Writing Reality – On Layering Characters

20/07/2013 at 14:35 (Reviews, Writing, Writing Reality articles) (, , , , , , )

More often than not, the people we see by chance every day are the ones we discard with the same ready ease as anyone facing multiple acquaintances. It’s a simple texture in life. You can’t cling to the patchwork world, and it certainly won’t cling to you.

That being said, there are certain people who embed themselves in our minds – even if we never learn what their middle name is, where they sleep at night, what colour makes them rock out. They might be the girl who stamps your season pass at the cinema, all edgy hair and quick film-talk behind the counter, before she has to greet the next customer; perhaps it’s the guy who for years called you “Fred”, in a poignant Holly Golightly kind of way, though you never did grasp whether it was through projected memories or Alzheimer’s.

These people stay with us, because – if only for snapshots of time – they meant something. They were more than just the blank moon of a passer-by on the street. They stood out in your sky. But if you were to ask yourself, years later, who these people really were? Chances are, you didn’t know then, and you certainly won’t know now.

One way of embedding them in your memory and timeframe, is to give them character roles.

When I sift back through all the nonsensical, random, terrifying (insert adjective of choice) encounters I’ve had in 28 years, I know I’ve got a cache of characters waiting to happen. They’re standing in the wings for their curtain call. I can’t reference them by real names of course, and moreover I never learned half of them anyway. But the faces and personalities imprinted themselves on me so boldly, it’d be a shame to let them go to waste. There was the guy who used to pad the corridors of the inpatient unit I spent 7.5 months on; he’d walk out his night shift to the sound of his fingers gently tapping the walls. I asked him why he did this, and his reply – “so I can check in with your heartbeats, make sure you’re still alive”, overlooked by a knowing wink – endeared him to me as a fellow eccentric. Not just another wire-faced staff nurse, then.

A man with a face like couched leather, large hands that smelled of soap and sugar from all the snacks he helped prepare for us needy anorexics. His was a ready laugh, an even readier temper; after hearing two girls crying in their rooms after time spent at home over Christmas (bewailing the fact they’d probably put on more weight than was expected, as though we could ever hope to keep to a steady regime), he wrote these lines on the main white board for us all to read:

“Come into my parlour, said the spider to the fly,
I have a little something here.”

It was only years later, after I was on the road to recovery and bothered to look that poem up, that I got the black joke. I knew his message to us, and took it to heart.

He stays firmly locked in my head as a man of unorthodox proportions and subtle nuance; a man who defied staff credibility by spending far longer with each patient than he was paid to. He’d often sit with me on those nights when I couldn’t sleep, when burning energy fired my feet and mind. He’d talk to me over twin cups of hot chocolate because, as he put it, if I going to be up out of bed and wandering around, he was going to damn well see to it that I put something back inside. The recompense for this not-small fear provoker was, of course, absolutely unstinted staff time – a luxury, in that conveyor belt healthy system. We spoke of many things, cabbages and kings, and I never even learned if he was married, had children, went abroad. But I did learn of the surprising depths of his empathy.

One day, this man will be given the only reward I can possibly deal out to his memory, in one of my fictional works. I want to show the world what complex decency can do for a man. There really are some who give, without asking for anything back – and they still don’t take any bullshit, thank you very much.

Layered characters are the most appealing to read. The ones who don’t put all their cards on the table at once, or feel the need to strip off in each chapter, just to prove they’re the Real Deal. Gradual brush strokes on the canvas make the picture.

Jane Austen’s Mr Darcy certainly didn’t impress himself on Elizabeth Bennett in their first (second, third etc) meetings; but then, what right had she to know from the off about his dealings with Wickham, and the resultant pain suffered in protecting the virtue of the young Miss Darcy? Such grievances lay heavy on his soul, and – though well aware of his own station in life – he was essentially a good man, born of an honourable upbringing. To have his trust diminished in such a deeply personal way, surely saw to it that he wouldn’t be so eager to lay down his every intention to the world at large; unlike the guileless Mr Bingley, easily blindsided by the maneuverings of his sisters and Darcy. Where Elizabeth was concerned, this is especially pertinent, given that he didn’t trust the feelings himself.

I find the world – fictional and otherwise – a far more interesting place when populated by these multilayered people. It can mean chances of misinterpretation of course, of mistrust and alienation. Alternatively, it can catalyze some hugely entertaining games of chance, wherein two personalities – seemingly set to clash from the outset – actually have far more universal truths in their makeup than was realized.

Over the course of the narrative, allow peripheral character actions/reactions to surprise your protagonists, make them rethink their take on the world. If they’re feeling slightly unpinned by reality, the audience will reel with them. They can ride shot-gun with a journey of self-discovery, for it’s often the case that the people we glance off of in life, are the ones who awaken true awareness of what is vs. what must be, strengths and weakness.

It’s the layered people who surprise us, keep us interested, wanting to find out more – even if, in the end, we always feel like we’re trying to grasp smoke. But the smell was gorgeous, all the same.

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