When Will She Learn?

Some aspects of my life should be filed under the header of “When will she learn?” Around Christmas, I wrote a post about a “de-pantsing” incident at the grocery store. Let me refresh your memory if you’ve read this blog before, or explain to you if you’re a first-timer. I threw on a pair of warm-up pants over my pajamas and headed to the grocery store. While I proceeded down an aisle, said pants started creeping down. Unfortunately, my hands were full at the time, and I couldn’t pull them up right away. Other shoppers got more than they bargained for.

1318420252_womens_silk_pajamas_sleepwear_red_(8)

 My pajamas are not as nice as these.

Earlier today I threw on the same warm-up pants over my pajamas to go out to shovel snow. I had worked up a rhythm when I discovered that the air felt breezier than it had before. You guessed it. My pants had slipped down to my ankles. Again. And the temperature was ten below zero Fahrenheit (-23.33ºC). Also, my hands were full again.

By now, you might be saying to yourself, When will she learn? I’m wondering that myself. You see, I really thought that this time everything would be different. Somehow, the pants would stay up. Is that naïveté? Stupidity? I’m shrugging my shoulders.

Perhaps you have the same reaction to a character in a novel. Maybe that character’s continued naïveté or denial frustrated you. (Please don’t get me wrong. I am not against naïveté.) I may be a terrible hypocrite (judging by my behavior with the warm-up pants), but I get frustrated by characters who refuse to learn a specific truth by a certain point in a novel. Instead they cling to a lie or doubt to a point beyond what seems reasonable.

For example, let’s say character A does not believe vampires exist. Fifty pages later, character B is bitten and develops a taste for blood. But character A still refuses to believe that vampires are at work, even though everyone else believes at this point and there is ample evidence to prove their existence. If you’re the author of that book, you need to have a good explanation for the character’s disbelief. Otherwise, you’ll lose me as a reader. Oh yes. I have walked away from books where the main character clings to denial for a contrived reason.

belief

I can’t help thinking about a quote in Writing Fiction by Janet Burroway, Elizabeth Stuckey-French, and Ned Stuckey French:

Often the notion of change is mistaken by new writers to mean change that is abrupt and contrived. . . . Rather, change can be as subtle as a step in a new direction, a slight shift in belief, or a willingness to question a rigid view or recognize unseen value in a person or situation. (133)

A character’s disbelief or behavior pattern is compelling if it is part of that character’s emotional arc—for example, an addiction the character strives to deny; unresolved issues with a parent, friend, or significant other; something that would fundamentally change the character’s life if his or her belief system were rocked to the core.

Let’s go back to my pants issue for a moment. I wish I had a compelling reason for my belief that the outcome would be different if I wore those pants. Actually, I was being lazy. I didn’t feel like walking ten feet to get a different pair of pants—hence my false hope that everything would work out fine if I could be spared the work of getting to those pants. But my laziness proved detrimental when the pants fell down. (Thankfully, no one else was around to witness this.)

shortCutIt all comes down to character. Problems come when a writer takes a shortcut instead of doing the hard work of crafting believable characters who deal with hard choices or seemingly impossible situations. Characters need to grow at a rate that fits the pace of a story and the seriousness of the issue. If the character’s belief changes too quickly, it reduces the “seemingly impossible situation” to something much smaller in scope. Also, the tension decreases. We need to at least see the character struggle with the decision to change.

I hope I won’t have to write a third post involving my wearing the same pants. If I do, please feel free to tell me, “When will you learn?!”

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need a cup of hot chocolate. While I get that, let me ask you this: At what point in your story does your character come to a point of change? How did you determine the optimum point to shift that character’s belief?

Green mug of hot cocoa with marshmallows on top.

Burroway, Janet, Elizabeth Stuckey-French, and Ned Stuckey-French. Writing Fiction. Boston: Longman/Pearson, 2003, 2007, 2011. Print.

Pajamas from texeresilk.com. Cup of hot chocolate from littlerockmommy.com. Belief image from envisionedentrepreneur.com. Shortcut from faruqi-izzuddin.blogspot.com.

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29 thoughts on “When Will She Learn?

  1. I don’t think I necessarily decided on a specific point, it sort of just happened. Having a reason for my two somewhat antagonistic characters to bond over common ground definitely helped. And I’ve found a way for it to make even more sense now, which relieves me greatly. It was still seeming a bit too quick for a while.

    • I love the common ground bonding scenes. 🙂 I’m trying to figure that out in my book. My characters are pretty antagonistic. I probably need to tone down some of the threats each makes about the other. 🙂

  2. It’s definitely important for characters to change and grow over the course of a story, but there’s a balance somewhere between abrupt change and no change at all. I think that dropping several foreshadowing hints or slight changes in perspective and then having a deciding moment can be one good way to approach character change.

  3. Characters changes kind of happened for me. As for your example, I think some authors expect a reader to assume that a character is in denial. I’ve seen it on television and in movies where you have that one guy/girl who refuses to believe in the situation. It happens a lot in horror movies where one can guess that the stress has caused someone to snap. They usually are the ones to go insane, break down, or have a humiliating death due to their denial. Yet, I think a book has the difficulty of not being as quick to get to these points. A simple conversation between any characters that includes the other one being in denial or their amazed at their refusal to accept a situation can clear this up.

    If you use those pants a third time, you might want to wear a belt or something.

    • And that’s what is missing sometimes: that simple, five-minute conversation. But in order to stretch out a thin plot, sometimes characters stay in denial for too many pages. It gets old after awhile, like my situation with the pants. But I’m willing to suspend my disbelief in a character’s disbelief if I understand what motivates the character.

  4. Hahaha
    I’m sorry but I’m kind of looking forward to another pants misadventure. the way you tell them is just so funny despite the embarrassing situations.
    Now, seriously though, I think it’s the hope that “this time will be different” that drives people into making the same mistake over and over. They never learn. I make that same mistake too. lol

    • So true. I think about relationship patterns and how people think, “This will be different.” It’s sad really.

      I haven’t thrown out the pants, so who knows. I might not have learned my lesson. 😀

  5. “When will he learn?” has been a common theme throughout my life. I’m the guy that put liquid dishwashing soap in his dishwasher, and when it overflowed and flooded the kitchen, people told me I was using the wrong soap. I thought they were mistaken and that I just put in too much and so I proceeded to flood my kitchen once again….

    Yeah, I can be hardheaded. 😉

    But you make a great point. Some people are more stubborn than others and in different aspects of life. I think finding those aspects help make our characters more real.

  6. Throw away the pants!!!!!!! I have to go through MTM’s things periodically and do this for him. He gets upset for a day or two, but then he finds several other pairs that work.

    As to characters, I struggled with this issue in my novel. One of my main characters is nine, and she believes in things long after she should. Because she’s nine. I wanted to explore that time in childhood, just before we start to lose our belief in magic. I guess we’ll see whether I did a good job in a few weeks.

    • Naïveté in a child is appropriate. That’s what’s great about them. They believe in people–even the ones who hurt them deeply. That’s, as you mentioned, the magic of childhood.
      I need to give away a ton of clothes I’m not using and toss the ones too raggedy to use. 😀

  7. In my YA thriller, I was worried that my main character was “too stupid to live” because she missed all the warning signs that her new heartthrob was a hitman. And in this case, the revelation and moment of disillusionment had to be sudden. This problem tends to crop up in thrillers because protagonists have to be in harm’s way constantly so readers will turn the pages, but no reasonably intelligent person would constantly put him or herself in harm’s way, right?

    • I don’t mind a certain amount of naïveté or stupidity in thrillers, because that keeps us turning pages. It’s like those heroines in horror movies. You know they’ll be stupid enough to go down to the basement where the creature lurks. But that’s what we anticipate with happen. However, after a certain point, the character needs to grow past that.

  8. So funny, when I was working with An Na on a previous wip, my main character remained in the dark for so long, yet she kept having stomach churning issues as she suspected the truth. At one point, after beating the stomach issue to death, Na commented “Shelby! Just give her a Tums and MOVE ON!” Clearly I’d hung out in the naivete too long! Also, have you considered replacing the elastic or adding a drawstring to your pants?

  9. Pingback: Winter Workout | El Space–The Blog of L. Marie

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