Wednesday Workshop: How We Write Reveals Character

This is one of those very subtle, yet important things.

How we write reveals character.

What does that mean? You ever write something, let's say we are writing for a secretary who loathes her boss. Let's make this a female boss because I'm in a catty mood. We could write something like this:
She read my report glanced over the paper, like she found something wrong and expected me to squirm. I wasn't going to give her the pleasure.
Great stuff, and something I would love to write more into. It hits the notes of power over her, passive aggression, and those all-too-familiar office moments where the slightest thing can set someone off. We also have a hint of the relationship here between them, where there is a resistance to the triggering behavior, and an assumption that the prodding gives her boss a perverse pleasure. It does a lot with a little, which is why I love lines like this.

Now that we have hit the basics, we can ask two questions:
  1. What does this reveal about the target of her observations?
  2. What does this reveal about the observer?
We know #1, most of us have been here before in a situation where the boss is out looking for blood and we fight that war of subtle and hidden aggression with the most minor moments of provocation and disguised action. We get that, and we can all write from our experiences to get moments like this across.

But it is #2 that I wish to focus on today, the theory that what we write can reveal just as much about the observer as what is being described. When we write we look through a pane of glass, our experiences, and we tell people what we see beyond the window. In this case, it is a familiar experience of passive office aggression, and we can hit all the bitchy boss notes, the little provocations, and that tension of not taking the bait and wishing this day was over. We get it, and we can write through the situation and fill it with tension, drama, and familiarity.

But when we look through a pane of glass, we can focus our eyes just a little bit, and see the reflection of ourselves.

There is always a subtle piece of the observer in what we write.

In this case, it does not come across as strong, and the glass does not show the reflection of the observer all that well. It could be anybody, which both makes this piece of writing relatable, but also a bit bland. We have no real idea of the personality of the observer in this piece, only that it is someone sick of her boss and wishing the clock would strike five. It could be anybody, and the words convey no real 'reflection' of the personality making this observation. If this was our experience, then we are more writing in the author's voice than a characters, and that is fine if we had these experiences and wish to throw those down directly for all the world to see.

But what if we wanted to show character through what we wrote? You know, take a little bit of the reflection of the character going through this, and show the reader a little of the 'other person' in the picture - instead of writing this in the author's voice. Let's try:
She read my report glanced over the paper, like she found something wrong and expected me to squirm. I know not everyone has a perfect life like you, bitch. She looked up again. I wasn't going to give her the pleasure.
A direct thought written right in there, and it reflects back a little on the person living through this at the moment. This is not the author, this is the character speaking now. This is a bit on the bold, brash and telling side, but it does make this feel like 'someone else is telling us this' better. We are a step deeper in a character's narrative, and a step out of the author's narrative. I had to break it up with a second action as well to transition, just because I felt it worked better.

All well and good, and we are starting to see the person looking through the glass a little more. In this case, we are being very overt about the fact she hates her boss, and I am wondering if there isn't a more subtle way to do this. Well, there is. Remember, what we say and how we say it matters. Let's think about that and try again:
She read my report and leered over the paper, like she found an innocent mistake and expected me to squirm. I wasn't going to give her majesty the pleasure.
Subtle changes, and not many - but important ones. What type of moment was this? Leered, like the glance was obscene and unwanted. We colored that action with a word that comes from the observer's vocabulary and experiences, and also reflected the observer's state of mind in that moment. What type of mistake was it? An innocent one, and this reflects the types of mistakes she thought she makes and gets burned for, and also a reflection of the high regard of which she holds her report. And the final one, her majesty, it reflects the royal nature of how she sees her boss, her boss could totally not be a queen or totally be one, but this is how she sees her and her choice of words in describing her boss gives us a better idea of how the observer sees the persona and situation.

And notice how all of a sudden the experience becomes less generic, this isn't the writer talking, it is a specific character in a specific moment. Out writing loses the generic voice, and it becomes a character speaking to the reader.

These words are carefully chosen, and swapping them out gives us a totally different view of the observer, and also the observer's emotions and character.
She read my report and belatedly glanced over the paper, like she found one of my typical oversights and expected me to squirm. I wasn't going to give miss perfect the pleasure.
It is less combative, still a little bitchy, but there isn't as much tension here. More of the blame is being reflected back upon the observer, and even the categorization of her boss as 'miss perfect' isn't as harsh as an uncaring royal. These two could be lovers, with her boss wanting better for her subordinate.

When we reflect the character observing the scene, we need to pick our words carefully to match the mood and viewpoint of the character in that situation.

Now I could have been overt about any of these observations, and come right out and said, "I hate how she always thinks she is the queen of the office!" - but I didn't. I purposefully dropped some colorful words in there which reflect how the character, not me the writer, sees the situation. All of a sudden, that first, almost generic, description of her boss becomes personalized commentary on her boss, and the writer starts to disappear.

We see the other person's reflection in the window.

Not the writer, or a generic could-be-anybody experience.

How we write reveals character.