The Death of a Butterfly

I like to ask uncomfortable questions. Especially when people are in relationships. You can tell a lot about a person by how they date. Just like you can tell how a person will treat you by how they treat the waitstaff. But if your lovers tip you after having sex, then that might be kinda awkward.

When I meet people, I naturally start thinking about what character traits they may have if they were to be written in a story. Character traits shape how they see the world. So if someone is insecure, then they'll value themselves below everyone else, for example.

A friend of mine is seeing someone that lives out of state. I think her character traits look like this:

She works with kids, loves them. She's insecure, and I'd imagine because she doesn't know herself well. She has lived a sheltered life, but is trying to stretch her wings and explore the world and, as a result, herself.

Now I've met her man once at a get together at a bar. But we didn't have deep conversations because he was withdrawn, uninterested. However, from what little I've gathered, this is his character chart:

From a writing standpoint, this triangle would collapse on itself, making this person seem very one dimensional. Someone who is autistic might not like being around people he doesn't know.

So how does a writer separate this autistic trait from shyness? They tend to look the same, making it hard for the writer and reader to separate the two.

The better question is how would I make this character more interesting? I could make the third character trait be charming. That's the last thing people would think an autistic person would have, so the distance between charm and autism feels huge.

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Dimension in the physical world can be measured. If I say you have to sprint one mile, you may feel that's a great distance for a full max effort. There's an inherent understanding there. With character traits, measuring the distance between them is difficult, so doing something unexpected like coupling charm and autism can give a character depth. Or imagine coupling kindness and hatred.

Now, here's the story: The girl has lived a sheltered life, and she realizes this. She wants to explore herself in the world by doing weird and crazy things. Her guy is afraid of people due to his autism, despite being high functioning, so going out into the world isn't the most comfortable thing.

Will their relationship work out? I mean, opposites attract, right?

I'd imagine their love story has a lot of push/pull in it. For example, she has to give in to his fear and plan things for them to do, which is to stay in and make many a Blockbuster nights. You youngens might not know what that is. He has to compromise by going out and meeting new people. The end scene would be him not talking to anyone and running away, alienating her and her friends. Of course, this being 'Merica, after much tribulation, they end up living happily ever after.

Yay. Boring.

But since this is a real life couple, could a relationship like this work? My knee jerk reaction would be No. However, I've seen some crazy couples, and they seem to be doing fine. I think the more interesting question would be why an attractive woman is working so hard to be with a man who seems to be resisting moving here and meeting her friends? That character study would make for a better story. Too much energy is placed on the end story both in real life and writing, which isn't the purpose of life. Looking at the why we do things is definitely more engaging. So...

If we look at her character chart, we can see that insecurity plays a big part. Does she not see his unwillingness to participate in her life says something about how he feels about her? No, because her insecurity blinds her to the truth, and she thinks that this guy is the best that she can get. Here we begin to understand why she can't move on. Now let's put a small twist and have them take a break from the relationship.

She goes on endless dates. Show montage of crazy dudes being idiots. We can deepen the story by writing about her co-dependency where her desperation to be married forces her to have sex with any guy that will have her. And this causes issues like self-loathing, the loss of connection with friends and family, an unplanned pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, drug use that leads to a miscarriage. And if you thought we were too nice, then we hit her hard with the death of her grandmother who had taken care of her when her own mother was on the fritz with her life.

At this point, our story can become a tragedy. After all this, how can it not be? Well a tragedy is when a character fails to become the person she should become. In this case, she fails to realize that her insecurity is something that she believes herself to be, entrenching herself deeper into worthlessness, depression. In other words, she's like a caterpillar who never becomes the butterfly. She tries to break free of her cocoon, but the man she's hung up on comes back into her world. She attaches her self-worth to him, never giving herself the chance to bloom. We see this as her not having her own thoughts, opinions, but being controlled by a man who needs to keep her down so he can feel better about himself. And his worsening treatment of her forshadows her life. 

Obviously, this is just an exercise of light character study. My friend still has her whole life ahead of her to grow, which is what people naturally do when they don't think they're worthless in any way.

Character Trait

I think writing fantasy is difficult. When creating a new world with new rules (i.e. magic, physics, politics), authors have to remain consistent. The magic in Harry Potter is a great example. J.K. Rowling establishes different economic classes in the wizardry populace. For example, the Weasley family is considered poor. But the Malfoys are rich. Very rich.

We see this when Harry goes to the bank and sees his vault open to a pile of gold coins. We see this again in Harry and Ron's first train ride to Hogwarts when the candy cart comes. Weasley frowns and holds up his lunch(?) wrapped in Saran Wrap. But Harry makes it rain with gold coins and buys 'the whole lot'.

Then we see something curious. In the Great Hall after the new students have been sorted into their houses, plates of food miraculously appear out of thin air onto the tables. Ron dives in and gorges himself. This suggests that food, or anything else, can be created out of nothing, which contradicts the idea of economic class. Why does money exist if a basic need like food can be conjured from nothing?

Rowling even acknowledged that she had run into a storytelling problem, and covered herself by showing that house elves prepare the food, and magic is used to teleport the plates of sustenance to the tables. To be honest, I didn't even see the problem until I started to learn the rules of world building.

Now, reading other writers' works, I've had to take notice if/when they're breaking their own rules. But writing about human insecurities is a little difficult. One of the authors in my writing group has a story about a guy who is self-conscious about feeling old. But there are moments where that character feels youthful and moments when he feels old. We've all harped on this fact, that his character seems to flip flop on his own perception of age. That the character needs to be consistent, otherwise the author may lose the readers' trust. The author states that his character's feelings on age depends on the situation.

And that makes perfect sense.

Character traits are defined as something that changes their view of the world. Put it simply, if the character is a man, his view is going to be vastly different than a woman's. A man isn't going to fear rape every time he goes on a first date. But a woman may because she's the physically weaker sex.

Or if a character is narcissistic, then she will see the world as beneath her, or her above it, as seen in the character Cat Grant in Supergirl.

So what we, as fellow writers, are harping on is the consistency of the character trait. But what we did not see is that declaring yourself old or young is not the trait the author intended. The trait is the insecurity of being old. And the character's flip flopping supports that trait. Because if the trait was that he feels old, isn't worth anything because he's old, then flip flopping wouldn't make sense. And it wouldn't make for an interesting story.