I grew up in Southern California, where cars are king. Our traffic problems are the stuff of legend because of it; the very air smog we breathe is proof of it. When I moved to New York City after graduation from college, though, it became obvious to me that mass transit was the way to go. I took the subway, mostly, but I loved the bus, too – I liked being above ground, passing all those lovely neighborhoods and flying through Central Park even when cars weren’t allowed on the main drive. Articulated buses are my favorite – I enjoy the idea of being two places on a city corner at once. When I moved to Chicago, it was much the same. I was happy to take either the El or the bus, anywhere in Chicago.
But I’m back in Southern California now, after having spent my formative adult years in major metropolises, and I find myself bemoaning the lack of the public transit system – and then hating what we do have, for its inefficiencies. An acquaintance heard me bashing the SoCal mass transit. She reminded me that, for many people, mass transit is the only way to get around. That without it, they can’t get to work.
Of course I was ashamed of myself, for having not seen that, especially since I only learned about economic diversity from living in Chicago and in New York. And yet – of course I would have this blind spot: Having only ever seen mass transit as a wonderful convenience, I was incapable of seeing it as a necessity. My blind spot had turned me one-dimensional, and I reminded myself of the one-dimensional characters I sometimes read in fiction. These are the characters who behave as we believe they should behave. These are the ones who conform to every stereotype, so that we’re bored by the very act of getting to know them. These are the ones who, even in minor roles, irk us with their predictability.
And yet – they are the ones that are easiest to write. So how do we avoid peppering our plots with them? We can draw once again from the world of sociology to help us.
A few months ago, I wrote about The Person You Mean to Be: How Good People Fight Bias. In it, author Dolly Chugh talks to us about unconscious bias, and about the various ways it can impinge on our drive to do good in this world.
Chugh tells a story about Kimberly Davis, a black female executive who attended a networking event for female executives, only to be ignored at every conversational circle she tried to join. One explanation for this, Chugh posits, is bounded awareness: We do not see what we do not expect to see. Davis’s colleagues didn’t see her because they weren’t “ready” to see a black female executive in the room. They were more likely to see her as support staff, perhaps. Or a waiter.
I’ve been thinking about this example for a lot of reasons, but I can also see it helping to improve our writing. People fall prey to unconscious when their point of view takes over, which is…well, always: We start to only pay attention to the things that support and confirm our point of view. In everyday relations, this results in #awkward moments, hurt feelings, missed opportunities.
When writers fall prey to unconscious bias, we can only see the characters we expect to see. We can’t see the things that might make them shine.
First, I’d like you to take a break here and think about your favorite characters in literature, the most memorable ones. Ask yourself what you really liked about them. Odds are, you’ll find that they were unusual in some way, that they broke the mold you expected.
Me, I love Mole, from The Wind in the Willows. Here he is, a pleasant fellow, who’s decided he’s tired of his old life and needs a new one. (In the original Ernest H. Shepard illustrations, he is wearing a smoking jacket and slippers when we meet him – can’t you just picture him?) And then! Out of nowhere, one day he begins to follow his nose, and it leads him and his friend Ratty back to his unattended, dusty old burrow, where we find that he is really a worrisome, annoying character. He’s not really capable, or not as much as we thought he was, anyway.
Here’s another example. In Dick Francis’ Proof, the hero, Tony Beach, keeps telling us about how he doesn’t stand out at all. How he’s really a failure compared to his brave father, who died in battle and won the Victoria Cross, or his mother, who is a huntmaster. It’s kind of true. Tony mooches around, feeling sorry for himself. He thinks about his dead wife a lot, keeps out of the way of danger. But then, sheer boredom drives him to take part in a police investigation, and we discover someone more interesting hidden beneath the sorrow and quotidian occupations.
What about these characters surprises us? If you drill down deep, you might find that you’re suffering from a little bounded awareness yourself, as a reader. Maybe you love these characters because they’re acting in ways you didn’t expect people in their circumstances to act.
How do we write these characters, then? Each one is an individual; each of them has a unique storyline, a unique point of view. Ask yourself, what circumstances will make them act differently?
So now we come around to the crux of the matter. Writing multi-dimensional, interesting characters isn’t just about the characters themselves – it’s about the situations you can find to put them in. Some questions for you: What can you do to this character to make them act in a way that we wouldn’t expect them to act? What situations can this character put him- or herself into that will really push the limits of that character’s own bounded awareness?
In the case of Tony Beach, he [spoiler alert] would have never guessed that two guys in bad wigs would break into his unassuming little wine shop. In the case of Mole, he could have never foreseen that his best friend in the whole wide world, whom he loves and respects, would actually visit Mole’s cobwebby old hovel.
One more thing I want to point out here. Some scientists studying the benefits of literature found that reading literary fiction fosters empathy. An article about the study noted that characters in literary fiction “disrupt reader expectations, undermining prejudices and stereotypes,” which in turn forces readers to imagine what those characters might be thinking of, why they’re reacting the way they are.
Writers, I think, would be well served to remember this empathy, with a twist on it: Putting yourself in a frame of mind to feel empathy for the characters you’re writing might be the best way you have of writing characters who feel real, as opposed to characters who merely fulfill our readers’ expectations.
—Yi Shun Lai is the fiction editor and co-owner of Tahoma Literary Review. Read about her writing coaching and editing services; her novel, Not a Self-Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu; and her daily adventures at thegooddirt.org. Originally Published