I used to know someone who believed they were much more fit than I was. They believed that without working for it at all they were stronger, faster, more flexible. It was bizarre since I was able to run further, lift more, I stretched every day and was able to throw kicks above my own head (at the time I was doing a lot of Taekwondo) while they couldn’t kick above my shoulder. We were stretching one day and some mutual friends were observing. This person asked who was stretching further. Our friends said it was me, by a very large margin.
I was much, much more fit. Not a little, a huge amount.
This sounds very much like I’m picking on this person, but I’m not. It’s simply one of the best examples of what I want to talk about that I have available to me. I also want to talk about how to make this work in narrative, and how I’ve used it in things I’ve written.
So, I’m completely certain that I also have areas where I’m on the other side of this coin. Where I think I’m brilliant at something, much better than someone else, and I actually suck at it. Of course, I don’t know what these things are, because I’m inside my own head, so I can’t see it. I will never see it because that’s how this works. We are not able to see those things about ourselves. We also all have them, every single person.
In A Long Walk, I have two examples of it that I can think of. One is the villain, and it’s obvious when it happens. It’s near the end, you discover a huge gap between how he sees himself and how he appears to the outside. He’s descended into madness, he’s fallen apart completely and totally, but he still sees himself as he was before the world collapsed; when he was still a person who was together and reasonable. I think people see that in the story and see exactly what’s going on, and it feels real because they all know people like that.
The other time I use it is very subtle. My MC is actually a victim of this mindset. He insists on doing the hunting himself, he insists on taking shots that matter by himself. He’s a really terrible shot. Like, completely atrocious. He’s good at hand to hand, good with a sword, but he thinks that translates into being good with a gun or a bow. It doesn’t, he doesn’t have the time or the practice, and as a result, he blows it every time he tries to use that skill set.
I never actually draw attention to the fact that this is the case in the book, I never state that he has this belief about himself, I just have him be the one to try and take the shot.
To me, that’s a huge part of building character. I don’t mean the old saw about give characters contradictory motivations, that’s very basic and elementary stuff, I mean exploring their self-image and the impact that self-image has on the story. Remember, neither of my two examples above is ever challenged let alone overturned. We, the readers, get to see how wrong it is, but the characters never get to understand it. They are incapable of seeing it, at least where they are in their lives. Maybe over time, Jasper will discover that he’s a crap shot, and then maybe he will put in the time to get better. Robert is far, far too crazy to ever realise where he’s really at of course.