“I have found it easier to identify with the characters who verge upon hysteria, who were frightened of life, who were desperate to reach out to another person.”
In the blink of an eye, first impressions are derived. One’s appearance, body language, demeanor, and mannerisms factor into another’s summation, but so do the observer’s expectations, preferred aesthetic, whim, and biases. Our tastes as readers vary from each other as fluidly and broadly as do our own tastes from mood to mood.
If no two people are alike, how do we create characters that are “like us”? How does the novelist accommodate an audience greater than one?
To provide his readers with engaging companions throughout the journey of his story, regardless of genre, the writer cuts his characters on the bias.
Writer as Dressmaker
The bias of woven fabric crosses the grain of its intersecting warp and weft. By cutting on the bias, or cutting fabric to utilize the greater stretch in the bias direction, the tailor enhances its drapability and flexibility, causing the finished article of clothing to highlight body lines. A full-skirted dress cut on the bias will hang elegantly while a narrow dress will cling to the figure and accentuate its curves.
In the tapestry of human nature, the weft of affections, aversions, secrets, and desires passes over and under the warp of gestures, nuance, verbal response, and behavior. Stillness and movement, one exposed, the other masked in a dynamic interplay. From the tension of the opposing two, they create integrity in a pattern of furrows and convolutions that define the whole. If warp slackens, weft strains. If either frays, the fabric comes undone. And when properly cut, the capacity to stretch the weave increases.
Warp and weft, yin and yang—by cutting diagonally across the spectrum of human qualities, we, as writers, can preserve lifelike proportions while maximizing a character’s overall range of motion.
To distill human existence to its basic administrations, our everyday affairs would fit into one of four areas:
- To take care of ourselves
- To take care of others
- To function in a given environment
- To affect a given environment
By cutting across the bias, I’m referring to distributing strengths and weaknesses along the continuum of human qualities and competency. If you look at the image below as a diagram of a person’s overall capacity, you will see that the individual functions extremely well in his environment, is attentive to others, has an average ability to orchestrate an effect on his environment, and is relatively out of touch with or neglectful of himself and his personal needs.
Cutting across the bias is simply forming a composite of strengths and weaknesses that cover the range of human experience.
Success in any of these areas requires numerous skills, some universal, some specific to a person’s station (occupation, gender, age, geography, even possessions).
To take care of ourselves, for instance, we need, among other things, to be free to make choices, assume responsibility for the choices we make, assert ourselves, define and maintain personal boundaries, balance work and play, as well as isolation and community, and sleep and activity. We need also to be able to plan out our day and, to a degree, our futures. We need the discipline to follow a plan and the discernment to know when a plan is ineffective, etc. For every skill involved with taking care of ourselves myriad traits come into play.
Perhaps your character is adept at taking care of himself, but again, cutting across the bias with the diagram below as our example, he may have a strong ability to adjust his plans but responds weakly when it comes to asserting himself.
Taken a step further, perhaps he is assertive as far as taking responsibility for his behavior but can’t bring himself to ask for help.
The point I’m trying to make isn’t to suggest that you should sketch a chart and draw an arrow through it. The combination of character traits is endless, and choosing them is where the fun and artistry of our craft come in. The point I want to stress, in a word, is imperfection.
What are the hallmarks of humanity? Look inside yourself. Most likely you are: (1) trying to make it in the world; (2) a little fearful at times; and (3) not perfect.
The perfect person is foreign, too untouchable to identify with. When creating lifelike, credible, identifiable characters that fascinate, imperfection is the place to start.