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Making Shallow Characters Relatable

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Gone with the Wind - Novel Conclusions Blog - Writing Blog - Writing Tips

Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell via Amazon

No one thinks they’re shallow (even if others do), and I’m of the belief that it’s very important for your characters to be somewhat relatable in order to matter.  So if a story requires a very shallow character, how do we make that character matter?

For starters, remember that even though these characters are shallow at first glance, there is more to them than meets the eye — and it’s our job as writers to bring that out.  There are a few different strategies to show readers why they should care about a seemingly shallow character:

Give the character context.  In the opening chapter of Margaret Mitchell’s classic Gone with the Wind, Scarlett O’Hara doesn’t care one whit about the coming war (which will be the American Civil War).  In fact, Scarlett tells the Tarleton twins:

If you say ‘war’ just once more, I’ll go in the house and shut the door. I’ve never gotten so tired of any one word in my life as ‘war,’ unless it’s ‘secession.’

Although this makes Scarlett pretty shallow up front, Mitchell gradually shades in the character to give us more about her background and make her more relatable in the context of the story, in the context of the pre-Civil War era.

Give the character an arc that fundamentally changes them.  In the more recent Uglies by Scott Westerfeld, main character Tally Youngblood was so shallow in the first chunk of the book that I almost couldn’t keep reading.  At first, she only cares about being like everyone else.  However, (mild spoiler ahead…) Westerfeld turns this around by revealing the outside world to Tally a little bit at a time, almost painfully slowly at times, gradually changing Tally’s perspective to be dramatically different — and much deeper — than when we first met her.

Shape the narration.  Guiding the point of view also gives the reader subtle clues that there is more to come.  Mitchell does this masterfully, describing Scarlett in the first chapter of Gone with the Wind:

She meant what she said, for she could never long endure any conversation of which she was not the chief subject. But she smiled when she spoke, consciously deepening her dimple and fluttering her bristly black lashes as swiftly as butterflies’ wings. The boys were enchanted, as she had intended them to be, and they hastened to apologize.

These are not things Scarlett could have said about herself, and the implication here is that Scarlett knows what she’s doing and has a grand plan for her situation.  As we get further along in the novel, we come to find out that Scarlett is a master manipulator, and whether we agree with her motives or not, she continues to surprise us and keep us involved in the story.

What else can we do to make shallow characters more relatable?

P.S. For more about Scarlett’s motives, check out Finding Character Motives.

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What’s So Great About Unreliable Narrators?

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The Sixth Sense - Unreliable Narrator - Novel Conclusions - literary blog - writing tips

The Sixth Sense via Wikipedia

Every narrator has a perspective.  Even with novels written in third person omniscient point of view (where you as the reader know everything that’s going on, even things the main characters don’t know), there is a perspective there; the author has chosen which story to tell.  In first person and limited third person, we get to know the main character through his or her perspective – the way they views things, people, and events, the way they act.  Having a unique perspective gives the main character life.  Sometimes, this unique perspective extends so far that the main character is an unreliable narrator – they aren’t seeing what’s really happening (or, in some cases, they are omitting key information).

Why would you write a story with an unreliable narrator?  Well, let’s examine this a bit.  M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense gives us a clear example of an unreliable narrator.  (WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD) In this movie, we follow troubled child psychologist Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis’s character) as he helps a young patient, Cole, who claims he can see dead people.  Crowe is especially determined to help Cole because he failed to help a patient with similar delusions in the past.

As we get wrapped up in the story, we as an audience are completely taken by surprise – at least, I was – to find out that Crowe has been dead for the large majority of the movie and that Cole is the only one who can see him.  Crowe was an unreliable narrator because he was showing us not just a one-sided version of events but an intensely one-sided version of events.  The ending takes us by surprise because the main narrator was only showing us a very, very limited view of events.

What’s so great about unreliable narrators?

  • They allow for twists in the story that make sense (rather than twists that just feel like contrived plot devices).  When well-written, it creates that wow factor that can be so hard to come by.
  • We as writers get to fill the story with “Easter eggs.”  Think of all the incredibly cool things you can find re-watching The Sixth Sense.
  • It’s fun to get into the mind of a truly idiosyncratic character.
  • We as writers are solidly in control of the framing of the story, even more so than with a regular Joe type narrator.

A key point here is that the writing needs to be solid in order for this to work.  If the writing is tacky or shoddy, an unreliable narrator might just make the reader want to put the book down.  Of course, the writing needs to be solid for any story to work properly, but you already knew that, didn’t you?

Have you read or seen anything you enjoyed with an unreliable narrator?  What did you like about it?

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