Less Than True, Greater Than A Lie: Writing what your characters think vs. what they do

Have you ever created a scale of values for your characters?

Grace the Mace would say hers looked something like this:

Strangers < Friends < Comfort < Pride < Ambitions < Survival < Mum

The truth, interestingly enough, looks a little more like this:

Comfort < Strangers < Pride < Survival <Friends < Ambitions < Mum

The differences between a character’s self-perception and their true values is often as telling as the scale itself.

That said, it can be tricky to portray a difference between perceived values and actual values within your writing, especially in first person or third person close. The narration must strike a balance between being true to the truth, and being true to the character’s perception of the truth.

The best way I’ve found to stick to both sides of the story at once is to set the opposites right next to one another—as I did with Dalvin’s coin and discourtesy in this passage, and again later with one of my favorite lines in the book:

Dalvin scowled, dug in her purse for a silver dragon, and flung it at the girl. “Get a pair of shoes, and stop being such a worthless friend.”

Grace constantly outs herself by what she’s willing—and unwilling—to give up. While neither her words nor the narration will admit to it, she proves her scale of values again and again by what she sacrifices.

Of course, the same can be done with a character who thinks themselves benevolent or benign, and proves, without a hitch in the narrative’s self-assurance, to do entirely cruel or thoughtless things. One need look no further than The Children of the Light in The Wheel of Time, The Shepherdess in The Legend of Eli Monpress, or Eli Ever from Vicious to find characters of that stripe.

These sorts of internal discrepancies are not just allowable in fiction, they’re to be expected! Cognitive dissonance is a very real part of the human makeup, and a character with impeccable self-perception is an incredible rarity—and I’m not just talking about the female lead who thinks herself plain or ugly when everyone else considers her gorgeous. Don’t take your characters’ word on who they are and what they value. See what they sacrifice when push comes to shove—and let the reader see the truth for themselves.

What do your character’s value scales look like? Do they know themselves as well as they think they do? Leave a comment!

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Bonus scale:

The values of Weylah, the Mum in question, would go something like this:

Comfort < Pretty Things < Plants < Animals < Strangers = Friends = Lovers = Family

Her self-perception… doesn’t exist. She’s like the opposite of a narcissist. When she reflects, it’s never on herself except in terms of how she could better serve her values–i.e., people.

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Grace the Mace now available for sale on Kindle and in paperback.

 

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One comment

  1. Thought-provoking. ^^ Puts me in mind of Gant-o’-the-Lute from “The Story’s End (Wilderhark Tales #7)”. To hear him verbalize it, his scale would be something like:

    people < perfect autonomy / adventure < the sky < music

    Yet he lived in a kingdom where music was everyone's way of life, and could not enjoy it due to perfect autonomy's lack. And well past when he'd convinced us all that he doesn't care about anyone half as much himself, there's the line, "/This end shall not claim me,/ he vowed. /Neither me, nor my Allyn./" So 'twould seem he places a higher value on his son Allyn than the poor lad would ever guess. In the end, I think a truer scale would be:

    people in general < music < perfect autonomy / adventure < the sky < Allyn

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