Telling Stories: What you don’t see when looking in the mirror

Yes, I know, it's a horrible logo. I'm not always good at those.

If I had to point to why I enjoyed Star Trek: Deep Space Nine so much, I could do worse than pointing to the episode of “Waltz.”  In some ways, it’s very much a bottle show – the captain of the series and the character who’s been long set up as a villain facing off against one another and simply letting drama develop.  But I particularly love the amount of insight it gives into that villain, a look into the mind of Dukat.  We have a character who is sharply analytical and has looked deep within himself to figure out his flaws, only to come up with a conclusion so far from redemption that his subsequent actions are at once deplorable and expected.

And it also gives chilling mirrors of any time that the viewers tried to self-analyze.

The thing about introspection is that it’s tricky to do properly, because as the audience and the author we have a different perspective.  We can see what characters are doing wrong when the characters themselves often can’t.  So that raises the interesting question of how much introspection is too much and how to put yourself in the right place to see what they would see.

And sometimes it's only distantly recognizable.

Sometimes it takes some time to learn to look at yourself as things change.

How do they view themselves?

This is a good place to start, because whether or not you like yourself has a hug impact on what you see about yourself.  If you dislike yourself, you’re more likely to see your flaws (e.g. I’m fat, I’m lazy, I’m dishonest, I’m greedy) than your virtues (e.g. I’m loving, I’m charitable, I’m helpful, I’m smart), and vice versa.  Which has some pretty obvious relevance when you’re talking about introspection.

If something goes wrong, the character who hates herself or thinks she’s a fundamentally awful person will be quick to see how her faults contributed to the situation.  What she won’t see is the ways that she prevented it from being worse, or perhaps not even that she wasn’t the main person at fault.  Meanwhile, someone who thinks he can do no wrong will be able to see all the ways that his choices worked while being blind to the ways they didn’t, and will tend to assume that it’s someone else’s fault when his glorious plans fail to properly materialize.

Both versions have huge, glaring blind spots, and they’re simplified versions.  But if you know how your characters view themselves, you can have an idea of where their blind spots are likely to exist.  We all have them when it comes to our personal inventories, after all.

How smart are they?

One of my recurring characters is dumb.  She knows that.  What she doesn’t realize is that she’ not actually as dumb as she thinks she is.  Sure, she’s stupid, but she doesn’t have a realistic assessment of how stupid, which ironically leads her to make dumber decisions because she doesn’t trust her own instincts.  When you spend your life knowing you’re not very smart and being told as much, you’re unlikely to disbelieve all of it, even if all of your instincts say something is a bad idea; you’re more likely to write it off as, well, being dumb.

There seems to be an odd bell curve when it comes to self-analysis.  Below a certain point, you miss obvious flaws about yourself; above a certain point, you’re smart enough to creatively explain away parts of your self-analysis that are relevant.  So you can write a few thousand words about why being drunk all the time isn’t the same as being addicted to cocaine and doesn’t really work like a hardcore drug addiction, which is great, except that’s glossing over the fact that you’re a screaming alcoholic and reek of gin 24/7.

I’m sure that there’s something to be said about multiple intelligences here, but I’m not versed enough in the doctrine to explain it well.  Just be aware that intelligence has a back-and-forth effect on this degree of introspection, heavily influenced by the next point…

No.  There is not.

“Is there a way I can still feel like a good person without, you know, getting rid of the savage brutality that I use to solve all of my problems?”

What do they not want to change?

This is a problem that every single one of us faces on a regular basis.  You realize that you eat too much food and don’t exercise enough, you realize what you have to do to change that, and so you bravely… try to figure out what else you can change so that you don’t have to change your eating habits, because you really like bacon.  Or you realize that you’re in a bad relationship that only redeems itself via great times in bed, so your planning focuses around limiting your time to between-the-sheets activities, because that works great!

No matter what your character’s flaws are, they’ve got some areas where they just do not want to change.  Even if you recognize the problem, it’s easy to point to something else and paint it as the real issue.  So therein lies the issue, where you have a character analyzing their problems and seeing what’s wrong but running into not wanting to change those elements.

This, of course, ties back to most flaws having some positive aspects.  Sure, your character doesn’t like the fact that she’s cavalier about killing people, but she does like being able to make snap decisions without regret in life-or-death circumstances.  He dislikes his abrasive dialogue with women but likes being able to shock people and disarm others mid-conversation.  She feels crushed by dogma, but she can wield it offensively as well.  If something has enough positive sides to the person analyzing, they’re likely to downplay or ignore the negatives.

What’s the prompting?

Last, but not least by any stretch of the imagination.  Something has your character asking questions about their self-identity, and that’s going to influence the answers they find.  Your character who kills people whenever it’s immediately necessary is going to be looking for – and finding – very different answers if she’s thinking about her life after regretting someone’s death or if she’s just gotten kind of tipsy for the evening.

It’s more subtle than that, however.  It’s a known fact that our brains construct different narratives and summon different memories depending on whether we’re happy or sad, and that’s as true for your characters as it is for any other living, thinking individual.  Keep in mind that circumstances and the situations are going to have a pretty profound effect upon the questions asked and the answers provided.

Next time around, I’m going to take a look at wish fulfillment, simultaneously a really powerful part of roleplaying and a real drawback to making a likable character.  The week after that, I’d like to talk about making your character tragic and how there are alternatives for dramatic purposes.

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About expostninja

I've been playing video games and MMOs for years, I read a great deal of design articles, and I work for a news site. This, of course, means that I want to spend more time talking about them. I am not a ninja.

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