Character Development: We’re All a Little Mad Down Here

“O Alienista” by Machado de Assis is one of my favorite novellas of all time. It was also a great influence in how I think of characters. And on how I view the human condition as a whole, in fact.

There is an English version of this story that I urge you to read because, seriously, it’s an amazing book.

If you haven’t heard of the story, I don’t want to spoil for you. Let me just say that there is one very strong point that it makes; no one, absolutely no one, is entirely sane. There is no such thing as a person with ‘perfect mental faculties’.

If Tolkien changed the way I looked at worldbuilding, Machado de Assis was the man who changed the way I looked at characters. This book is the best example I can think of as to why that is. The human mind is a fragile thing. Insanity, children, is just around the corner. I wholeheartedly believe that to be true.

If you’ve been reading this blog for any extended period of time, first of all I apologize for your loss of sanity, but also you may be aware of my personal motto when it comes to creating characters: treat them as real people and not a set of traits. Real people are not ‘normal’ and real people are never entirely sane.

Based on this principle, I tend to look at the whole of who my characters are as I would the surface of a cracked mirror. Every fragment represents an aspect of their personality and each reflects the world around them from a particular angle. Together they do form the whole of one single surface, but that whole isn’t perfect, it can’t form one single perfect reflection, and it can never be entirely intact again.

In real life, think of children as a blank canvas; they start as a smooth surface, and life progressively cracks the glass. The cracks aren’t necessarily bad experiences, but they are the things that end up shaping their worldviews, molding their character.

With characters, it isn’t much different. You don’t have to go back to the birth of your character in-story and figure out every event that shapes their life (you can, I have, but you don’t have to), you just have to look at the first idea of the character as that smooth glass, that perfect reflection, and then write the cracks onto it. Let events in their life add different aspects to who they are, twist the angles through which they view the world, make them broken and imperfect. Do that to some extent with their background, yes, but most of all do it throughout the story.

In simple words, keep in mind that a great part of writing a real human being is understanding that everything is constantly chipping away at their sanity. It isn’t possible for a real person to go through life unscathed. It doesn’t happen. Even the most seemingly perfect human being with the most seemingly perfect life is still a being composed of broken glass and imperfection.

And here is where I apologize if you came into this post expecting me to give you a how-to on this. As with anything else I’ve passed as writing advice on this blog, none of it is absolute and none of it is easy to explain. I could pick any one of my characters and pick them apart for you and show how and why they are who they are, but in doing so, I dehumanize them as well. We’re all going to go through life without the knowledge of everything that makes us who we are. That’s part of the process.

What I can give is my perception and hope that you apply it to whatever writing method currently works for you. Because all of this stuff is still light years from being an exact science to me.

Also, I’m so sorry you ended up with this instead of the bit of awfulness I planned on inflicting on you lot today. Technical difficulties can be a bitch like that. Look on the bright side though; you’re not the ones who have to read that crap twice. 😛

That said, I think I’m gonna lay off the fan fiction until I’m through with Shadows Rise. There will be reviews, but… Hmph… ya know? Twilight is on and Disney, definitely still on, but HE and NITWIT are going to take a back seat until further notice.

Hope you guys are having a great week.

See ya when I see ya.


2 thoughts on “Character Development: We’re All a Little Mad Down Here

  1. Very interesting piece. It sounds like an intriguing book. I often wonder about the fine line between sanity and insanity. We all act a bit crazy every now and then, and in those moments we scarcely realise what we’re doing. Makes you wonder …

    Liked by 1 person

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