How Characters Think (and How to Think Like Them)

Sometimes, we react in ways that seem unlikely, but actually prove who we are as characters. Take, for example, the ballad of “My Father and the Infomercial King.”

For those who don’t know, Billy Mays was an infomercial Olympian who repeatedly appeared on television to shout at you. You would be calmly watching a rerun of your favorite sitcom when all of a sudden, bam, his bearded face was there to scream about the latest cleaning product.

My father always scoffed and hit mute when this happened. “Look at him. He’s nothing but a glorified street hawker.” Then he would look at me. “You know what that is?”

“Someone who talks real loud,” I said.

The crazy thing is, Billy Mays died just a few years after I had gotten used to this routine. I thought, in a show of morbid naivety, that my father might be pleased. Not at the man’s death, but the fact that he wouldn’t be producing new commercials. Instead, I was simultaneously surprised and curious that my father was sad to hear the news.

“Oh,” he said, glancing at the T.V. as if the man would suddenly pop up and tell him it was all a joke. “Well, he was a decent guy. That’s too bad.”

It took me a while to understand this reaction. I thought at first that maybe my father felt somehow responsible; like he had brought about the death because of all the times he had professed his hatred out loud. But it went much deeper than cleaning supplies could scrub.

We are rather complex creatures (most of us, anyway), and possess complex emotions. My father is a good person who feels empathy towards others, so it was his natural reaction to be sad.

In a contrary reaction, one might feel relief, even joy, to have the Bane of their Ear Drums gone; these people are generally quite evil, but do in fact exist. Then there are the people who feel nothing about it, which are a little more common. But depending on who you are, one of these reactions—empathy, relief, nothing—will be natural to you.

Similarly, characters should have natural reactions to events like these (not necessarily involving infomercials). So, what’s the best way to understand your characters’ natural reactions?

Watch others.

By watching my father, I was offered a question: why did this reaction happen? And the answer led me to understand a certain personality trait more than I did previously. Observing these traits will go a long way in making your characters more believable.

Disclaimer: No one actually has to…you know…die in order to make these observations.

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4 thoughts on “How Characters Think (and How to Think Like Them)

  1. That’s really true…

    I know what I’m reading, I’ll think I have a good grasp on who a character is *until* they’re faced with the death of someone around them. The reaction isn’t always what I expect, but I definitely feel like I understand the character more after that moment.

  2. melissajanda says:

    Interesting observation, Tara. Understanding the complexity of our human emotions helps us writers create multi-dimensional characters.

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