How writing characters has made me a better critical thinker

The other day I was talking to my eldest about creating characters, particularly when she was saying that character development is one of her weaknesses in her writing (she writes a lot, and is taking a creative writing class this semester). We talked about why her characters sometimes seem two dimensional, how bits of ourselves come through in our characters, and I gave her some useful tips for trying to write more well-rounded characters.

When we were talking about one character in particular, I asked questions about that person. Why would they do a particular thing, and what would the consequences of that be? In that case as well, what did accepting those consequences mean for both the character and the other person in the scene? Did it make them vulnerable? Were they making a choice to trust, when trust had been in short supply?

So I gave her some tools, like the List of Twenty and 5 Whys and a series of questions to start with when planning characters – questions that she could add to if she wanted. Things as simple as their favorite food is so much more than taste – perhaps there’s a memory attached to it that has personal significance. What would they never do, no matter the cost?  The list of twenty can work this way as well. Twenty things about your character – you’ll probably start with appearance and occupation and then get into the nitty gritty. And the 5 whys is so fun – Your character wants…. a new job, for example. Why? So he can make more money to support his family. Why? Because he feels it’s his responsibility. Why? Because he grew up being told that that was the measure of a man. Why? Because his father had been the sole breadwinner in their family during a time when women stayed home and cared for the family while the man brought home the bacon. Why? Because his father had been brought up that way, too, and it’s become a “belief” that having that particular division of labour = happiness. But now those traditional values are causing friction in his marriage, because his wife would prefer to have a partner rather than a provider, and feels she could have more to contribute than being “kept”.

So, after all that, how does this make me a better critical thinker?

Because I look at people and issues like I would a new character. I examine from several different angles. I try to put myself in their shoes. I ask questions like WHY. In real life, sometimes this seems like making excuses for people. Like “maybe that person was snippy because they’re having a bad day” rather than calling them out on their behavior (a bad day doesn’t mean you get to be a jerk). But I do think it contributes to a greater understanding. It’s why I don’t like speaking in absolutes (the majority of the time). It’s why, in a time of massive political polarization, I have my beliefs but I also try to see various sides of the issue and LISTEN so I can understand why people think and feel as they do (even if I don’t agree. Which is often.).

And it’s led me to the conclusion as well that no one has their mind changed because someone shouts at them all the time that they’re wrong. Minds get changed through active LISTENING. Encouraging dialogue. Coming together to find solutions rather than trying to prove that your position is the only one. It’s why I find politics incredibly stressful at the moment, and why anti-intellectualism and careless social media posting drives me crazy.

Last year at the RWA conference in Orlando, Faith Salie spoke to the PAN members about the art of listening. I think of that session often. As I get older, I try to listen to many points of view before making my own point, or of asking questions to peel back the layers of an issue for a complete picture rather than rushing to snap judgments. The great thing is, I’ve been doing this with my characters all along. And isn’t it great that fiction gets to trickle over into real life, rather than always being the other way around?

It’s still a big standing joke that a liberal arts education trains you to ask “do you want fries with that,” but it was a liberal arts education that showed me I wanted to be a writer, and taught me how to at least try to get a 360 view of the world around me and the people in it. And, in my opinion, the world could use a lot more of that right about now.

Stay cozy, read a good book, and smile at a stranger. Until next week,



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