#7: People Shaped Algorithms

This week I set off on a month of traveling, going west to Colorado for a friend’s bachelor party. This friend is the first out of our close group of high school friends to get married, and others from our circle flew in from across the country – San Francisco, Chicago, DC – for a weekend of hiking and eating and drinking organized by the best man. I’ve known some of these guys since middle school, know their mannerisms and eccentricities, know them well enough that I’ll sometimes catch myself guessing at how one of the guys might react to what another does or says.

I’ve become more aware of this habit since I started writing, and I do the guess-how-they’ll-react thing with my parents and my younger brother, as well. Yet every time I think I have my family or close friends figured out, they’ll surprise me. When I expect, for instance, my mother to be mad when she finds out my brother got a tattoo, she reacts with curiosity and genuine interest instead.

I’ve come to believe that this unpredictability lies at the heart of writing fictional characters that feel like real people.

Your first impression of a new person you meet is overly simplistic. The mental model of him or her you form in the first few seconds, or before you even speak to them, is often based on broad generalizations and stereotypes. Your mental model is undergoing constant revision as you get to know them, as you see them say things and do things and you learn about their past. In your mind you make and improve on people-shaped algorithms for everyone you know, and run them accordingly to help you predict and decide.

When you first attempt to write a character from scratch, and you have this character say and do things, the character’s words and actions arise from your simplistic stereotypical first impression of the character. Even a character based on an actual person is really based on your own mental model of that person, which may be better than a stereotype but is still a caricature, an indirect transfer, a lossy carbon copy of a real human being. Your first instincts about a character will be predictable because they, essentially, are your predictions.

A real-seeming character must be made alive by questioning these first instincts and going against them at times, by intentionally trying to break your mental model of a character. You have to go back and say, Wait, what if she did this instead? What would it tell us about her? By making your characters act against your instincts, you allow them to surprise you with who they are.

In Tender Is the Night, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s character Dick Diver says this about great acting:

Let’s suppose that somebody told you, “Your lover is dead.” In life you’d probably go to pieces. But on the stage you’re trying to entertain – the audience can do the “responding” for themselves. First the actress has lines to follow, then she has to get the audience’s attention back on herself, away from the murdered Chinese or whatever the thing is. So she must do something unexpected. If the audience thinks the character is hard she goes soft on them – if they think she’s soft she goes hard. You go all out of character – you understand?

By making a character react warmly when you expect her to be cold, or passively when you expect her to be violent, you’re forcing a revision of your mental models. You have to go out of character to get to a more complex, dynamic character – one who even when you think you have her figured out, can surprise you and make you reconsider. Just like a real person.