Sunday, December 12, 2010

Self-deception-- Character/scene question

Question. Let's say you have a point-of-view character who is lying to himself. Example:
Tony grew up in a vagabond family, and never put down roots. Now he's grown and he's chosen his own path of stability. He bought a home, keeps the same job for years, even drinks at the same pub every Saturday evening. He's as settled as they come.

But his brother comes into town and suggests a grand adventure, "like the ones Mom and Dad used to take us on," taking a couple months to hike the entire Grand Canyon. Tony would probably have to quit work, but so what?

Now how would you do a scene where Tony tells himself and his brother that an adventure is the last thing he wants? He marshals all sorts of good reasons he can't join bro, and they're good reasons. But underneath, he so wants to go. Really. The old vagabond spirit has been reawakened. But he knows his life is here in Podunkville, and he wants to want it. He doesn't want to want to run off with his brother for adventure.

So... how would you show him-- internally and in dialogue-- saying that of course he can't go vagabonding, that his life is here, that he doesn't WANT to leave, that he's never been happier, that of course he's not bored, that he's not that rootless wanderer anymore and has no desire to return to that life.

And how, within that, would you let the reader know (if not Tony) that he really is itching to go with his brother, that part of him longs for adventure, that he's at least partly lying to himself when he says he's no longer a vagabond even at heart?

That is, how do you show what he thinks is the truth, while letting the reader know it's at least partly self-deception?

I mean in first-person or deep third point of view, no omniscient.

Alicia

16 comments:

Annikka Woods said...

That's actually a very good question. I've run into that and when I'm done the scene always sounds so flat or really canned, like I was copying from a diagram or something.

I'm interested in seeing other people's responses to this as well.

KD Sarge said...

Hmm...well, there's always internal debate. It doesn't have to be overdone--just the urge to go rising, and Tony stomping it with "he was past that" or even self-disgust at his "Pavlovian response" since that's what his parents trained into him.

You can also show deep internal conflict with character actions. Is he playing with something that could express what he won't let himself think? I once had two characters build a little island paradise for a toothpick-man while talking about their SOs driving them batty.

Here by Annikka-tweet, btw. Hi!

Mystery Robin said...

I would show Tony saying that he didn't want to go, quite firmly. But, then I would show him impatient with what he initially chose. So, maybe he says, "No way, am I going to the Grand Canyon! I'm all about stability!"
But then, the furnace breaks and he mutters about the stupid house - his boss asks him to work late, and maybe he was fine with that last week, but this week it's irritating. And the neighbor dog pooped on his lawn - again!

Sometimes when we're torn between two things, we make a choice, but then resent the thing we chose a little bit.

Abby Annis said...

I mostly lurk here--LOVE the blog--but I might actually have something to contribute today. :)

In my YA novel, my heroine is trying to resist her attraction to the hero after she finds out he's responsible for the accident that killed her mother. When he drops by one morning before she has a chance to shower and get ready, she freaks out because she says she would never answer the door looking like she just crawled out from under a rock, regardless who was at the door.

On its own, that doesn't say much beyond what she's telling us. But before the hero came over, the heroine's best guy friend stopped by. She answered the door, knowing it was him, and didn't even consider running her fingers through her hair, much less showering or putting any effort into making herself look more presentable.

Not sure if that's the same thing, but I think it's effective for showing the reader she doesn't want to admit she's attracted to the hero when she clearly is. :)

Remus Shepherd said...

I would use the little I know about psychology.

The denial isn't the problem. It's his brother forcing him to confront his denial that will cause the stress. I'd make sure that there are conflicting statements in his denials, so that his brother can pick apart the arguments. That will lead him to stage two, anger. If we keep stringing him along on this path, after anger comes depression (a good opportunity for soul-searching) and then acceptance.

I'd also be tempted to choose a 'tell' for this character -- a verbal or physical tic that would go off when he's lying to himself. The other characters should not notice this tic. If they do, their persuasion will seem sinister. (Although that's an option I could follow.) The readers may or may not consciously notice the tic, but subconsciously it will give life and verisimilitude to the character in denial.

Edittorrent said...

Good ideas! I liked to go the "he doth protest too much" route. "I told you! I don't want to leave town! The annual beard growing contest is coming up! I have to go to that. I WANT to go to that! Really! Really! That's who I am now!"

But you're all right-- there are different ways to SHOW it, but the hero has a vested interest in not telling now, so it has to be in action and subtext.
Alicia

Edittorrent said...

Abby, I get that, you contrast two similar events to show the difference-- and the difference tells her real feelings!
Alicia

Jessica Lei said...

I would really blow their argument up. I'd have stability guy get very angry that his brother would try to have him do something obviously doesn't want with his life. Brother should get angry because he thinks it's obvious stability boy should take this adventure. Then brother leaves in anger and stability guy hits a wall or attempts to break something, go to work the next day still obviously affected, and have everything bother him BECAUSE of that anger. Why is the coffee COLD this morning? Why is everyone talking so loud? NO I don't want to go to your stupid party. And he can realize that maybe this stability he has always wanted is not making him happy like he thought it would. And then he decides to go on the adventure.

My two cents! :) Definitely a combination of what the others have said before.

Leah said...

My style is showing internal conflict through action (especially for male characters), so I'd do something like this.

After a conversation where Tony makes it clear he's not going, he sits down at his computer, pulls up Google to look up something...and searches for the Grand Canyon instead. Looks through photos. Fantasizes. Realizes what he's doing and closes the browser.

Later, he's making his usual Saturday trip to the bar and halfway there, the thought of spending another night there drinking suddenly depresses him. He turns off the road, takes a street he's never taken before. Finds a park or other nature-related feature, gets out and explores.

Then maybe he's at the Post Office later that week, and he spots a rack of postcards featuring the treasures of the US, and one of them is of the Grand Canyon. The damn thing won't leave him alone!

Could even take it a step further and have him buy the postcard, tuck it into his car's sun visor, maybe have it fall out at an inopportune moment when he's arguing with his brother about the trip.

Little things like this would do it for me. I think especially with men (but of course not all men), there's a tendency not to verbalize internal conflicts like this, but rather to act them out.

Leah said...

Re-reading the original post a little more closely, I see the question is how to show it internally, not externally. So I guess my answer is a cop-out...I wouldn't. ;)

Tough question!

Erastes said...

I think I'd deal with it by justification--lauding his own life, all the things he has. But at the same time justifying the small flame of wanderlust that has been kindled by thinking to himself stuff like "he didn't want to let his brother down" and that if he did "it would make his brother happy" etc etc - in this way he can convince himself to go, even if he thinks he doesn't want to, because he's actually doing it for someone else. This layering of self deceit should convince the reader. I wouldn't go on about "should I shouldn't I" and a ton of internal argument because that can be dull to read. He could weigh up the pros and cons though, this would be realistic, and even thought the pros in his head would outweigh the cons, still decide against it.

Erastes said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Julie Harrington said...

Ah who of us doesn't think, "Man, I'd love to ditch my job and move to France." But do we? No. We all have dreams of quitting our job, dumping our homes, and roaming the country (if not the globe) and I'd guess 99.9% of us never do it. Why? Combo of things, I think, and that's what keeps poor, stable Tony trapped where he is.

The drivers? Guilt. Fear. Expectation. He should *want* to be stable, he should *want* to have a 40 hour a week (if not more) job. Maybe he's gotten a new promotion and to just up and quit now? After all that hard work? He'd disappoint his bosses, his co-workers, himself. After all, who just up and chucks out everything he's worked for for a do-nothing, no-point, reckless, child-like adventure? How irresponsible. How stupid. How non-adult, mature, and realistic can you be?

So to show it internally would be easy, I think. I'd have him thinking how XYZ location is a place he's always dreamed about. Fantasized about. But dreams and fantasies... those were things he put aside after graduating high school/college like ever having a chance to score with Ms. July, becoming a rockstar, or becoming independently wealthy. At some point he had to grow up, get serious, get down to business. He'd worked hard for everything he had. Committed. Focused on getting everything a man could want and to separate himself from the could-bes to become a Will-Do. Blah blah blah education, fast-track to Vice President in X years, awards for X, Y, and Z. How could he throw that away to travel 5,000 miles to the Grand Canyon? For a vacation? To walk around, look at a bunch of rocks and some water?

By diminishing the location of the trip itself and playing up the importance of what he's already achieved in the "here," you give him a good internal argument to pass up the opportunity and stay... but at the same time you know what he's doing, and really, who isn't sitting here thinking, he has a point? LOL.

...and continuing below because this is long.

JT

Julie Harrington said...

As for Dialogue, I'd let the brother be the voice of that longing, those dreams, the oppressiveness Tony's got to be feeling (punching a clock, the same routine day in, day out, all for what? Money to pay bills we accumulate so we have to work 5 days a week - if not more - so we can earn money to pay the bills...), life is meant to be lived, work to live not live to work, being an adult doesn't mean being dead. What's the point of growing up and getting to make your own decisions if all you do and decide is what OTHER people tell you is "right" and "responsible"?

Meanwhile Tony will be the logical argument of this conversation, talking about how nobody is going to throw away a life of work, a house, a job, a bank balance, stability, respect of his co-workers, his bosses, to go walk through some rocks for a couple of months. He gets plenty of walking time at the executive's gym.

Rocks? I can hear the other brother ask. You mean the millions of year old canyon mother nature carved through our country? The one, when you were 8, you swore you'd explore when you became a paleontologist?

But I'm not 8 anymore, Tony would say, and I'm not a paleontologist. I grew up. You should try it sometime.

Brother looks around Tony's BS office as phones ring and emails bleeps and Tony's blackberry flashes, somebody tells Tony they need him to do A, B, and C before 5 and Whitamaker wants that report pronto (clearly begging us to ask ourselves:THIS is living? THIS is what we all aspire to do and be?) and have the brother be like, "Yeah, this is just swell. Well, if you change your mind, I'm in town for X days before I leave, staying at this hotel."

After that I'd have every responsible, menial, 9-to-5, timecard punching, corporate annoying, traffic jam inducing annoyance plague Tony as his world just closes in and closes in and he finds himself thinking about the wide open spaces of the Grand Canyon, fresh air, a sky where you see nothing but stars (don't see those in the city), fresh air instead of bus fumes, a contrast of seasons wouldn't hurt.

I think that's a good idea of what I'd do.

JT

Wes said...

Oh, like me in real life????

Melissa Johnson said...

Coming out of lurking because I think this is a fascinating topic. There are some great comments and suggestions here! This reminds me of the movie "City Slickers" but I can't recall all the reasons the main character gave for why he couldn't go, but eventually did. One thing I recall though is he and his friends went on an annual adventure, but for some reason he figured he was too old for that now. But there was a history of doing a crazy thing that made it believable. So, I'd think in this case Tony, who hadn't done anything "crazy" for a long while, would need an even greater incentive or being at some crossroad in his life to act impulsive. Heck, maybe his crazy brother lies and says he's dying. Or gets him fired. The point is, Tony wouldn't go willingly and might continues his self deception of wanting to go all along far into the trip. I agree it can be boring to have a long internal conversation about why he couldn't go and would rather see some action.