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Left Behind by a Culture of Personality

Posted by Priscilla on March 30, 2013

Susan Cain, in her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, said that we live now in a culture of personality rather than a culture of character. I suppose she is right.

Today, you can become famous simply for being famous. Today, our heroes and heroines are found on The Real Housewives of -- name your city. Bestselling books are often thrillers that follow the exploits of a “Personality.” The odder, the better. I just finished skimming through a thriller about a pharmaceutical company that was willing to kill in order to control the U.S. military. Quite exciting. The characters were real pistols.

As an introvert, I feel left behind by a culture that places such a high value on personality. Part of this may be because we define personality narrowly: humor, a quick tongue, a snarky attitude, “Mad Men” ambition. What happened to internal strength? What about integrity? When did quiet depth become a throwaway trait? Where are the people who care so much about ideals that they are willing to hang--the Franklins and Jeffersons, the Henrys and Washingtons? Are they long gone?

As a writer, I must adjust to my culture. Lamenting the passing of an earlier age is a waste of time, best left to Grampas in rocking chairs. Since I live in the age of personality, I must write deep. I must inhabit the mind and heart of my characters so well that their personality shines clearly on the page. Even though the thriller I mentioned above had characters that did crazy things, they remained flat because the author didn’t write deep enough. Each character remained a “that” instead of a “who.”

So how do we write deep? How do we honor the depths of our characters while allowing their personalities to shine forth?

1.   Enlarge the definition of personality

Personality must be more than quirkiness. It must include dreams and fears and quiet reflection. It must include ideals.

2.   Sit with the character.

My friend, Joyce Magnin, is great at creating quirky characters. But in her latest novel, Cake, she went a step further. Her heroine became a living being. What made the difference? She didn’t simply place Wilma Sue’s dreams and fears on the page. She sat with Wilma Sue. She felt with Wilma Sue. She put Wilma Sue’s visceral reactions onto the page.

3.  Infuse specificity and concrete reactions into abstractions.

Ideals are great but ideals are abstractions. They leave readers cold, because there is no way for a reader to wrap her heart around an abstraction. If we see a character acting justly, though, and then see him get into trouble because of that action, and then feel with him his reaction, we will care for him.

I am still learning how to do this. I often forget that I no longer live in a culture of character; I assume that you will love my character because he is kind, or courageous, or values justice. That’s not enough, is it? I must learn to breathe life into each character.

What do you think?


Posted by Johnese Burtram on
Good wake-up call regarding our fascination with personality rather than character. What will always matter in the end is the who of a person is when the covering is gone.

However, introversion does not equal depth. In defense of my extroverted compatriots, we are capable of depth as well, though in a rather load and noticeable manner.

Thanks for challenging us to think deeply.
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