One of the hardest parts of writing is that stories have to feel real in a way that real life doesn’t have to match.
I take public transit to work, and one of the great benefits of doing so is that it puts me in contact with a vast cross-section of people who I would never meet in any other walk of life. It gives me tiny glimpses inside the lives of others, and it helps me expand my views of character and interaction. Not too long ago, just before the Superb Owl, I had a chance to be part of a conversation with a dyed-blue-and-green Seahawks fan and somebody whose coworkers bought him a jersey to wear to corporate events as an act of attempted assimilation. I’ve heard couples try to work through therapy homework, watched professional drunkards slip stolen bottles out of their anti-theft devices, and listened to an ex-soldier presumably with PTSD regale other passengers with tales of how much he missed shooting people for a living. Some of these trips have been scary. Some have been exciting. All of them have expanded my range of what I consider possible and realistic, because I’ve observed them in the wild.
The other day, I was on my way home after a long and frustrating day in the office, and a young man loudly announced on his way down the aisle that he was sick of, and I quote, “those fucking faggots thinking he’s into them.” He dropped heavily into the seat opposite me, then turned his head and proceeded to yell at somebody at the front of the bus that he thought they were diseased and sick, and he used a number of choice phrases that I don’t really think I need to repeat. You’ve got good imaginations; you can come up with something.
I’m not a small person. I wasn’t exactly fearing for my life; this guy had to have been mid-twenties, all caterpillar-mustache-and-chin-weeds. He wasn’t stacked, but he had a construction-worker shirt — orange with reflective and high-contrast stripes — under his jacket, and his boots were fairly worn. His jeans were dirty, and he had on a do-rag to keep his short hair even more under control. If anything, he reminded me of any number of kids that worked security at Everfree Northwest. And here he was fuming and visibly angry, in aggregate, at a community to which I at least in some definitions belong.
I didn’t get up and walk away. I’ve learned not to call too much attention to myself in these kinds of situations. I sat and played with my phone, doing the best job I could of appearing not to care about this kid’s personal problems, but the tension in his shoulders and forehead suggested he could pop any moment, and so even though I was visibly busy with my e-book, I kept glancing towards him, making sure he was where I had last left him in visual memory.
When my stop finally came around, I stood up to leave, and he finally lifted his head and said, “Have a nice night.”
His voice was so calm, compared to his posture, that I wasn’t even sure I was dealing with the same person. I hesitated, then slung my backpack onto my shoulder. At just under two meters and upwards of 150 kilograms, I cut an imposing figure, so I figured a bit of personal reveal was safe, if not smart. “My wife is waiting for me at home, so I should.”
For a moment, he was silent, and then he turned away and said, almost as an side to no-one, “Outside, they’re victims of my hatred. Inside, there’s a lot going on.” Then he looked back at me, his expression molded into false neutrality. “I’m sorry if I disturbed you.”
I got off the bus at that point, but I had to stand and watch as it pulled away, wondering at the inner life of this individual who I had never met before in my life and, given the lateness of the hour compared to when I normally go home, likely never would again. Here was a real-life person behaving in a fashion that, had I read it in a story, I would have flagged as unrealistic. Simplistic. It was, frankly, shocking to witness. From his dress and his mannerisms, I would never have expected the gentility of speech. From his initial outburst, the apology seemed unlikely. There was nothing in the setup of the scene that could have predicted the payoff, and it left me unsettled.
We expect our characters to stay true to some concept of character, and yet the people around us are under no such obligation. Real-life people have off days. Sometimes they have more days off than on. They cry, throw things, yell, break character, and act in all kinds of seemingly contradictory fashions. They say implausible things, commit exceptional acts, and do so all with a blitheness that in text we would reserve for the fae and the crazy. We want our characters seem believable, and yet I find someone that never breaks character to be the most implausible of all.
What do you think? Which bothers you more: the character that can’t stay true to form, or the character that never breaks? What do you look for in your stories? For that matter, what do you look for in the people around you? Do you prefer a new face every day, or the tried-and-true on which you can rely? How does it make you feel, when somebody you expect to act one way does or says something unexpected? Is it a breath of fresh air or a shock to the system?