I Don’t Think Like You, All Right?

When we’re dealing with characterization, most of us have a tendency to write what we know—we’re used to the things we prioritize, and often figure out our characters based on “accepts this premise—rejects that one—ignores that one entirely….” Sometimes, though, we see characters who operate on a principle that just doesn’t resonate with our audience, whether it’s a societal more long ago left behind or a complete lack of experience with a concept we take for granted. This makes them… interesting.

One way we can get this across is by having them ask for explanations, either because someone’s just mentioned the missing concept or because (as often happens in the case of love) they’re feeling it for the very first time. “What’s this?” they ask, sometimes with a descriptor, sometimes assuming that the other person should be able to gather what “this” is. And there’s an awkward explanation, and probably a strong emotional response, and things get correspondingly interesting. This works pretty well in that it gets it very clearly across that the speaker has no concept of love, war, the color red, youth, death, betrayal, what have you. But it’s just as easy for it to become expospeak, particularly if the person being asked just responds with a clinical definition rather than one that draws from her own characterization. Besides, for someone to ask, they have to be willing to deal with the baggage of asking—the admission that they don’t know everything, the way that the question sets them apart…. Not everybody is going to do that.

One usually villainous variation seems to be knowing full well about the concepts that don’t work with the character and violently rejecting them. It gets the point across, particularly on characters who are characterized by their anger, but I’ve never really liked it. Any time a character rejects a concept that vehemently, it feels to me like they’re being set up for either learning a lesson or being an object lesson to a third party—and that gets preachy, and comes across as punishing a character for something that she was created with. Final conclusion? I’d really prefer it if you tried a different tactic.

My favorite, though, is taking that part of the mindset for granted. It’s harder to get across—wording becomes important, particularly if it’s related to a touchy subject like the value of a life—but when it works, it works pretty well. Basically, what you do here is have the character talk as if her difference, whatever it is, is a self-evident truth—embedding it in the presuppositions of her statements rather than placing it as its own statement, rather like I often do with the idea that characters can and often will gleefully grab their writers/players by the collar and say “No, it went THIS way.”

Either way, the object of the game is just getting it across without having to stop and say “So-and-so’s mindset is different in that so-and-so embraces X viewpoint/has no understanding of Y concept/would not think of Z unless prompted.” As long as that’s done, the rest isn’t near as much of a concern.

2 comments

  1. Michael says:

    In “Soldiers of Love” I used a variant on the first route. Vateilika wouldn’t ask per se, but she would say “That must be a human concept”, sometimes leading to an explanation and sometimes not, depending on the context. This sort-of became her catchphrase, as over the course of the story she said this about friendship, hope, justice, some more that I can’t remember, and (providing the story’s last spoken line) relaxation.

  2. Lugh says:

    Excellent post. It sums up the issues well. I’d love to see a follow-up post as well.

    I find that one of the best examples of this sort of thing to point at it is Firefly. Especially the standard scene of sitting in the mess area discussing the current problem. The mutually incomprehensible attitudes of, say, Jayne and Wash are made blindingly obvious without being explicitly called out. Any of the scenes where Simon shoves his foot in his mouth around Kaylee are also great examples of characters just seeing the world through very different eyes.

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