wants.