Writers must know their characters, but to accomplish this we must plunge beneath the skin. In “Know Your Characters” we established the fact that an author must know his characters’ internal and external goals. Surprise, surprise, we can still do better.
To paint a character who is three dimensional and with whom readers connect, a writer needs to tap into the character’s convictions. According to philosopher and theologian Michael Novak (as reported by Yancey C. Arrington), people have three levels of conviction.
First is the level of public conviction. This is what a person, or for the writer’s purposes, a character, publicly says he believes. Second is the level of private convictions–things which a person thinks he believes. Finally, each person has core convictions–things that govern his actions.
For example, a person might say publicly that he believes in democracy. He might think he believes in democracy, but the level of conviction he has to democracy comes out in whether or not he votes or gets involved in the democratic process in other ways.
On a more personal scale, a person may say she will meet her friend for lunch (public conviction). She may think, however, that she doesn’t want to spend the time with her and would like to find an excuse to break the appointment (private conviction). What she actually ends up doing (going to lunch but inviting two other women along) will reveal her core convictions.
Another illustration, possibly true, possibly apocryphal, is the story of tightrope walker Charles Blondin who was known for his stunts as he crossed dangerous terrain like Niagara Falls on a high wire. One of those feats was to push a wheelbarrow across.
After successfully completing the trek, to thunderous applause from the hundreds of onlookers, so the story goes, he turned to the crowd and said, Do you think I can do it again?
Yes, absolutely, of course you can, they shouted, clapping and urging him to push the wheelbarrow across again. He waited for them to quiet.
I’m touched by your faith in me, he said, so I’ll make the return trip. I just need a volunteer, someone who will get into the wheelbarrow.
No one stepped forward.
The public convictions of the people in the crowd showed when they said he could push the wheelbarrow back to the other side.
Some in the audience may have thought that in fact he could. Others may have thought he might be able to, and some might have thought, given the fatigue factor, or an increased wind, or a growing wetness on the wire, that he might not make it. Those thoughts are private and no one will ever know who thought what.
However, we do in fact know those people’s core convictions. Their belief did not turn into action. They may have said they believed he could make it, they may have thought he could make it, but until they did something about their conviction, it was not something that reached their core.
The interesting thing for the writer to note is that all three of these convictions–public, private, and core–do not necessarily align. So one question an author can ask in order to get to know his characters better is, does what my characters say and think align with what they do?
Fairy tales are often good examples of story telling principles, and this particular idea regarding convictions is no exception. For instance, in “Little Red Riding Hood,” the story hinges on the fact that the title character held a different core belief from her public or private convictions.
As the story goes, her mother called her and gave her the task of taking some food and drink to her ill grandmother. Among other things, she gave Little Red Riding Hood these instructions:
Set out before it gets hot, and when you are going, walk nicely and quietly and do not run off the path.
Little Red Riding Hood disclosed her public conviction that she would do as she was told:
‘I will take great care,’ said Little Red Riding Hood to her mother, and gave her hand on it.
For a time, it would seem, the young girl held the private conviction that she would obey her mother’s directions:
So [the wolf–who had joined her on the way] walked for a short time by the side of Little Red Riding Hood, and then he said: ‘See, Little Red Riding Hood, how pretty the flowers are about here – why do you not look round? I believe, too, that you do not hear how sweetly the little birds are singing; you walk gravely along as if you were going to school, while everything else out here in the wood is merry.’ (emphasis mine)
She walked gravely along in obedience to her mother.
What comes next is a short struggle between Red Riding Hood’s private conviction and her core conviction. She finds reasons to change the former to conform to the latter.
Little Red Riding Hood raised her eyes, and when she saw the sunbeams dancing here and there through the trees, and pretty flowers growing everywhere, she thought: ‘Suppose I take grandmother a fresh nosegay; that would please her too. It is so early in the day that I shall still get there in good time.’
So she ran from the path into the wood to look for flowers.
Her core convictions manifest by what she does, not by what she says or what she thinks.
How well do you know your characters? What areas do their public, private, and core convictions align? In what areas do they diverge? Is your character surprised that she doesn’t do what she says she believes? Does she try to change?
Get beyond your character’s internal and external goals by taking a close look at her three types of convictions.