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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 call mine E simply because that strikes me as a much less obvious name than say … C, and I firmly believe a fiction writer should avoid being obviously obvious whenever possible. Let’s say E is a forceful, loud character who seems to have missed every single lesson in Miss Lily’s School of Manners. He constantly asks questions then talks over everyone and answers himself. Give him something unusual to hold. E seems to be carrying a duck … that has taken its last swim … quite some time ago.

Walk your new character onto your page and into the conversation of your original characters. Remember that this new character has the bad habit of asking a question and then immediately talking over whoever they’ve asked in order to answer it himself. Now, notice the shifts that should naturally begin to take place within your original characters. Do they become more aggressive? Quieter? Do they begin to form a subtle allegiance to feel safer? There are myriad behaviors that your characters can engage in. That is part of the fun of being a fiction writer. But the point is simply that when a situation or group dynamics change, characters must adapt and change in order to encompass it. Otherwise, they run the risk of appearing false.

In my novel No Story to Tell, my protagonist Victoria demonstrates how subtle these changes can be while still maintaining the integrity of the writing and the character.  While she and Elliot are alone talking her manner is loose and easy, even slightly flirtatious. When her husband Bobby joins them, she quickly loses her outgoing manner and turns inward.

“You have no idea how many times I wanted to call to make sure you were okay.”
Her eyes questioned him.

He twinkled a smile at her, his explanation cut off by a chorus of drunken rollicking in the yard. They looked over to the tables where Bobby and JJ had wrestled Petey into a huge white brassiere and were stuffing it full of black socks. Elliot grinned, but his face fell silent when he looked back at her and saw pain muffled behind her eyes.

“You okay?”

“Yes, I’m fine. It’s just embarrassing.” She nodded toward Bobby, who had now stood up, lost his balance and collided with a shelf full of shoes.

“He’s just having fun. Don’t worry about it.”

“He’s drunk.”
“Hey, that’s him. It’s not a reflection on you.”
“Easy for you to say; you’re not married to him.”
Elliot laughed, squeezed her shoulders and winked.

“Quite true, I’m not. Hey, you want something? Can I get you a coffee?”

“Okay, sure. Thank you.”

“Cream or sugar?”

“Both. One sugar, please.”

“Perfect. Same as me.”

He stepped off the porch and crossed the yard, mingling with the old-timers as he passed by. She held the book in front of her as she watched him go, covering a smile that swallowed her face. She wanted to reach up and kiss the sky. Resting her head against the porch railing, she blurred all the sights and sounds of the auction into a steady, dull murmur as she waited for him to come back. The touch of his hands had not lost their magnetic draw and, as before, he’d left her with every light in the house on.

“Here you are. Whoops, spilled some.”

She let him place the foam cup into her hand then slid the tip of her tongue up the side of it, recovering the drip.

“Thank you. So, how was your trip?”

“My trip?”
“Yeah. This winter, where’d you go?”

“Did I go somewhere?”

Victoria looked at him curiously as she sipped her coffee. “Didn’t you? I heard you had.”

“Really? Where’d you hear I went?”

“I don’t remember. The Bahamas, Barbados . . . some place like that.”

Humor crossed with surprise mingled on Elliot’s face. “Interesting. Did you happen to hear if I had a good time as well?”

Victoria shook her head as she joined him in a laugh. “You know, I’d really like to know how these stories get started.”

“Probably just a misunderstanding. No harm done. Kind of funny actually.”

Victoria nibbled delicate teeth marks around the rim of her cup, pondering the avalanche of questions this small shift of information sent tumbling her way.

“So, you’ve been here all winter? In the valley?”

He nodded a smile, questioning her question with his eyes. “Well, I guess that’s not quite true. I spent a week at Christmas down on the island visiting my brother.”

“The island?”

“Ya. South end.”

Victoria smiled knowingly. “Oh, south end of the island. Now I know where that rumor came from.”

“You do?”

“Island. South. More than enough information to get a story started around here.”

“Come on! You’re joking!”

“Afraid not.”
“Doesn’t take much, hey?”


“Things must get pretty twisted in a place like this.”

“Consider that a serious understatement. You wouldn’t believe the stories I’ve heard about myself.”

“And what . . . people just sort of believe whatever best suits them?”

“Pretty much.”

He paused to consider this, imprinting a happy face into the soft foam of his cup with his thumbnail. “Regardless of the truth?”

“If it works for them, ya.” She swished her coffee around and watched as it swirled into a slow eddy.
“Kind of like you?”
She felt her back stiffen as she bristled against the words. “What do you mean?”

“You know.”

“Do I?”

“Yeah. I’m pretty sure you do.” He sat on the step below her and leaned back against the porch railing, turned his cup toward her and pressed the happy face into a sad one. “Correct?”

She rolled her eyes and pushed lightly against his shoulder with her knee. “I wish I’d never even mentioned that. Don’t you ever forget anything?”

“Not if it’s important to me, no.”
“And me being happy is important to you?”
“Your being honest with yourself is important to me.”

“I am being honest!”

“How honest? Honest enough to admit you’re not being honest?”

She put her coffee down beside her, met his eyes and held fast. “I’m fine, Elliot.”

“Uh-huh. You’re the Queen of the Fine-Fine.”

Victoria laughed. “Okay. Fair enough. So, let’s say I’m that honest. Where would it get me?”

He set his coffee down beside hers and rested his hand lightly across her foot.

“Everyone has options, Victoria.”
“Really? So what are mine?”

“Don’t know. That’s something only you can decide.”
It wasn’t the answer she was hoping to hear and her body, her mood, even the air around them seemed to grow agitated.
“Well, maybe I’ve decided my options don’t look so good. What then?”
He squeezed her foot. “Well, maybe then you just need to look a little deeper. Try to see things from a different perspective.”

“Well, right now what my perspective sees is my husband and his friends staggering this way.”
“Is that a problem?”
“When Bobby’s drunk, everything is a problem.” She smiled as if it were a joke and shifted her leg away from Elliot’s arm.

“Should I leave?”

“Too late. It’ll look like you’re running away.”

Bobby knocked his way through the crowd, saw her sitting off by the house with Elliot and attempted to fix her with a damning stare as he made his way closer, but the interference of people and potholes and a gut full of booze made it all but impossible to maintain. Avoiding his eyes, Victoria examined her cup and concentrated on carving it full of nervous Xs. Looming up on her, he nudged her foot with his boot, focused his frown and spit into the lilac bush beside the stairs.

“How’d you git here?”

“In my car.”

“How the hell you git it started?”

“The key.”
“Bullshit! I got the frickin’ key.”

“Well, I got the frickin’ spare,” she jousted, feeling somewhat insular surrounded by the polite restrictions of social mores.

“That right? You thinking you’re pretty bloody smart, ain’t ya?”

She kept her head bowed, the foam cup slowly imploding inside her fist. “Hey! I’m talking to you!” He nudged her again harder and the cup collapsed completely, spilling the coffee over her hand and down her leg.

Elliot rose up beside her, the easy looseness gone from his limbs. “Hey Buddy, hold on there. Let’s just—”

“Keep your face outta where it don’t belong, pretty boy,” John Jr.’s voice warned with bitter amusement.

Wisely Elliot ignored him, touching Bobby’s arm, which was attempting to steady him against the rails. “Come on, Bobby. Everyone’s just having a good time. Let’s just—”

“Let’s just you mind your own friggin’ business how’s about!” He tried to square off with Elliot, but the step beneath him tottered under his weight and kept him off balance.

“Better watch that stair. Doesn’t seem too safe.” Elliot reached out to help steady him, but Bobby pushed his hand away, lost his balance and half-fell, half-sat beside Victoria. He wrapped an arm around her shoulders and tipped her toward him, the sweat of his underarms cold and rancid against her cheek.

“Bobby,” she whispered. “Let go. You’re hurting me.”

“That so?” he returned evenly as he fished a half-chugged mickey from his pocket, squeezing her tighter as he took a swallow.


Elliot declined the offer, held his coffee up in defense. He tried to catch Victoria’s attention, but she kept her eyes riveted to the stair beneath her, mortified at having Bobby join their conversation, furious at finding herself trapped beneath his arm. But the situation reeked of explosive potential, and the mere thought of what might happen should Bobby be set off was enough to internalize her fury into shame.

Lesson #2

So let’s have some fun with this. Let’s explore what happens when our original characters don’t shift or change at all when our third character is introduced onto the page. This time take your original two characters (A and B) and then once again introduce character E, except this time as you write dialogue try to keep all the characters exactly the same as they start out. Doesn’t work well does it? Notice how they begin to flatten and seem less realistic. Then, let’s try to keep characters A and B the same and see what happens to character E if only the original two are allowed to change. Does character E begin to modify his behavior or become more assertive?

Again, there are a great many variations our characters might express once pressure is applied to the group dynamic. However, one thing should become clear. If our characters are genuine they will be influenced and altered by the constantly shifting dynamics they become a part of. So – unless we are purposely trying to create a superhero on our page – the responses and reactions of our characters must remain fluid and adaptable in order to reflect the changing dynamics we write them into.


About the Author…
KJ Steele is a writer who has learned that the process is not so much about choosing what to write as it is about having the courage to write what chooses to be written. Having spent the first half of her life creating an amazing family with her husband, Victor, she intends to spend the rest of it creating equally amazing fiction. She is the author of one previous novel, No Story to Tell. She lives in British Columbia, CA.


The Bird Box


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