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We Are Not All Superheroes Here

We Are Not All Superheroes Here

A Session with KJ Steele

We’ve all had the experience. That awkward moment when the novel we’re completely engrossed in takes an abrupt, startling stumble and heaves us unceremoniously out of its world. Sitting dumb-dazed and glossy-eyed we are left wondering what in the heck just happened.

More often than not the ejection experience will have been precipitated by a discordant reaction or piece of dialogue between characters. One place where this tends to occur most often is when the structure and dynamics of the group changes. In real life we are tremendous observers of the interactions around us. We are passively aware of the slightest changes in tone and inflection peppering the speech of other people. This is why we are often aware of who someone is speaking to on the telephone even if we have not heard a name spoken. Subtle clues alert us to whether the caller is someone’s mother, child, business prospect, boss, or lover.

When we read fiction we enter into a silent agreement with the characters to allow for a suspension of disbelief. Obviously we are well aware (most of the time anyway) that the screaming tires, fire-breathing dragons, and various emotional weather systems bleating up at us from the page are not, in fact, really happening. But the only way we can adequately enter into the enjoyment of fiction is if we agree to hit the pause button on our truth-censor. Not an advisable strategy for the real world, but a very useful tool for imaginative enjoyment.

However, even a wonderful tool like suspension of disbelief has its limits. And, interestingly enough, the more fully we’ve allowed ourselves to become immersed in a story, the more jarring and obvious a discordant note will feel to us.

When we become totally invested in believable characters they essentially become real to us. We begin to feel like we know what to expect from them. Their reactions to people and events will become a bit more predictable. However, just like in real life, the more familiar we become with the character the quicker we’ll be to instinctually perceive any moment that lacks authenticity. In our day-to-day life this is a very valuable asset, one that aids us by alerting us to any falseness hoping to steal by. The degree of awareness will vary amongst people, of course, but we all possess this trait to some extent.

In fiction writing, a character who acts or speaks in a non-authentic way can actually also be a very useful tool for the author. By employing this method, an author can alert readers to the fact that something else may be going on beneath the surface of the story. Crime and mystery writers use this tactic often to seed clues or paint red herrings into their work. Used skillfully, false action or dialogue can be a very illuminating device.

Used less skillfully or, even worse, without meaning to do so, an author will undoubtably create a much less desirable effect. Characters who just moments before were happily sailing along will suddenly appear flat. There is a certain expectation surrounding group dynamics that must be reflected on the page to maintain authenticity. Interactive characters must evolve and fluctuate in response to shifting dynamics. This will be expressed through their dialogue, body language, the role they assume within a group, as well as various other factors. Anything less than this will not be an accurate portrayal of real-life. So unless you are writing about superheroes – who have the uncanny ability to remain staunchly one-dimensional no matter who or what comes hurtling their way – it is best to try and avoid this in your writing.

Lesson #1

First, let’s get very clear on what a character shift looks like.

Create two characters who are best friends. They know each other well. Try making one of them shy and the other one less so. It doesn’t matter if they are male or female or one of each, but take a few moments to develop their personas. Give them names. I’m going to call mine A and B.

Write a paragraph with the two of them laughing and talking together, relaxed and having a great time. Notice and detail their body language, the sound of their voices, and the smell of the air surrounding them. Write them into a really nice setting because they only get a few lines here before we’re going to mess their little world up for them.

You will probably notice that your characters have very quickly sorted themselves into some sort of simple hierarchy. One will usually assume the lead in the conversation, the other one taking a supporting role. I’m not saying it will always fall out this way, but for the purposes of this exercise it’s useful to keep it simple.

Now, create another character and give him/her a name. I’m going to cal