The reader is smarter than you. The reader is always smarter than you. And the reader knows when you’ve taken a shortcut, or phoned it in, or are trying to pull a fast one. And the reader don’t like it one bit.
That’s prolific writer Greg Rucka, sounding off over on i09 about why he writes so-called “strong female characters,” and, more precisely, why he thinks he is always asked to explain why he writes strong female characters. Of course, as you’d expect, he patiently re-explains that gender isn’t anyone’s sole defining character trait.
But the beautiful part of his in-depth response, the worth-reading part, is his ensuing master class on research and imagination in pursuit of verisimilitude, thus:
Bridgett was not my first female protagonist, clearly, but it was the first time I was diving into such deep waters. I was going to be in her head, see through her eyes, and while I knew her personality, there were many gaps. I didn’t know what it was to see the world as a junkie. And despite my best empathy, I didn’t know what it was to see the world as a woman. And I knew if I couldn’t do those things, the novel would be a car crash.
If I write a story and set it in Antarctica and then I take Carrie Stetko outside for a walk, I’d damn well better remember that it’s cold outside. That’s world building. There’s no secret to it. If a writer -– any writer -– wants to make their story worthwhile, then the characters deserve as much consistency and attention as the world they inhabit.
I would say the most common note we have for younger writers, or writers new to prose, anyway, is to go back and rewrite scenes honestly, as if that character actually did just experience that particular plot point in that particular world. “But if I change that little piece then I’ll have to go back and rewrite three chapters,” people will often say back and then we say, “See, you know that the dishonest scene is only there to service the mechanics of the plot, and I know it; your readers will definitely know it, and they’ll put the book down, never to return.” As El Senor Rucka says, the reader is always smarter than you. If you use your characters like toys in a playset, or props on a stage, then what you’re writing is no longer a story about that character; it has become a sequence of events that you insist on describing.
To counteract this, research is essential (Rucka describes some truly detailed, intensive self-examination and education to get out of the jam he was in with Bridgett), but imagination and acting is almost more important and definitely more immediate. You can do it while writing, after all.
My expensive writing degree paid for itself with these two bits of wisdom I was lucky enough to receive from talented instructors:
1. “Get behind your character’s eyes.”
2. “What’s your character’s maternal grandmother’s name?”
The first is about being in the moment. If your character wakes up on a beach after a bender, he probably has to pee. (Yes, that’s an actual situation from an actual writing class — my professor and I spent most of that semester discussing beer and pee.) The peeing may not seem essential, but remember, you’re not listing a sequence of events but telling a story, and the reader, though probably not consciously noticing it, will feel more welcomed in by the story if it feels right. The way you do this is by doing the same thing actors do: you inhabit the scene, literally getting behind our character’s eyes. You pretend. (It’s what writers do; try it, you’ll like it!)
The second is about verisimilitude. This particular professor used to kill me with these pop quizzes: “What’s his favorite ice cream flavor?” “What’s her least-favorite thing to do on a Sunday morning?” If you got peppered with these it was because you wrote a crappy phoned-in scene without any world-building. Your character’s maternal grandmother will never come into the story, but knowing everything about your character will inform every decision she makes, every word she says. Designing the imaginative landscape, building that character’s particular world, will make for a richer, more memorable character because they’ll do interesting, unique things; more often than not, they’ll even do things you didn’t plan for them to do, which means you’re right on track to writing an amazing story.