When Is Your Character Real?

I have been *slowly* working through the lessons of Aaron Sorkin’s Masterclass. It wasn’t a difficult decision for me to take it because The American President is one of my favorite movies and The West Wing has yet to be beat out of its spot for best TV show (though Madam Secretary is currently a great contender). I wanted to hear how this man crafts story, what his process is, see if there is a way to improve my own process (who am I kidding – there is ALWAYS room for improvement). Needless to say, the $90 commitment was not hard for me to make.

I have paused the lessons several times to jot down nuggets of knowledge, but the one that I have gone back to over and over again is when Sorkin asks, “When do your character’s true colors come out?” When do they drop the façade, quit remembering that they intend to be brilliant, funny, witty, composed and show other characters and the readers (viewers) who they really are.

In The West Wing, Sorkin explained, the characters show themselves the most authentic when President Jed Bartlet is disappointment in them. As soon as I heard this, I could think of scenes when this was shown to be true, how in those moments, the characters were more open or hot or vulnerable or honest.

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With that in mind, I started brainstorming some situations wherein characters may end up revealing their truest self:

Pushed to the Breaking Point

My WIP has sisters at the forefront of the plot. As anyone who has a sibling knows, there are things that they do that pushes our buttons and, if we are being honest, things we know we can do to push theirs as well. But the funny thing about siblings is that we are essentially stuck with each other and, as relationships mature, most try to keep things civil. So it’s usually not the first annoying thing that cracks our shell of resilience. The same is could be said for many kinds of relationships – work, romantic, friendship, parent/child.

If this is what your character needs to show who they really are, you, as the creator need to ask: when have they been pushed enough to be real?

Nudged to Embrace Vulnerability

A fairly common motif in books is the character who, for one reason or another, has thrown up walls, has built a story around themselves to prevent any extra hurt, has made a promise to themselves to never trust again.

It’s not super far-fetched and probably something many of us also did when a friendship or relationship went sour. But that isn’t real, and the reader doesn’t want to stay with someone who is locked in all the time and content with their self-entrapment. No, we want to take the journey to see someone break through and succeed.

These kinds of characters can’t be pushed to break and be real – they need to be nudged and loved, encouraged to take down their wall brick by metaphorical brick. And then they need to have the courage to step over the emotional rubble and share their authentic self with someone who has nurtured trust and created a safe enough space that the character can be their true self.

If this is what your character needs to show who they really are, you, as the creator need to ask: when will the character perceive the world is safe enough for them to be real?

Left with No Choice but to Understand Self

While this may look similar, at the beginning, to the characters nudged to embrace vulnerability, it is different because the character doesn’t know that they have thrown up walls. Both external and internal factors have guided the character to a place of displaying what they believe to be true, and must face a situation wherein they have to first, have the realization about who their true self is (sometimes this realization comes via kindness and sometimes it comes through a hurtful look in the personality mirror) and second, determine whether the now recognizable falsity is one they still want to cling to or if they are interested in putting in the work to become real, uncertain though they may be about what that reality looks like. From my recollection, this is often the kind of self-reflection that happens with characters who have to save the world: they’ve often relied on some external factor to succeed to a point, but will not be able to have complete success until they become honest with themselves.

If this is what your character needs to show who they really are, you, as the creator need to ask: what is it about the current world for this character that has allowed them to develop a false sense of self and what has changed in the current world that forces the look inward?
TashaTasha Seegmiller is a mom to three kids and coordinator of the project-based learning center (EDGE) at Southern Utah University. She writes contemporary women’s fiction with a hint of magic, and thrives on Diet Coke, chocolate and cinnamon bears. She is a co-founder and the managing editor for the Thinking Through Our Fingers blog as well as a board member for the Women’s Fiction Writers Association. Tasha is represented by Annelise Robey of the Jane Rotrosen Agency.