When people encounter you, do they see the real you?
A lot of the time, they probably won’t. Us human beings in this modern, western society are generally adept at projecting a persona to those around us. So the “you” at work isn’t the same as the “you” at church and neither are the same as the “you” to your cousins. That is, if you have cousins. Or go to church. Or have a job. Can be a bit of a problem when these worlds collide.
That’s what happened to Danny Zuko in the well-known film Grease. Despite the bright musical numbers, and the general light-hearted feel of the storyline, there are also a few deep observations in there, too. Sandy knows Danny as a caring, gentle summer lover – but his high school knows him as a car nut with attitude. Depending on how many times you’ve seen the movie, you may or may not realize that it is not long into the movie that you see the image Danny portrays in school is just that: an image. He’s still a car nut at heart, remember, but Sandy saw the real Danny before she saw the T-bird Danny. The story is the two of them working out how to be real to each other.
As a writer, I have to know why people do this to themselves, why they hide behind a different self in order to write characters that do this. Because it is the kind of thing that makes for interesting. Readers don’t want mere likable; they want interesting. Characters that are interesting are more realistic. If it is the point-of-view character, the reader can ride alongside their different interactions and personas during the story. If it is a supporting character, the interesting helps make them not just different, but also creates the differences that drive story. And if the character is around long enough, it can be a journey-and-a-half as we take the time to deconstruct them and show their true character underneath. This might take a few chapters. It might take a few books.
We need to know what true character is. Not just of those we write, but of ourself, too. One thing I’ve observed over and over and over again with those who have been writing a long time is that a writer makes no apologies for who they are. They just are. They found out long ago what they really are and they just accept it.
We are telling our own stories by the way we live. As a trivial example, I am much more willing to wear a pair of cat ears in public and with friends more than capable of laughing at them than I was five years ago. In fact, I wouldn’t have even bought them five years ago, let alone actually worn them somewhere! The story I’m telling with them is that I love them and I actually like being different. Because I am different and being different is not only what I really am but it encourages those around me to be themselves, too. I know my real character.
Take time to learn your real character. Then use it to write better characters.