Please welcome fellow member Paula Messina to the blog today...
Who Are You When I’m Not Looking?
by Paula Messina
Two sisters in their early thirties came through
the checkpoint at Logan Airport where I worked for the Transportation Security
Administration. One of the sisters, “Merriam,” opted for a pat down. It fell to
me to screen her. I turned to her sister “Sarah” and, in my sternest voice,
said, “Stand over there and don’t move.”
I gave Merriam the same command. “Don’t move.”
I followed proper procedures. The pat down went
smoothly, and the sisters were quickly on their way.
When I screened a wheelchair-bound, elderly woman
with cognitive issues, I bent at the waist in order to maintain eye contact and
chatted cheerfully the whole time. That screening also went smoothly, and the
woman was quickly on her way to the gate.
I reacted differently in both instances because
the situations and individuals required it. This is hardly surprising. Adapting
to different situations and individuals is something we do instinctively. After
all, we’d be in hot water over and over again if we weren’t adaptable. As
circumstances demand, we even alter our behavior when dealing with the same
We wear many hats, but we forget we’re wearing
them. We change those hats more skillfully than a juggler keeping a dozen hats
in the air. We’re masters at changing our behavior to fit the situation and the
You might ask what these two sisters and the
elderly woman have to do with writing. They relate to character development. In
order to be well rounded and imitate life, our characters must adapt as well.
One of Blake Shelton’s songs is “Who Are You When
I’m Not Looking?” Shelton sings that he wants to know what a beautiful woman
does when he’s not around, when he’s not looking. Even if we could keep our
loved ones, friends, and colleagues in constant view, we can only know a
portion of who they are. We can never know what they are like when we’re not
looking. That’s not true when we write. We create the many worlds our
characters inhabit. We get to see what others cannot see when they’re not
Laurie Schnebly, author of Believable Characters: Creating with Enneagrams,
says, “We've all experienced changing our behavior to fit the person we’re
with. It makes sense to behave differently around your four-year-old niece and
your company CEO, around your college roommate and your elderly neighbor. That
doesn't mean you're putting on a false act. It comes naturally based on your
relationship with each individual.”
In my work-in-progress novel, Donatello, my shy
main character, becomes tongue-tied when he meets beautiful Rosa. He tugs his
cap down over his eyes to hide his red face. This same shy guy verbally pins
his parish priest to the wall for accusing Donatello of murder. When his
initial efforts to stop Luciano from committing suicide fail, Donatello resorts
to humor. Luciano dissolves in laughter and lives.
Different characters. Different situations.
In my first pass on the suicide scene, Donatello
spouted trite phrases to convince Luciano to live. Luciano wasn’t buying it.
Neither was my writers group. I put on my thinking cap and went back to the
drawing board. I asked myself how would Donatello react in this situation? The
answer was humor.
Once I had the key to how Donatello would
interact with Luciano, the suicide scene worked.
But there’s another side to that story. Well, in
this case, three more sides.
Donatello’s shyness might have put off another
woman, but Rosa is charmed by it. She’s as smitten as he is. A different priest
would have thrown Donatello out on his ear, but Father Quaranta realizes he, a
man of the cloth, has sinned. And if Donatello’s humor had bombed, he would
have been attending a funeral. Humor was the right response for Luciano.
Our characters need to be as adept at juggling
all their hats as we are. And just as we change hats instinctively in our
day-to-day living, we writers might be unaware that our characters are doing
the same thing. Whether we spin our
characters’ different traits consciously or not, it’s a good idea to be aware
of how differing personalities and events change characters and ultimately
dictate a story’s direction.
Stephen D. Rogers says, “Once I learned about
using characters to round out the main character by exposing other traits, the
approach became: What personality traits has this character not exhibited? What
kind of other character would bring one of those out? For the main character, I
repeat the cycle multiple times.”
Rogers, whose short story “Sensing the Fall”
appears in Black Cat Weekly #54, repeats the cycle for major characters
at least once.
“While the rounded character is not
one-dimensionally consistent, the character has to be consistent within the
different specific relationships,” Rogers says. “For example, the main
character is only mean with one certain person, and that mean streak appears
whenever they interact.”
Veronica Leigh, whose story "My Brother's
Keeper," appears in The Saturday Evening Post, says, “I
usually have a plot line in my head first, then as I'm outlining the story, the
characters come into fruition (their names, personalities, histories) and it's
during the course of writing the story that I observe how my characters
To get back to those pat downs mentioned at the
beginning, that isn’t fiction. They really happened. Why did I act that way?
When the sisters came through the checkpoint
every couple of weeks, I patted down Merriam, who was undergoing cancer
treatment. Each time, Merriam appeared sicker, weaker, more desperate, but she
could not fly unless she was properly screened. The sisters were uncooperative.
Their difficult behavior only prolonged their agony and mine.
The truth is I identified with Sarah. I knew what
she was experiencing, and I ached for Merriam. If it had been in my power, I
would have waved the sisters through without any screening. I couldn’t do that.
By being dictatorial, I actually made a terrible situation easier for the three
of us. Kindness and sympathy wouldn’t have worked with the sisters.
Leigh says, “Often my characters who are familiar
and comfortable with one another will show their closeness in dialog or their
demeanor. If there's tension or a complicated past, well, that too will be
obvious in how they treat each other. It's a delicate balance between
propelling the narrative forward and showing character development, personal
arcs, and character interactions. It's a challenge not to neglect one or the
“The character's interactions with others -
whether they're close or strangers or enemies, must complement the
protagonist's growth and contribute to the story arc,” Leigh says. “My
protagonists are never in the same place by the end of a story. The
circumstances, the plot, and the characters they encounter and interact with,
force them to evolve. That's how it is in life too - people and circumstances
force us to change.”
Schnebly notes that writers are “all astute
observers. We know how our protagonist feels about every other character in the
We can’t always control the individuals who come
and go in our lives. One of the things that makes writing so delicious is that
we are the masters of our characters’ fates. Schnebly says, “If their
relationship is already defined, it’ll be easy to tell how they’re going to
behave with each person they encounter. If it’s not yet defined, here’s a great
chance to show what you want or need it to be simply by describing how they
behave around each other.”
If we writers never step into the same river
twice, our characters don’t either. In each scene, they step into a new world
with a new cast and new challenges. It’s how they react to those challenges
that brings them to life.
Paula Messina ©2022
Paula Messina’s “Indiana Jones and the Horse Bit Cheekpiece” appears in The
Ekphrastic Review. She is writing a novel set in Boston during the 1940s.