Author of Middle Grade novels about friendship, family, and figuring out where you fit in.

Monday, September 15, 2014

That's Out Of Character

Several years ago, I subbed for a fifth grade teacher on a regular basis. I got to know her students well, and still remember most of their names even today. But one boy in particular stood out to me. We'll call him Travis.

Here are some of the things Travis liked to do:

- Make fun of his classmates and call them names.
- Talk back to teachers.
- Roll his eyes whenever a new assignment was given.
- Act like he didn't care about anything or any person.

I thought I knew exactly who he was. He was a bully and a troublemaker. It seemed like every time I turned around, he was doing something he wasn't supposed to be doing.

One day near the end of the school year, I was on my way to the classroom after having lunch, and Travis caught up to me in the hallway. He surprised me by making conversation.

"Guess what? I saw [whatever horror movie was in the theaters at this time] last weekend. Did you see it yet?"
I shook my head. "I don't really watch horror movies. I'm too much of a wimp."
His expression softened -- a look I'd never seen on his face before, complete with a sincere look in his eyes. "Don't call yourself a wimp, okay? It's not true. You're not a wimp."
He walked away.

Now, if I were writing a character like Travis, I would have thought the above dialogue was way out of character for him! This is the boy who called his classmates wimps all the time. This is the boy who had no shame in being disrespectful to teachers. But out of nowhere, just that once, he got all... nice.

Maybe there's a story arc I'm not aware of. Maybe something about our conversation tugged at him in a certain way, reminded him of something else in his life, and made him react the way he did.

I think of Travis every now and then when I write characters who seem like they'd be predictable, but could end up surprising someone in the smallest way.

Have you ever thought of real life people in terms of what they'd be like as a fictional character? Have you ever looked for a story arc in real life?

9 comments:

Anne Gallagher said...

Perhaps, the reason why Travis was a bully, was because someone called him a wimp. And now he takes it out on everyone else.

Great character arcs in real life take a long time to develop. I think.

Real life takes longer than a novel.

Tiana Smith said...

Awww. I hope "Travis" grew up to be more like the person he was in that moment.

Jemi Fraser said...

So many of our tough kids hide their gooey centers behind those tough shells! Glad you were able to reach beyond it! :)

Laurel Garver said...

I think it's a fascinating phenomenon. Your story reminds me of a similarly misbehaving boy at a summer camp where I was a counselor. One of my co-workers figured out this kid was mostly wanting attention, and believed the only way to get it was acting up. So she found ways to praise the small, good things he did and got everyone to ignore him when he was being jerky. Within a day, he morphed into the most fun kid ever who used his humor to build up, was eager to help and was downright cuddly with this counselor who "got" him.

I'd LOVE to see a MG book take on this dynamic in the context of a friendship or mentor relationship.

Kristin Smith said...

What a sweet story! It does sound like the word "wimp" resonated with him in a way nothing had before. What an interesting character arc and great inspiration for a novel! Kids can surprise you...

Thanks for stopping by my blog a while back! Sorry it took so long for me to visit you back! :)

http://swordsandstilettos.blogspot.com

Shelley Sly said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone!

Anne - Reading your comment made me realize: I guess I meant "character arc" instead of "story arc". Oh well.

Romance Reader said...

You did great to reach out to that kid. And brought him out of his shell.

Heather Holden said...

Aw, what a sweet moment you got to witness! I like how you were able to apply it to writing, too. Characters who defy expectations like Travis did are always fun to read about!

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