Han Solo feels nervous – characters and self-perception

Posted: August 14, 2013 in writing
Tags: , , , ,

It’s easy to make characters’ self-perceptions accurate. It’s simpler for the writer, and for the reader, though it’s probably less satisfying for both. But a couple of things I’ve stumbled across this morning gave me interesting ways to break this pattern.

Seeing ourselves

For real human beings, accurate self-perception is hard. I have a wobbly grasp of my own abilities at the best of times. I thought I was good at painting until I made a blobby mess of our bannisters yesterday, while my career trajectory has been marked a lack of belief in my own aims. Insight is hard work, and we often don’t even know we need to do that work.

When writing characters, on the other hand, it’s self-deception that’s tricky. You as the writer have a clear idea of who this person is, and you want to get that onto the page. One of your mechanisms to achieve this is through their self-perceptions, so it’s natural to default to making them accurate. If you’ve got more than one point of view, or an outspoken companion, you can slip in a different perception of the character, but that’s likely to be about emphasis or style rather than capability.

For example, I’m currently writing a story with two central characters. One is a grizzled veteran who likes to get physical, the other a city girl who prefers sophistication and manipulation. She thinks he’s a dullard, but his ability to fight has never been called into question. The things that she challenges him on, like his ability to navigate the city, are the areas where he’s actually weak. By my standards, I was challenging myself writing these two characters. But in terms of self-perceptions, I’ve taken an easy route.

So what’s made me think about this differently?

Han Solo, bigger hero than he thinks

'Wait, did I leave the oven on in the Falcon?'

‘Wait, did I leave the oven on in the Falcon?’

First, have I read this article on Han Solo, especially the last point – that Han isn’t actually confident in his skills as a captain and pilot. It might seem counter-intuitive, given his attitude in the Star Wars films, but it made sense to me. He’s not so confident in his skills, so he over-compensates by bragging. But the truth shows in his actions. He’s like some people who aren’t confident in their social skills, but try to cover for it by being really loud and brash when they’re on show.

Except those guys don’t hang out with a wookie.

Just world fallacy – I totally deserve it

Then there’s the just world fallacy, as explained in this vlogbrothers video:


People want to believe in a just world, so they believe that they’ve earned what they’ve got, even if the evidence doesn’t support this. Remind you of any politicians you’ve heard? What, most of them? I agree.

We do see this one played out in villains sometimes, where they truly believe that they deserve the riches and power they’re trying to haul in. But we also see a lot of villains who don’t buy into their own status, who justify it through ideals or just giving in to villainy – as Keanu Reeves put it during his screen foray into Shakespeare, ‘at least I am a plain speaking villain, dude’ (alright, the ‘dude’ may have been unspoken, but it’s there in his voice). Maybe this is an aspect of psychology we could play with more.

In conclusion, ignore me

What’s the point of all this? Well, mostly to gather these thoughts in one place for my future reference. What can I say, I write these posts, sometimes they’re for me.

But beyond that, if you’re writing, maybe have a go at using the just world fallacy, or someone more skilled than they are confident. And if you’re reading – which you are, you’ve just read these words, this sentence was a trap! – let me know what you think about this. Can you think of similar aspects of psychology to use in stories? Of other examples of this in books and films? Then comment below.

And thanks to occasional commenter Jon Taylor for putting me onto that video.

  1. John Moley says:

    This is something I’ve really enjoyed about A Song of Ice and Fire. Listening to the characters’ internal monologues and thinking, “you’re a bit off the mark there, mate!”
    I’ll tell you something I struggle with: I find it next to impossible to write believable characters with a different degree of risk perception to my own. Everyone either weighs things up exactly the way I would, or has a cartoonishly extreme awareness (or lack thereof) of potential consequences. Am I alone in this?

    • George R R Martin is definitely good at this. I think his characters are so riddled with mis-perceptions about everything, and mis-information is so central to his plots, that it must come naturally to him by now. It’s wonderfully frustrating to watch his characters doing things that they wouldn’t if they just knew what we knew.

      The point about awareness of risks is an interesting one, and something I’m going to have to think about. Given that I’ve not been considering it, I’m probably falling into the same trap as you, and not even realising it.

  2. everwalker says:

    Very interesting. It’s something I tried to play with in Spiritus, but it’s extremely challenging. I think how successful you are comes down, at least in part, to how much you trust your audience to read between the lines.

    • I’m sure you’re right about that. I wonder if how far the audience is willing to read the lines varies with genres and sub-genres as well. Fantasy and sci-fi readers often expect to work out a lot about the world from the hints authors drop, but are they as willing to do that for characters as people reading literary fiction?

      And thinking out loud, I wonder if writers can benefit from erring on the side of over-confidence in this. I enjoyed Han Solo without understanding this element of his character, but in retrospect the depth it added clearly helped with that enjoyment. Maybe to some extent we can trust readers to not quite get what’s between the lines, but to still enjoy it.

  3. Jon Taylor says:

    I have definitely enjoyed stories told from an ensemble of first-person perspectives. A Song of Ice and Fire is known for that, but ‘The Windup Girl’ by Paolo Bacigalupi had a similiar structure and produced a similarly powerful effect of getting to know an unfamiliar world from many different angles. I also like the way it removes the ‘villainous other’ from the story. All the characters become human, with their own version of the Just World Fallacy leading them towards sometimes morally questionable actions. All that was achieved by writing in the first person so that we are literally in the character’s head. I’m not sure how you would achieve that otherwise.

    • Is SOIAF first person? I had in my head that it was tight third person, but then I have a memory like a colander at times. Either way you’re right, the tight focus on those characters makes it work, and allows, but also requires, some quite subtle storytelling to make this work.

      I used to be a fan of the villainous other, feeling bored of the ‘everything is just shades of grey’ approach. But George R R Martin has very much switched my view around on that, showing how the greyness or otherwise is in the eye of the beholder, and managing to show the same characters in both good and bad lights over time.

      • Jon Taylor says:

        No, you were right. They are both in the third person. As an excuse I will cite the fact that I *felt* like Tyrion, Davos, Anderson et. al were telling me those stories because the writing takes you into their head so effectively. That, or I am just an idiot, so my excuse *must* be true. 😀

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