Do Your Characters Have an Attitude?

Nat RussoBasics, How-To, Voice, Writing 10 Comments

There are few things more elusive in the craft of writing than the notion of “Voice”. But what many new writers fail to grasp is that “Voice” is far more than just what a character says. It’s about how they say it and how they feel about the world around them.

In other words, it’s at least partially about their attitude.

You have an attitude. You may not realize it, but you have one. I’m sure you’ve heard the words “don’t give me that attitude!” on more than one occasion. I’m willing to bet you’ve answered a question with a smile on your face, all the while concealing the seething rage beneath your calm exterior.

Am I right? Of course I am! I’m human! Attitude is a major part of what defines our very existence.

So just what is this elusive attitude, and how do we go about achieving it in fiction?

The Filter Through Which We Perceive

Have you heard the saying “no matter where you go, there you are”? It sounds trite and cliche, but it’s saying something quite important that writers should take to heart.
Everywhere we go, and everything we see, is perceived through the filter of our lives. Our lives consist of many things, but at its heart, a life is a collection of experiences. Each experience we have, from childhood through adult, molds the clay that forms who we are as a person.
So why do we sometimes write a character as if he or she is a blank slate? Simply put, we do this before we’ve fully experienced the character we’re writing. They’re not real to us, and until they are, they stand no chance of being perceived as real by your reader. They’ll fall flat. You’ll hear comments like “one-dimensional” and “no depth”. At this stage, you’re not yet treating your characters as if they’re living, breathing people! Instead, you’re writing them as if they’re little more than a bundle of sensory receptors, dutifully reporting what they see, hear, smell, taste, and touch to the reader.
So what can we do to change this?

How Your Characters Feel About Their Perceptions

When you perceive the world around you, you’re passive about some things, allowing them to flow into your eyes, ears, etc, with little internal commentary. Other things, however, spark lengthy internal monologues. Sometimes they get us thinking in tangents about seemingly unrelated things. Sure, it’s just a pair of white tennis shoes, but because of this one experience that one time—you know…the time we did that thing with the guy at that place?—we find ourselves thinking about a movie we saw when we were twelve years old!
I’m not suggesting you allow your characters to constantly run off on mental tangents. What I am saying is that your character’s self-perception—their very perception of reality—is colored by who they are and what they’ve done.
I’d like to show you an example. In this case, I’ll use a passage from my debut novel Necromancer Awakening. First, let me show you how a 1st draft version might look:

Mujahid needed power to cast a spell, but there was none around. The crypt held power, but he was too far away.

In this passage, Mujahid is just dutifully reporting the facts to the reader. And that’s ok…for a 1st draft. 1st drafts are always pure crap, but that’s because we’re just getting the story down. In essence, we’re telling the story to ourselves just to get it straight! But clearly this won’t do. It’s too sterile. It’s lacking something.

Attitude. It’s lacking attitude. When we revisit this passage in the 2nd (or 20th) draft, we’ll know more about our world. We’ll know more about Mujahid. He’ll be more real to us as the writer, so we’ll know better how he feels and thinks about his surroundings. In short, we’ll know his attitude. So we take that attitude and inject it into the prose.

But Mukhtaar Lord or not, he needed power to cast like any other priest, and there wasn’t a drop of necropotency anywhere. If he could get closer to the crypt, he’d have all the energy he needed. But he didn’t think the guards would take him on an excursion any time soon.

Sure, I increased the word count of this paragraph quite a bit. But sometimes that’s ok. This is a 2nd (or 20th) draft, so I’m going to be cutting entire sections and combining characters in other locations anyway. 

The takeaway from this is that the first version was sterile. It lacked life. We were telling a story. In the second version, we were living a story! The second version was filled with attitude, and that attitude brought tension with it. You can feel Mujahid’s frustration, and you’re wondering, right along side him, how he’s going to get out of trouble.

In other words, you’ve created a fictive dream in the reader’s mind. You’ve struck dramatic gold.

Drawing Inferences

Your character is also going to have an attitude when it comes to other people. Without going too deeply into the subject of dramatic irony (that’s a subject for later), let’s just say that your character is going to interpret and misinterpret the actions of other people.
Let’s look at another example from Necromancer Awakening. This is from the same scene as I used above. Mujahid, a powerful necromancer, placed in a position where he has no power, is talking to a government official (named Thomry) that has come to pay a visit to Mujahid’s cell.
I didn’t know much about Mujahid in the first draft. He was still more of a “fact reporting bundle of sensory perceptions” than he was a person to me.

Thomry had been fidgeting with his sleeves, but he looked up and spread his arms when Mujahid accused him.

Yep. Good, dutiful Mujahid. Reporting the facts as he did all throughout the first draft. That’s exactly what Thomry did. Mujahid accused him of something, and Thomry stopped messing with his clothing.

As I learned more about Mujahid, however, it occurred to me that he wouldn’t leave it at that. Thomry’s action would hold more significance because of how Mujahid feels about foppish government bureaucrats. So I rewrote it.

Thomry looked up from his preening and spread his arms.

Thomry, the fop, wouldn’t be “fidgeting with his clothes” in Mujahid’s eyes. He’d be “preening” himself. In this instance, I not only injected a part of Mujahid into the description, but I also managed to shrink word count as a bonus.

I know. There’s a lot of distance between draft 1 and draft 20 that I’ve conveniently skipped over (all that “getting to know them” crap). Don’t worry. I’ve got you covered. Take a look at this article I wrote about the technique I use to learn more about a character. I think you’ll find it both fun and educational!

If you remember nothing else from this article, remember this: until you see your characters as living, breathing people, your reader doesn’t stand a chance at connecting with them.

Give them attitude. People connect with attitude. And why wouldn’t they? After all, we all have them.

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About Nat Russo

Nat Russo is the Amazon #1 Bestselling Fantasy author of Necromancer Awakening and Necromancer Falling. Nat was born in New York, raised in Arizona, and has lived just about everywhere in-between. He’s gone from pizza maker, to radio DJ, to Catholic seminarian (in a Benedictine monastery, of all places), to police officer, to software engineer. His career has taken him from central Texas to central Germany, where he worked as a defense contractor for Northrop Grumman. He's spent most of his adult life developing software, playing video games, running a Cub Scout den, gaining/losing weight, and listening to every kind of music under the sun. Along the way he managed to earn a degree in Philosophy and a black belt in Tang Soo Do. He currently makes his home in central Texas with his wife, teenager, mischievous beagle, and goofy boxador.

Comments 10

  1. Fantastic article Nat. Love reading these as I work on building my own world, characters and story lines!

    1. Thanks!

      World building is definitely near and dear to my heart. It’s one of the things that drew me to writing fantasy in the first place. I lost countless hours when I was younger designing D&D modules for my friends 🙂

  2. Another great post, always good to be reminded of those things to watch. Although sometimes, I wonder if my characters have too much attitude (especially in my own head) LOL.

    1. It can definitely be a delicate balancing act! My first draft is usually an exaggerated version of characterization. If I have a badass…he’s extra-special badass in the first draft. A character that I want subdued in the story is often too subdued in the first draft. I typically take a revision pass that’s dedicated specifically to characterization and nothing else.

      Programmers out there will get this next bit. I think like a software engineer, so I tend to think of the various “building blocks” of a novel in the same way I think of “abstraction layers” in program code. One of the purposes of abstraction layers in software is to allow a programmer to work exclusively on one particular “feature” or area of code without having to worry about what’s going on in other layers. I revise my fiction in much the same way I test program code. Each revision is dedicated to a single problem or concept.

    1. Post

      It’s a subject near and dear to my heart. The short version is “use it sparingly”. But when used well, it can have a wonderful impact on your work.

  3. I like the valuable info you supply in your articles.
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  4. Something I find very important is that characters are also human, even if they are axe wielding psychopaths.

    Remembering that even the darkest of personalities still chuckles at something stupid over breakfast is very important when crafting them, even if you might not use that part of their character in your story.

    I am a great believer in the human ability to laugh at the wrong moment and even cry at the wrong moment, and I do not believe there is anyone that has so much self control that they do not slip and suddenly show why their mother still loves them, despite the axe work.

    Here is an article which compliments a lot of what you say:


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