Last week, as I wrote about character personalities, I realized that the topic has a whole lot more to it than the simple question that started me off. Just to remind you, the question was, basically, “Do writers write characters with personalities like their own and, if so, can they develop beyond that point?”
My answer was, yes and yes, and I talked a little bit about why I thought so. However, even as I was moving to the end, I realized that there was a lot more to writing realistic characters than this. One thing that struck me was that it’s a rare person who is the same in all situations, with all sorts of people. However, all too often, characters are one sort of person and react to all situations and people in the same way.
Now, this isn’t always a bad thing. I’m quite fond of Robert Parker’s novels about Spenser. What kept me reading them through the last novel Parker wrote before his death was my fondness for the characters – especially the core three: Spenser, Hawk, and Susan. Of these three, Spenser and Hawk could be said to be the sort of people who react in the same manner to all situations. They’re tough, reliable, socially savvy, and smart. Spenser is both less tough and less smart than Hawk – Hawk never would have gotten shot in the way Spenser does in Small Vices – but that’s okay. Spenser has other qualities that may make him stronger than Hawk overall. But, whether faced with a big problem or a small one, they react in a consistent fashion.
There is a comfort to reading about characters like this. Mystery and thriller protagonists in particular are often of this type. No matter their quirks or shortcomings, they’ll come through in the end, upholding whatever their variation on justice might be.
Maybe there are “real” people like this, too, but if so, I haven’t met many. Most real people change according to who they are with and the circumstances in which they find themselves. One good example is what I’ll call the “wolf pack alpha” type. This is the sort of person who is usually at the core of a social group. Like a good wolf pack alpha, they’re only dominant in the best sort of way – that is, they arrange situations for the greater benefit of the social group. Someone only observing them in that context might think them strong, confident, and self-assured.
However, change the situation, add in someone who this sort of “alpha” views as dominant over them – a boss, a potential benefactor, someone they see as more important than themselves — and they become not a leader but a follower. Suddenly, instead of setting up the situation for the good of the group as a whole, they are more interested in winning the favor of this new alpha. In a worst case scenario, the former alpha may begin to bully subordinates who once could trust in their leader’s protection.
That’s why I call this type a “wolf pack alpha” because, as in a wolf pack, behavior changes according to who is perceived to hold the power. But wolf pack alphas are not bullies (except in certain situations). They really do care about the strength of their group because they perceive themselves within a group context.
Bullies are perhaps the perfect type of the character whose behavior shifts according to the situation and their perception of power. Spenser and Hawk are not above beating someone up if that’s the best way to handle a situation – but this attitude does not change depending on who is watching or what the penalty might be. A bully, by contrast, changes like the wind. One of the best bullies I’ve ever encountered in fiction is Hakeswill from the Sharpe stories by Bernard Cornwell. When the commanders are around, Hakewill is militarily correct, even a touch groveling. However, when the bosses are absent, he is cruel to the point of sadism. The actor who brought this character to the screen handled his role so well that – I’ll admit it – I was continuously on edge in those stories in which he appeared.
Bullies are common in middle grade and YA fiction. Lots of the tension in the Harry Potter stories derives from various bullies – both adult and younger. However, bullies are less often used in adult fiction, except for the obvious, swaggering thugs. As I see it, a good bully is often a smart character, if rarely likeable. An adult bully – even a thug – needs to be careful of the consequences of being caught.
Sometimes situation is what changes a character’s personality. Jack Aubrey in Patrick O’Brien’s wonderful sea sagas is exactly the man you want in command of your ship. However, put him on land – especially if matters of pretty women or money are in the offing – and trouble will arise.
Another way in which character personalities can change from situation to situation are patterns based on longtime relationships and, to some extent, differences in age. I’ve seen many a confident, even blustering, adult, change entirely when a parent is present. The change might be something as minor as a person who normally swears a lot or dresses provocatively moderating that behavior in a parent’s presence. It might be as drastic as a resumption of subordinate behavior on the part of someone who is normally dominant.
The old television show WKRP in Cincinnati used this to good comic effect in the relationship between Mr. Carlson and his mother. The impending arrival of “Mother” is enough to turn Carlson into a quivering jelly. However, as the series progressed, Carlson – in part because of the confidence instilled in him by becoming part of the WKRP team – learns to stand up to his mother, a change that makes both him and her happier people.
If you’re looking for models of characters who change according to who they are with, you can do far worse than indulge in the various stories of P.G. Wodehouse. Bertie Wooster and his “man” Jeeves are Wodehouse’s best known characters, but the pattern extends throughout Wodehouse’s canon.
Confident and even dashing in the company of his peers, Bertie is rendered spineless by his Aunt Agatha. His Aunt Dahlia gets him repeatedly into trouble. However, neither Aunt Agatha nor Aunt Dahlia have any actual power over Bertie. He is independently wealthy, has his own place of residence, and a large social circle.
Aunt Agatha dominates him because she always has done so and Bertie has not changed beyond those childhood patterns. Except for Aunt Dahlia’s occasional threats to withhold the pleasure of her dinner table, she is more likely to convince Bertie to participate in one her of wild schemes by appealing to his strong affection for her. Bertie’s friends also have no real hold over him, but the plaintive cry “We were at school together” is enough to get him in over his ears. So in a single short story, Bertie may be the suave man of the world, the quivering child, the exasperated peer, and the goggle-eyed romantic. One man, many faces…
Not every character needs to be developed in such detail, but certainly protagonists need a bit more fleshing out. Even a relative monolith like Spenser has endearing little details that make him seem more real. After all, who would expect a former boxer and cop turned private eye, to be a gourmet chef?