Monday, 30 March 2015

Getting Characters Out of Work Mode

Most characters have a profession—doctor, cop, assistant in a cupcake store—and in the course of doing their job they will slip into work mode. They will talk and act in the way you expect someone in that position to talk and act. The problem is that this can make them come across as stereotypical.

This is especially true for secondary characters who might not appear often other than to perform a job related task, but it can also be true for main characters where every time they have to do their job they start acting in a very specific manner—a politician uses a lot of meaningless double-speak, a doctor uses a lot of medical jargon, a cop becomes focused on factual questions and answers.

This makes it clear what they do for a living but little else.

What a character says and how they say it not only tells the reader what kind of a person they’re reading about, but also helps to set mood and tone for a scene. There’s a lot you can do through dialogue beyond asking and answering questions and imparting information.

If a character acts one way when in work mode, and then they behave another way once they’re off stage, it can make them seem like two separate people. Like a story about an actor and the role he’s playing, but in a story you want the reader to be able to connect fully with the character as a whole.

While a good professional should be able to divorce their feelings from the job they do, it doesn’t make for very good storytelling, nor does it add any depth to the portrayal of the character. In fact it can end up doing the opposite.

Often it isn’t obvious because there’s only one character of that sort in the scene. So one politician acting like a politician might seem reasonable. 

“If elected, I promise I will do everything in my power to get that bridge built.” 

Sounds like the sort of thing a politician would say. But if you imagine another politician in the same room, would they be two distinct personalities? Even if they held diametrically opposite views. 

“If elected, I promise I will do everything in my power to stop that bridge being built.” 

Despite the content of what they’re saying being different, the structure is the same. Both are making statement that sound like promises but are in face totally non-committal, which certainly tells you they are both politicians but not who they are beyond that.

Once they come off stage it’s a lot easier to have them express themselves as individuals, but it’s a wasted opportunity not to use all appearances to give a character depth.

The problem is that all politicians do tend to sound the same. They’re all trained in the same techniques to do the job effectively. The same with cops and teachers and librarians. This is doubly true if the only function of the character in your story is to come in, perform their job, and then leave. How can you avoid making them stereotypical when they only appear for a paragraph or two?

Using the technique of imagining if there was someone else of the same profession in the scene is a good place to start. Would it be easy to differentiate between them? This won’t fix the issue, but is a good way to spot the problem.

Also consider what happened to the character in the previous scene. A politician who’s just been told there’s been a death threat made against him will act differently to one who’s been told he’s ahead in the polls.

Having a character simply at work so the reader can see what they do has very little value, even if their job happens to be quite exciting.

If you want to establish a character’s job in an authentic manner, how many words do you need to do that? Is a politician who gives a long speech full of empty promises going to be more convincing than one who makes one campaign promise he obviously has no intention of keeping?

The more isolated a scene is from the rest of the narrative the easier it is to let the character switch to work mode, so making sure the character is in touch with previous events, mentally and emotionally, helps a lot.

For minor characters, consider what they were doing prior to their appearance, even if we never see it. You don’t have to give them a detailed backstory, but any residual emotion will help add nuance.

Having one character interrupt another is a good way of shifting the dialogue from formulaic to dramatic. If a cop is asking a witness questions in a standard cop-like manner, and the witness wants to know where he got that pen because she had one just like it which went missing and is he sure that’s not her pen, then that can throw the cop off his even keel. Characters act in a particular way because they are prepared. If you can throw things at them that they aren’t prepared for they will have to go off script. Using another character to provoke a response is one way, but any sort of unusual activity in a standard scene will give the characters a chance to act like themselves rather than the job.

Even though it’s important to have a character behave in a way befitting his job and status, it’s far more important to engage with the reader and have them connect with the character on a deeper level. The best way to do that is not to focus on what makes them a typical member of a community, but to find the traits that are unique to them and typify their personality, and then find ways to draw it out of them.

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Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I like the bit about the pen!
What were they doing right before they appeared - good way to give them more depth.

mooderino said...

@Alex - small touches like that can help build a much more layered depiction of characters, i think.

dolorah said...

I'm a social worker by profession; and I have noticed we all have certain consistent traits that also infect our personal lives. I imagine it doesn't matter what a character does for a job in the story, some of that personality will leak out in certain situations. That is why I like the idea of considering what was happening in the previous scene as a means of developing a well rounded character. And of course, some professions (like politician) come with preconceived traits in the reader's mind. Good to capitalize on those, and sometimes tear them down.

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

I tease my boss at work by saying, "Whenever you are in work mode, you actually talk in 'dad voice.'" He laughed, but I said, "I bet your son recognizes the tone you take." He said he wasn't aware of the change in inflection his voice undertakes, but agrees that it probably does happen.

mooderino said...

@dolorah - I think it's good to have some aspects of professional behaviour showing in a character, it's when that's all there is that it can feel a little sterile.

@Mike - I think we all have a bit of that, and also telephone voice.

Malia Sage said...

needed this blog post! characters are one of the things i struggle most with. thanks/good job :)

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