I don’t know why I’m writing this.  I’m exhausted and I need to go to bed.  But I was just thinking about this and wanted to record my thoughts.

There’s a moment in the show House when Dr. House wants to drug his friend Wilson.  So he gets two coffee cups and puts them on his desk.  He drugs one.  Then, when Wilson comes in, House holds out the cup that isn’t drugged for him.  Wilson, knowing how House can be mischievous, takes the other cup, the cup that actually is drugged, the cup House knew Wilson would take.

This makes House seem somewhat clever.  He knew Wilson would suspect something with the cup he held out, he knew which cup Wilson would ultimately choose!  How clever!


Because Wilson didn’t really have a choice.  The writer chose for him.  The writer could have made the scene more convoluted.  What if House held out the drugged cup because he knew Wilson would suspect something, but knew that Wilson would also know the he would know that he would suspect something.  But, what if Wilson also knew that?  And that?  And that and that and that…

The point should be pretty clear.  Characters don’t really know each other at all, because there’s really nothing to know.  They’re all just fictional characters.  So when a character seems to be clever by guessing or accurately predicting another character’s future actions, that’s not cleverness, that’s just a writer cheat.  Not that it’s not a valid cheat, it can work fine if it’s not overused.  But it is a bit of a cheat, yes?

Categories: Writing


LanthonyS · January 22, 2010 at 4:11 PM

There’s a difference, however, between House “knowing Wilson is clever enough to suspect something”, which is subjective and determined by the writers whenever they please, vs. in the past (before we knew anything about this episode) we have written House “in enough situations that he has observed that Wilson repeatedly distrusts cups held out to him, and takes the latter”; this one is objective and for the writer to alter Wilson’s behaviour is now the cheat, as would be to alter House so that he hasn’t noticed this. While House and Wilson are originally at the mercy of the writer, the characters in this (and, of course, any other work) are constrained to the logical continuity of the past.

If they actually had written (and of course, I don’t mean so much as to be abstract, but) more general scenarios, from which House could have deduced Wilson’s odd mannerism, then they would have no choice but to make House get what he wants in the way that he has observed is feasible. To do it any other way, or to deny him powers they’ve accidentally vested in him, is to cheat.

S P Hannifin · January 24, 2010 at 5:12 AM

Yes, I’d say writers are still constrained by believability, though where the lines of believability are drawn might be subjective. If the cleverness is too convoluted or complicated or non-sequitur or too out-of-character, it won’t work.

Along the same lines, I’d say characters are never deep. Writers can (or at least try to) make them seem deep (I would think writers would want to), but it’s all an illusion. Characters are really just puppets… though I guess when writing we can’t really think of them like that, they have to be an illusion to writers too…

LanthonyS · January 24, 2010 at 10:08 AM

Eh… for me, they are certainly more than people with whom I can do what I please, particularly in dialogue. (Sometimes conversations go elsewise than I intended, because I don’t have time to think before I know what the other character would reply. Then I undo that conversation and try a different starting line…)*

When you see a movie, and you particularly like the main character, and at the end it says to your surprise, “Entirely based on a true story” — could you tell the difference in believability for that main character? I think not… Both the fictional and nonfictional writers have to treat their character as though there was a corpus of facts about the historical person, either vague or extremely detailed, and they have to make inferences to construct what that person was like.

*But even that is misleading because the essence of a character is that they /want/ something. They can even do things that seem out of character to get what they want. Of course, character determines what frame of methods they consider appropriate to get what they want, as in real life. But if they have the appropriate motivation, they’ll do uncharacteristic things in desperation… A girl who wants to fit in tends to ditch the old perception of herself. Similarly, whatever the starting line, it has to reflect what I am pretty sure the character wants in that scene (minor goal), and what they want overall (major goal).

S P Hannifin · January 24, 2010 at 7:29 PM

But you CAN do with your characters whatever you please. It might not necessarily feel right though, the characters can’t “come to life” if you don’t think of them with the same complexity as you might think of yourself. But that’s an illusion we give ourselves… just like any story creates the illusion a number of easy to follow cause-and-effect happenings being believable, when in the real world things are hardly ever so neat and tidy easy to follow.

It’s a good point that the essence of a character is what they want, because that’s kind of an unreal aspect. Real humans change their minds all the time, and want lots of stuff, and don’t necessarily have particularly interesting plans. Which makes real people way too complex for a story. A character in a story has to be more compact, yet not one-dimensional…

LanthonyS · January 25, 2010 at 3:53 PM

I may have chosen the wrong word with “essence”; I mean the thing that helps you remember what they should be doing. To this end, they are like people in real life. There is a complexity behind it, and it visualizes it in what they do and say, including what they say about themselves, and in turn the things you infer from it (e.g. what they want, which is a good factor). However, it’s not an illusion of the complexity behind it, even when you can only see and infer the surface. It’s just what the character looks like to the observer.

A note on dimensions: 2-dimensional is the term for flat characters who “fill a need”, or who are simply “getting what they want”; 3-dimensional is round characters who have conflicting needs and wants and ways of going about getting them.

Maybe that’s the essence of it. If it’s an illusion, it has to be on the same level as for the real people you see around you. When they’re so simple that you can see behind it and see that there isn’t a brain there, the character doesn’t seem real. However, when the needs and wants seem to conflict with each other, or when they present incompatible faces to people (surface behaviour, again), you have to guess at what is actually under the surface, and that is maybe what makes them seem real.

Presumably, the author knows what’s beneath the surface, but like being very well acquainted with a friend, that doesn’t mean you can predict their every action. And sometimes even when you’re putting down the words, you aren’t dictating them, at least consciously–the beneath-the-surface may be mysterious even to you. (It was for me for the first half of Rachel of the Fields. It seemed like she was doing odd stuff until I realized what her mind was doing. This might be more of the tugs of my own subconscious being translated into actions for her; but it’s still putting on a disguise and pretending it’s someone else.) Much like putting down music you hear in your head but aren’t consciously generating (I don’t know if this happens for you), the person is there, but it’s as much an enigma to your consciousness as are your real friends.

S P Hannifin · January 25, 2010 at 10:45 PM

Very interesting discussion!

By “illusion” all I really mean is that they’re not real. Yet, writers and readers must think of them as real. All we have to go by is their words and actions, created by the writer, interpreted by the reader. So their realness is created by “theory-of-mind”; interpreting what the character must be thinking and relating to it (at least on some level).

This is not to say that creating the character has to be a completely conscious process, but it can be (and is on some level) because the character isn’t real. That said, I think the subconscious plays a vital role when it comes to the details when the character is actually living. Where the “illusion of realness” comes from is like where the “beauty of music comes from” … is it in the ear of the listener? Is it dictated by the writer? Is it inherit in the order of the notes? (I kinda think it’s a combination of the first two, but I think a composer MUST let his subconscious guide his music… so I guess I could say beauty itself comes from the subconscious).

So even when we are creating characters and using our subconscious and sometimes even being surprised by what it (we?) comes up with, it’s still an illusion we’re giving ourself, because it’s not real.

Then again, one could easily get into the subject of the essence of realness, which would confuse me too much, methinks.

The essential thing about characters that makes them unreal, I think, is our power over them, should we choose to use it. (Though I suppose using it too much may break the illusion for ourselves…)

S P Hannifin · January 25, 2010 at 10:47 PM

But if we didn’t have ANY power over them, I think it would be much more difficult, and probably less fun, to create a story.

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