In his poem “To a Louse,” Robert Burns describes watching a louse crawl on a lady’s bonnet while in church. There is some humor in the image of the woman being unaware that she’s got vermin roaming around on her hat, and Burns ends the poem with (translated from Burns’s Scots): “And would some Power give us the gift/To see ourselves as others see us!”
I thought of this the other day, when my daughter’s best friend posted on Facebook a thanks to the various mothers who had been a part of her life when she was younger. She included me, calling me “the most badass single mother I know.”
This is not how I see myself, and her words led me to consider what I had done when my children were younger that gave this young woman that impression. It was a wonderful moment of seeing myself as others see me. Which brings me back to Burns, and that connects with characters in a book.
In her wonderful book on writing, Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott notes that we both love and hate some of our characters because they are “some facet of you.” And it can be difficult to have bad things, and bad traits, happen to those characters. But if we protect our characters too much, and if we don’t let them develop beyond “some facet” of ourselves, they will be flat and uninteresting. Put simply, good characters need to have faults; bad characters need to have virtues.
In my writing, I have found that one of the best ways to ferret out both faults and virtues in characters that are stuck in a flat “good” or “bad” is by letting another character comment on them. Just as others can see us more clearly than we see ourselves, so a minor character can pinpoint an essential aspect of a major character.
This happened in a book I wrote several years ago called Every New Beginning. This was my most autobiographical book, and I was aware that my protagonist, Ryanne, was in danger of becoming a stereotype, the wronged woman in a nasty divorce. In an effort to get another view of Ryanne, I wrote a scene in which she has lunch with a good friend, Scarlet. I didn’t know Scarlet well at that point, didn’t know much about their friendship, but I knew I wanted the women to be close and honest with each other. As I wrote the scene, it was one of those happy times when the dialogue came with little effort.
Then Scarlet said something startling, telling Ryanne—in so many words—that she’s judgmental. That she doesn’t suffer fools gladly. Ryanne was hurt; I was surprised. Was this true about Ryanne? Was this a less than attractive aspect of her character?
Yes. I realized this was a flaw in her, and as I continued writing the book, I made sure that flaw peeked out every now and again.
In her excellent book Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, Janet Burroway makes another point about using secondary characters in this way:
A character may also be presented through the opinions of other characters. … When this method is employed, the second character must give his or her opinions in speech, action, or thought. In the process, the observing character is inevitably also characterized.
And indeed, I did learn something about Scarlet—her propensity to speak her mind and her faith in the strength of her friendship with Ryanne.
So remember, in life as in fiction, that outside view that allows us to see ourselves as others see us can awaken us to intriguing aspects of ourselves and our characters.