Monday 9 December 2013

The Logic of Illogical Characters

It is often suggested that when writing fiction you don’t want to tell your audience the answer is 4, you want to put 2 and 2 in front of them and let them work it out.

This is a powerful way of getting them involved in the story. If they’re putting things together in their head then they’re participating in the narrative, which is what you want.

But the way logic works once people are involved is not always the same as it works in mathematics.

Sometimes 2+2=5, and when you put that in front of your audience they will want to know what the hell you mean and demand an explanation. And there’s nobody more involved than someone wanting answers.

For example, I buy a packet of ten cookies. It takes my family exactly one week to finish the packet. If I then buy mega-packet of twenty cookies, how long would it take my family to get through them?
The answer, of course, is still one week. When my family see more cookies in the cupboard they immediately stuff twice as many in their big fat faces.  

People follow their own logic, and so do fictional characters. In order to engage a reader you have to teach them the logic specific to your story.

You can, if you wish, choose to have your characters act in an obvious manner, liking the things most people like, fearing what we all fear, etc. People will certainly be able to relate to these characters, but they probably won’t find them very interesting.

This doesn’t mean you can’t make this sort of story interesting, everyday life can still be of interest if captured well. The advantage is there’s a lot less to explain or justify. The boy falls in love with the girl because she’s very beautiful. The businesswoman wants the promotion to prove she’s as good as the guys. The knight kills the dragon because that’s what knights do. 2+2=4, what’s not to get?

The disadvantage is that it’s no easy task to make these stories rise above the predictable and familiar. When you know the answer immediately, when you can work it out well in advance, it can be tricky maintaining the tension. Good technique will help, good ideas would help more. And when it comes to oft used premises good ideas are hard to come by.

However, if you want to write about characters who don’t necessarily act in a conventional manner you can’t just assume readers will understand what they’re doing and why. So how do you make sure the unobvious is still clear and easy to follow?

First of all, you don’t need to be familiar with a way of acting to be able to understand it. Whether your family is a bunch of greedy monsters who don’t follow cookie-eating rules (no matter how often you explain them) or if they’re very well-mannered and restrained (in which case please let me know how you managed that) , I’m sure you were able to understand my cookie eating example.

But bear in mind that I didn’t mention anything about what my family look like. How many, how old, hair length, eye colour... none of that is needed for you to understand their behaviour.

You can add that stuff if you wish (and you probably should), but it isn’t the part that makes things clear to the reader, or what holds their interest.

Knowing something unexpected or unusual about a character makes the reader feel like they know them. The things everyone does the same doesn’t make it very easy to tell people apart. The illogical things they do are what sticks in the memory.

We want to know their idiosyncrasies, what sets them apart and how that plays out in the narrative. It doesn’t have to be how we would behave, it just needs to makes sense to them.

It starts with establishing that 2+2=5, which grabs the reader’s attention, and then demonstrating why on the page. When the reader can see that it really does equal five, even if only for this particular character, they will feel privy to private information and that much closer to the character.

If you found this post useful please give it a retweet. Cheers.
Last chance to nominate for your favourite writing blog of 2013 at Write To Done. Click HERE and put the blog name and url in the comments section before December 12th.


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I need to learn how to add cookies better...

Al Diaz said...

It seems to me your family and my family are similar. I knew it would be still one week before you said it. Must be the cookie monster gene. Or that I am too deep into the illogical side of logic.

cleemckenzie said...

I'm afraid I belong to the eat more cookies if they're there gang. I may be a long lost member of your family. If so, let me know when you stock up on those cookies. As to the post, it was so interesting. I knew it, but reading it was exactly what I needed now. Thanks.

Karen Lange said...

Good stuff! I've so much to learn in this area. Thanks for helping me along. :)

Have a great week!

mooderino said...

@Alex - subtracting is easier - they disappear very fast.

@Al - a little of both maybe.

@Lee - I have no cookies, or if I did they'd be very well hidden, hypothetically speaking.

@Karen - And you too!

Beverly Diehl said...

Personally, I think it's impressive that the cookies would last a week. Nice examples here.

mooderino said...

@Beverly - of course you're right, they would never last a week, but I don't want people to know how depraved a household I live in.

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

I think Leonard Nimoy learned to give that look in playing Spock because he was forced to wear spandex (the most illogical of fabrics).

mooderino said...

@Michael - Fascinating...

Unknown said...

Your blog is great. I take so much interest in the writing and literature. It is very profitable for me.I have my website for report writing

Margo Berendsen said...

I love this 2+2=5 example as applied to characters. Thanks for giving me a new way to look at character development! Tweeting this!

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