Applying heart to sleeve

One thing you find out very quickly as a published writer is, readers are perfectly capable of having wildly divergent reactions to any given aspect of your story, even to the point of flat-out contradiction. One reviewer thinks your plot is a roller-coaster ride of thrilling and unexpected turns; another finds it pedestrian and utterly predictable. These folks over here adore your prose style as a lyrical painting in words, but those over there decry it as flat and unevocative. Mileage doesn’t just vary; it hardly seems to have gone over the same road.

Which is by way of an lead-in to this revelation: I think I’ve pinpointed at least one reason why there’s such a spectrum of reactions to my characters.

You can imagine the range without me citing specific examples: some readers love my characters for their believability or depth, while others dismiss them as lifeless cardboard. (I would cite, but I don’t want to put anybody on the spot.) A recent iteration of the latter made some synapse fire in a back corner of my brain, connecting that to something I thought of during a brief exchange with Yoon Ha Lee: that, as I am a fairly reserved person, my characters’ idea of demonstrative floods of emotion may not look like much to the extroverts out there.

Most of you have never met me in person, so you have no idea how I behave. The short form is, while I’m friendly and all, especially at cons and other public events, I don’t tend to show much of what I’m really thinking or feeling. (A fact which caused some difficulty for my husband when we first started dating. What’s funnier was when he met my father, from whom I inherited this tendency. But that’s a story for another day.) So I, not really being the sort to wave flags when I’m excited or angry or whatever, don’t tend to wave them for my characters, either. Or rather, I do — by my standards of measurement. And maybe if you’re a similar sort of person, then the things I intend to be flags register as such, and voila, you see depth of emotion. But people who are more used to wearing their hearts on their sleeves will only see a faint tick on the psychological seismograph, and think the character is made out of wood.

I’m not sure if that explanation is right, and even if it is, it doesn’t tell the whole story. Characterization, like every other aspect of the craft, is something I intend to work on from now until they pry my keyboard out of my cold, dead fingers, because I know there are things I can improve. (Like, for example, learning to write some honest-to-god extroverts — you freakish alien things, you. Seriously, how do you live like that?) So I’m not going to throw my hands up in the air and say “well, that’s how I roll, and if you don’t like it then there’s not much I can do.” Because there are things I can do, and will.

But this feels like a useful realization. Improving things goes a lot better once you understand what it is you’re doing now.

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  1. 1. Sam

    Hi Marie! I think you’ve, like totaly, hit the nail on the head there!!!! Some people just absolutely BRIM OVER with vibrant enthusiasm!!!! And OH MY GOD if you don’t show similar degrees of emotion, you obviously NEED TO LIGHTEN UP AND HAVE SOME FUN!!!!!

    Personally I find them loud and annoying and fake and hope they stay in the sales-team part of the office, and find characters like that in books shallow and equally annoying – and as unbelievable and fake as I feel (rightly or wrongly) people doing that “in real life” are. It seems two-dimensional because it’s all on the surface and feels like a facade.

    On the other side of the fence, I’m sure they find me dour and miserable and think me incapable of smiling even when I am smiling, and would find the sort of characters I think of as having believability and depth as being stilted and lifeless. It’d seem two-dimensional to them because it seems flat and there’s no difference (to them) across the emotional range of the character. If a character isn’t wailing and tearing their hair out and isn’t utterly incapacitated, they can’t be feeling grief for example.

    Of course a lot of extrovert behaviour is just another (noisier) way of being introverted and keeping people at a distance from the “real you”, which may or may not be easier to write and may or may not be interesting. (Nope, not hedging my bets at all. :) )

    I think you’re definitely onto a good point though, in film and TV I find it much more satisfying if the dialogue can, and is, substituted for by facial expression, to me it’s a sign if a good character if their response to a line can be conveyed by just a gesture or a look – if they can convey a nuance in that manner, they’ve succeded in making a believable character to me (and acted it well!). Other people however find it boring if there’s no talking with hammed up vocal emotions. Strange people. :)

  2. 2. Adam Heine

    I’m with you, Marie. I don’t understand extroverts. There’s nothing wrong with calm.

    This is a really good post. It’s a good reminder that, no matter what people say about our work, we can use it to get better.

  3. 3. AJ Valliant

    “Like, for example, learning to write some honest-to-god extroverts — you freakish alien things, you. Seriously, how do you live like that?”

    Speaking as a freakishly extroverted person, who’s wholly incapable of concealing any internal process, allow me to try and defend and explain my people.

    Extroversion is no more false, or vapid, than introversion…it’s equally a concession to nature and environment. In my case its adaptive functioning: when I’m in a stressful social situation actively engaging and helping to shape the context of the interaction makes it more comfortable. And yes, I do try and put forth a socially desirable aspect of myself, but that affect (if stylized) is still a legitimate part of who I am.

    From a character stand point ,there are three disparate types of extroverts (though there is often significant overlap between the categories):

    Disingenuous manipulators: The kind Sam seems to be railing against.

    Open, trusting, social beings: That thrives on the wild, unguarded, random interaction.

    Converted Extroverts: That have learned to take the risk of exposure to better shape their social environment.

    Lumping them all into the loud, superficial, archetype is no better than asserting all introverts are fearful, wounded, creatures retreating from life. Extroversion is no more a façade than relative passivity and silence: neither fully represents our inner being, or current thoughts…but that doesn’t make it false affect, just incomplete. You experience a person cumulatively, the pace at which they to choose reveal is independent of their substantive value.

  4. 4. Bran Fan

    Oh my goodness! I see the entire world through an introvert lens, and yet I never thought that this could be a problem in writing. This has made me think.

  5. 5. Marie Brennan

    Sam — I don’t think there’s anything fake about being extroverted; it’s just a mode of behavior so foreign to me that it’s hard to represent. It would be fake, if I tried to act that way. And of course not all extroverts are peppy salespeople types; it’s possible to be an angry extrovert, or a weepy one, or whatever. You’re right, though, about the ways extroversion can be used as a shield.

    AJ — That flippant line wasn’t meant as an insult, I promise. I just have a hard time imagining myself acting that way. To me, keeping things inside is how I control my situation in times of stress; I try to keep my emotions out of it, and not to give away anything I don’t mean to. I also just don’t tend to feel giant swings of emotion, so often, it’s not that I’m hiding anything; it’s simply that I’m on a pretty even keel. There are multiple ways of being either intro- or extro-, and they produce very different kinds of characters.

  6. 6. Sam

    Ah, I didn’t make it sufficiently clear that I don’t neccessarily think extroverts actually are being fake, just that as a behaviour it appears that way to me, just as my somewhat introverted behaviour probably looks odd to them. :)

    I was trying to say that there’s two sides to a fence really and what each looks like depends on where you’re looking from.

    Or something.

  7. 7. Maggie Stiefvater

    Thank goodness most book readers are shades of introverts, right? ;)

    This is so true, and I’m not even as introverted as most introverts. But there are just some totally acceptable human behaviors — like tanning :D — that I just don’t get.

    Okay, so the tanning bit was random.

  8. 8. Marie Brennan

    Maggie — even if they are, I still suspect that some of the things I view as perfectly clear markers of the characters’ inner states don’t come across as such. Mileage can vary a lot, even among relatively similar people.

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Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is the author of more than forty short stories and seven novels, the most recent of which is the urban fantasy Lies and Prophecy. Visit site.

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