Savvy Saturday – Ignorance, Arrogance, and Character Development

Most authors tend to put themselves or people they know into the characters they write. While this can make characters realistic, it also limits the kinds of characters they can include in stories to the kinds of people the author has had interactions with. I was confronted by the realization tonight that I have not been around very many high-school students in recent years – and especially not high-school boys.

Yes. I talked with one tonight. It was an interesting experience, and one that I will try to remember for my writing. I want to start off by stating the caveat that I will not try to extrapolate behavior or thinking processes to all high-schoolers, to all boys, or even to all high-school boys based from one case study. But it does give me an existence proof that some high-school boys do not behave in the reasoned, fact-based manner than I have come to expect from my academic colleagues or the students in my classes. In academia, however loopy one’s ideas may be, people are generally bright enough to not make blatantly false assertions, illogical arguments, or over-generalizations lest they be called on it and taken down a peg (or four). The same apparently doesn’t hold true for all members of the population. I’ve known that in the abstract. It’s a very different experience to see it in person.

Exaggeration itself is not a trait that many of my characters use in my writing, but it does occur. Many people, even rational ones, exaggerate when they get emotional. “Everybody hates me!” a character might wail. Or, “If I don’t pass this class, I’m literally going to die!” (Hopefully, said character is actually exaggerating in this case, or else the story might become a detective murder mystery.)

With this type of emotional exaggeration excepted, I’ve noticed that my own academic training and companionship tends to lead to a characteristic of my characters to speak accurately, carefully, and precisely in my writing. They tend not to speak on subjects about which they have no knowledge, or at least not authoritatively. They tend not to state “facts” as truth when those facts are exaggerations or are simply wrong – at least not to a global, sweeping extent. For instance, while a petulant character of mine might say, “I hate the girls in my class. They’re stupid and all they talk about is clothes,” (a statement which is likely an exaggeration, but may have some basis in fact), I would not write a character who would say matter-of-factly, “Girls are stupid. All they ever do is talk about clothes.” Or, “Of course fraternities don’t actually do things that are illegal during their hazing. If they did, they’d all get caught and stopped.” Similarly, while I might write a character who would say that they were sure that Candidate Y would win an election (and be able to back up their statement with poll results, historic trends, and logical reasoning), I wouldn’t have thought to have a character be “sure” that Candidate Y would win because all of their friends liked him and were going to vote for him.

While I would have expected that no intelligent person would actually make this sort of blatantly inaccurate statement or faulty argument – at least not make it and expect to maintain any sort of intellectual esteem with a listener – it seems that my view of the world was more limited than I had realized. In some ways, this is a good discovery. In the future, I will be able to make more use of a type of character and a way of speaking and thinking (judgmental and assertive in arrogant ignorance) that I would have been otherwise. Hopefully, this will give me greater breadth in the types of situations I can write and the realism of the worlds I can create.

I should note that I do not hold anything against the boy with whom I spoke. He is bright, and it is likely that with some years and maturation that he will realize that many of his views are…well…wrong. But until that point, I will chuckle and remember that not all high-school boys behave like college professors – and hope that I don’t annoy my readers too much when my characters suddenly have to deal with immature, arrogant people who assert things as fact that “just ain’t so.”

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