The Jane Doe Novel Experiment

Creating Two New Novels. Writing One Chapter Weekly. Podcasting As I Go. Welcome to The Experiment.

Ask Jane: Should I Keep My Character’s Personality Secret?

Jane,

If I write “too much” about a character’s personality before the character springs into action, would it ruin the surprise?

After first reading this question, I was ready to inform you all about “character arch”. After reading the question again, it doesn’t sound like you are talking about a change in your character’s personality, but a personality trait that was always present. Going with that case, if you don’t let us know, you run the danger of making your surprise appear unbelievable.

Perfect example: Do you recognize this baby?

Yes! He’s Jack Jack from, The Incredibles. (I love that cartoon) In the beginning, Jack Jack doesn’t have one super power to name, but it is made clear to us throughout the show that super heroes get their powers at different stages in life. Jack Jack may get one. Which one? Who knows? Towards the end, a series of voice messages lets us know that something is happening with Jack Jack! The babysitter is becoming scared of him and is relieved when someone else comes to take over care of him. At the very end, Jack Jack uses his new superpowers to escape from the enemy. How cute was that?!?!

Now, supposed the audience hadn’t received this information prior. Wouldn’t we have felt cheated that he “miraculously” saved himself? The writer needed to plant this possibility in our minds in order for us to receive the ending warmly.

This is all leading to my favorite writing term:

Suspension of disbelief or willing suspension of disbelief is a term coined in 1817 by the poet and aesthetic philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who suggested that if a writer could infuse a “human interest and a semblance of truth” into a fantastic tale, the reader would suspend judgment concerning the implausibility of the narrative.

In other words, as writer’s we want to make sure our narrative is waterproof. We must make sure that our readers believe what we wrote is capable of happening based on what we’ve already shown or have dropped hints to. Example, if we meet a character who as been nothing short of sweet as pie for the first twenty pages, why would we believe that on page twenty-one he would suddenly swear at a little old lady crossing the road? Have we had any hint that he is actually capable of doing this? If not, I would suggest going back and dropping some breadcrumbs.

However, if both sides of his personality are contrasted early on, we as readers can accept that we may be working with an unstable individual. So, if your surprise is that this behavior escalates, we have cause for “suspension of disbelief” or a foundation to build on when he suddenly kicks a dog and from there shoots a cat and so on and so on.

In short, it is your responsibility as the writer to make sure you show us enough of his personality to justify his action for your big surprise.

xoxo,

Jane

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2 comments on “Ask Jane: Should I Keep My Character’s Personality Secret?

  1. D. Bryant Simmons
    June 25, 2012

    Great post! Did you see the extra scene where they show what Jack Jack did to the babysitter whose name I believe was …Kimmy?

    • Jane Doe
      June 25, 2012

      Thank you, D. “Suspension of disbielf” is so important in writing. It’s how the reader is able to slip out of reality and into the story.

      No, I haven’t seen the extra scene…until just now! (I love YouTube) Very funny. =) Thank you for the recommendation.

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