Character Viewpoint   Leave a comment

Confession … that probably regular readers of this blog don’t need … I’m a realist. I like to be aware of the sharp edges of the world. I also point out the major disasters I see looming on our societal horizon. Some people could view me as a pessimist, but I actually have a lot of hope for the future — if you read the post on Monday about liberty renewal, you saw me being optimistic.

I’ve often said my characters just sort of talk to me and I write down their stories. I don’t try to force them to be someone they’re not, because when I’ve tried that in the past, they’ve stopped talking to me and what is a writer without characters to write about?

That doesn’t mean that I don’t try to figure out what makes my characters tick and try to exploit those traits. Do my characters view the world through rose-tinted glasses or polarized lenses?

Don’t think that is an insignificant question. Yes, it might be less immediate than whether Shane blows the back of his head out with his own gun in Life As We Knew It, but life outlook is a fundamental part of any character. Shane is depressed because life circumstances made him that way. Right now, he can’t see a future, but what would he do if he saw a glimmer of light in the darkness? Would his glass be half-full or half-empty?

Optimists and pessimists see the same glass, but their interpretation of it differs. That raises an important point for writers. Our characters’ narratives are not objective. They’re subjective, tinted by their individual worldviews, colored by their personalities and thought patterns, and experiences.

No two people (or characters) see the world in the same way, and something as simple as an optimistic or pessimistic streak can have a significant impact on that. If you think about it that way, how a character interprets the glass half empty or half full question can be quite the game-changer.

So what makes someone more optimistic or pessimistic and where do your characters fall on the continuum?

In my years working for a social service agency, I learned a few things about depressed folks, delusional folks and personality disorders. (Those are, by the way, three distinct categories of people who require mental health services.) The way you choose to explain what happens to you can control your view of the world. How you explain your problems and choose a solution for them can be positive or negative, and it’s this habit of thinking that makes you more optimistic or pessimistic. Most people fall somewhere between the two extremes, with varying degrees of optimism and pessimism, and so should your characters. I also add a third viewpoint that is likely a mixture of optimism and pessimism mixed together – the realist. I’ll get to that later in the article.Psychologically, optimism and pessimism aren’t considered something you’re born with that you will be saddled with for the rest of your lives. You may have a tendency to be one or the other, but both can be learned—and that itself comes with positive and negative consequences.

It’s actually easy to fall into the trap of pessimism. When faced with the feeling that life is uncontrollable, giving up and surrendering to negative thoughts can be an irresistible temptation. You stop trying to change what seems unchangeable. You learn to be helpless.

Put someone in unpleasant situations that seem unavoidable or inescapable, and many people simply give up and learn to be helpless. Explanatory style can have a significant effect on learning to be helpless. If you view negative situations as personal (it’s all my fault), permanent (nothing’s going to change) and pervasive (it affects your whole life), you’re much more likely to become pessimistic, believing that these bad things will have a longer and greater impact on your life than those who view these situations differently.

Optimism can be learned. Not everyone learns to be helpless. Some people refuse to give up and accept their fate. They remain resistant to the lure of pessimism and instead look for ways to escape. They learn to be optimistic. They view negative situations as circumstantial (it’s just an unfortunate event that can happen to anyone), temporary (this too shall pass), and specific (only this situation is negative, the rest of life is salvageable). If you explain what happens to you in this way, you’ll be far more active in changing situations for the better. The risk with optimism is that when negative circumstances keep being negative going forward, optimism alone tends to run out of steam or begin to look suspiciously like denial.

There’s a third type of view point that I alluded to in the beginning of the article. The realist can often sum up their viewpoint with the quip “There’s a glass?” The realist may look at all the negativity around them and accept that things look dire, but he or she isn’t going to give up because they accept the world as it is and mean to conquer it, as it is. If the glass is half-empty, they will concentrate on what is outside of the glass. Often realists are recovering pessimists or reformed optimists who have finally taken off the rose-colored glasses. They will take whatever comes their way and deal with it. They’ll be happy when the circumstances warrant it and they’ll roll up their sleeves when the sewer backs up.

I avoid labeling my characters as optimists or pessimists because there is a continuum of this worldview. Some characters are more optimistic or pessimistic than others, some only slightly so, with a minimal effect on their lives, and some will have a streak of optimism or pessimism that pervades everything they do. Some of my characters, like Peter in What If Wasn’t (a WIP), are in recovery and so can talk themselves around to a healthier mindset.

Still, as a writer, you must consider the far reaching effects viewpoint will have on your characters thoughts and behavior. This is especially necessary with point-of-view characters, as the reader will see their thoughts for themselves, but also applies to non-POV characters, as their mindsets can be inferred from the way they act.

When writing from a character’s perspective, keep their natural tendency to be more optimistic or pessimistic in the back of your mind. Their explanatory style—how they explain their problems and pick a solution—will be shown through their thoughts and the way they interpret events. If they’re more pessimistic, they’ll have a tendency to attribute their problems to themselves (personal), see them as unchangeable situations (permanent), and think that their whole lives will be affected by the problem (pervasive). Because of this, they tend to become more passive and helpless.

In Life As We Knew It and Objects in View, Shane tends to see things as his fault and he’s pretty sure things are going to get worse. Nuclear terrorism is going to affect many parts of his life, so his pessimism is understandable. But … he hasn’t given up or become passive. Does this mean he’s an optimist who is simply depressed?

You’ll have to read the books to find out. On the other hand, Shane’s brother Cai is definitely an optimist. Optimistic characters’ explanatory style means that they interpret negative events as circumstantial and therefore not their fault, with situations being temporary, changeable and specific to this one event, not their entire lives. If I were a simplistic writer, I’d might show him as being more active in his response to the situation than Shane, but I avoid cardboard cut-out characters.

When narrating from a character’s perspective, allow the influence of their explanatory style to show through. How they interpret an event is very telling of how optimistic or pessimistic they are. Be careful when writing pessimistic POV characters. I couldn’t stick with Shane’s POV. I had to add other characters because living in the head of a depressed mercenary with PTSD was depressing for me and I knew it would be for readers.

By the way — conflict is key in fiction and worldview can be a great source for showing conflict. Learning optimism or pessimism can feature as a central part of a story’s plot. Put your characters in a situation that highlights and reinforces their natural tendency to be optimistic or pessimistic and have them learn to be helpless or active. This could be part of the main story line or have happened during their lives before the story begins—either way, it will have a substantial impact on their outlook on life if it was a well-taught lesson.

Pitting your characters against external events that force them to learn optimism or helplessness creates conflict, but it doesn’t have to end there. The characters’ internal journeys can be founts of conflict too. If your protagonist begins the story feeling helpless and ineffective, part of her journey may be to become active in solving her problems and less pessimistic in outlook. For this to happen, her very beliefs about negative events must change and this isn’t an easy thing to do, not least because she’s probably unaware of her natural tendency to be pessimistic.

A character can take a conscious route to learning optimism or pessimism or an unconscious one. In the case of the former, something might happen to give him a moment of clarity, in which he realizes that his pessimistic beliefs are not shared by others and that they may be doing him harm. Conversely, a very optimistic character may come to a rude awakening that they are not dealing with reality in the way that they need to..


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