I grew up skiing at a small mountain in upstate New York called Greek Peak. While it might seem antiquated today, they had what – at the time – was a really amazing technology. A skier stopped at a gate, waited for a green light, and then skied a short distance down to a hut. At the hut, an instructor had been recording your skiing and, as they played the video back to you, the instructor gave you advice on how to improve. I vividly remember the instructor telling me not to flail my arms. Instead, I should hold them like I’m holding a lunch tray. “Yeah but I don’t ski like that,” I thought to myself. “That would look ridiculous, and I don’t look ridiculous.” Then, the instructor hit play. The video proved I was not as self-aware as I thought.
Writing is no different. Characters in your stories can never be fully self-aware. Maybe they gain self-awareness at the end of the book, but any character that knows himself fully isn’t particularly interesting – exactly because no human knows himself fully.
Too often as an editor, I see writers craft a scene or dialogue around character that knows exactly what she wants, exactly how to get it, speaks exactly what she feels, and is never wrong. Or, oppositely, the character has everything he needs to succeed and still somehow doesn’t. We humans are just as unaware of our strengths as we are of our weaknesses. So, to write human characters, remove their self-awareness. Just not all of it.
Bifurcate your characters. Have your characters go after what they want (after all, if there are no desire-based actions, you don’t have much of a story), but also have them unaware of the thing holding them back (maybe the audience knows, and eventually the character will learn what’s holding him back, but not until the end). Make your ambitious businesswoman keen and intelligent, but unaware that her focus on that promotion has caused her to ignore good advice. Make your handsome hunk hit a homerun but unaware that no one is high-fiving him in the dugout. Make your standup comedian kill on stage but unaware that his dinner guests are insulted by his conversational jokes.
Example: There’s a small scene in HBO’s show Barry in which a talent agent has just taken a big risk on the main character by booking a big theater for her show. The talent agent is – unknown to herself – incredibly nervous (if the show tanks, so does the agent’s reputation). So, while the agent is saying really positive “Break a Leg” comments, she’s slowly and purposefully (though subconsciously) tearing up a piece of paper in her trembling hands. It’s a small nuanced action – as a viewer, you might not even be aware that you’re aware of it. If this agent was only saying positive things, she’d come across as a flat Pollyanna. If she was only saying negative things, she’d come across as a flat Negative Nancy. It’s exactly because she’s bifurcated and unaware that she becomes interesting. Instead of seeing a character with a cliched mindset, the audience sees a character struggling despite herself.
Warning: don’t invert this idea. Don’t make characters completely unaware. They should not be like Mr. Magoo, merely strolling through plot to somehow end in success. The idea that a character wants to do something, doesn’t know how, yet still succeeds the first time – that’s boring. The idea that she doesn’t know what to do, so she tries and fails and tries and fails and grows stronger and more capable in each failure -- that's interesting. The idea that an anxious character overcomes his anxiety to achieve great things is interesting. The idea that a character is anxious despite not having anything major at stake is just plain boring. Characters must be aware of themselves and unaware of themselves... just disproportionately.
Additionally (and detailed in this article about dialogue), don’t have your characters speak their feelings aloud. Instead of saying, “I am so angry at you,” consider what they would say or do because they’re angry. Have characters speak the result of their feelings instead of the self-aware declaration of the feeling itself.
Example: The TV show Modern Family uses this structure with the spouses Mitch and Cam. In each episode, Mitch and Cam feel oppositely about a situation and, lacking self-awareness, they hide their emotions or reactions. Yet, by the end of every episode, their healthy marriage is restored because each has learned an element of self and speaks exactly what he’s feeling outwardly and openly. Self-awareness kills conflict, so only bring it in after the struggle, after the lessons have been learned.
More than improving my skiing, the video and the instructor helped me become more self-aware. Self-awareness is an end result. A new self-revelation is a great denouement. But until the character has struggled and been, figuratively or literally, shown his faults on video, let the self-awareness dwindle to build the conflict.