Character Complexity through Cognitive Dissonance Theory (P2)

Continued from Part 1

We can simplify some ideas about our characters in simple descriptions by breaking down the ideas into the congitions and the characters’ ‘adjustments.’ This will allow us to explore the motivations of the characters more directly. Here are a few examples:

A] The obese man at the concession stand that orders the large popcorn with extra butter and the extra large Diet Coke.

B] The woman that dances on the speaker in the club an hour before last call.

C] The cage fighter that is overly concerned with his or her appearance.

These could all be beginning points in a character description or profile, but by digging a little deeper with CDT, we can flesh out the characters even more.

Character A: Alphonse

Is dangerously overweight

Loves to eat at the movie theater

Buys a Diet Coke (that is still massive)

What we have here is a character who gives in to impulse and then attempts to deal after the giving in has already happened. By looking at why these choices may have been made and how the beliefs interact with each other, we have now opened up an understanding of how the character may deal with other situations.

Recognizing cognitions can help us flesh out even secondary characters, but it can also help greatly in developing worlds and plots that are driven by the characters’ complexity. By adding complications that upset the balance or application of the dissonance, we can not only create believable reactions to speculative situations, we can also create the potential for believable character arcs.

As an example, knowing what we know about Alphonse will help believability when Dark Sun Industries advertises a new supplement that you eat with your food that will allow you to eat anything but still generate profound weight loss.

We can add a complication to flesh out the character and plot even more…

Alphonse’s excitement over the proposition makes him believably unaware of the shadiness of an institution named ‘Dark Sun.’ We could even have another character point this out while also recognizing other parts of the situation that are sketchy.

We can show how Alphonse’s dissonance allows him to be targeted (we can have some sort of other commendable quality that allows their drug to work on him that along with his dissonance makes him an ideal target for their ultimate ‘study’.

The complication can come into play as Alphonse continues to eat more and more but becomes stronger and stronger. As his normal fare begins to lose its taste, Alphonse begins to seek out more an more exotic foods until he realizes he has acquired a taste for human blood. If we detail these changes throughout the story, we as readers can be carried through the process by which a human being we sympathize with turns into a bloodthirsty vampire.

If we have a newfound popularity and success come with Alphonse’s transformation, we can also create a situation where he has to show the restraint he does not show at the concessions stand and to give up some of the excesses to protect humanity, perhaps realizing his own natural charisma (which we could show instances of in the beginning)  is what made him a target in the first place. Of course, individual nuances can and should be added to the story, but just a simple treatment of observable human nature can help our speculative world feel real.

Character B: Jada

The woman wants attention.

The woman does not want to deal with direct personal interaction because it makes her anxious.

The woman stands on the speaker where she can be seen but not touched.

We have here a character who is at least marginally active in some outwardly perceptible way, but also avoids conflict. You also have a person who may have experienced some social trauma but still wants to dance and to be seen dancing (you can dance in VIP or the bathroom and not be touched, and you can still be approached on the speaker–the only place to be guaranteed both would be to stay at home–and yet she didn’t, so there is potential motivation or background)

Jada is approached by a mysterious woman in an elaborate outfit who has everyone’s attention but ignores their admiration and advances. She offers Jada a totem that gives her control over others…

We can add a complication here.

The people Jada controls are able to hear her thoughts. She could begin by using her new abilities to get some things and attention she felt she could not get in the past, even attention she may have been unjustly denied, and may ultimately find that the real trick of the powers relies on the revelation of her thoughts to others more so than the totem itself. She could find that the totem really only masked her ability to hide her desires and intentions, and in actuality, caused her to open up to people without realizing it. Perhaps she already possessed the ability to get what she wanted, but she needed to trust her own skills and charisma enough to open up to people.

There are a great many places this narrative can go, but we now have a very human drive behind our speculation. If we continue to look into the nuances that the interaction between Jada’s cognitions can provide, we can continue to present her with choices to make in dealing with them, and we can ultimately develop her arc in a way that does not seemed contrived.

Character C: Dario/ Kruella

This character to some may make sense and to others may seem like an obvious contradiction, although it takes a bit of study to see the dissonance in the cognitions.

The fighter is concerned with his or her appearance.

It is virtually impossible to fight at a highly competitive level and never receive cuts and bruises–especially on the face.

Dario might go into an inhuman rage when his or her face is touched, and rarely takes damage to his face but never shows bare skin on his legs or arms.

Kruella, however, is able to instantly gain the respect of her male peers with her cauliflower ear and bruises and has, over time, adjusted to her battle scars as a representation of her status in her dojo, where she spends most of her time outside of work in. She wears her hair over her ear, keeps bangs over her eyes, and uses makeup in her work setting, but does not dodge the damage as much as Dario as it also helps her stay mentally separated from what she calls the ‘sheep’ in her workplace.

Dario could be captured by aliens and use his fighting skills to escape…

Add complication.

The aliens are able to sense fear, and they realize Dario’s face is his weakness. Dario is enraged, but his fears eventually get the best of him. He hides and finds a space helmet where he still benefits from his rage, but is no longer taking damage. We can later provide an opportunity for growth when Dario has to take off his helmet to fight, realizing his vanity actually makes him weaker, and he realizes that protecting others is more important that surface appearance. We can even have a permanent scar remind him of his sacrifice in a way that is edifying and representative of his arc.

Kruella could be in a situation where terrorists take over her office, and is forced to protect her coworkers with her fighting ability.

Add complication.

Kruella is trapped with coworkers that are much less physical, but she finds she needs their skills in conjunction with hers to help her out of the situation. While working out of the situation, one of the other workers who she admires for his or her position admits that they have always seen her in a way she did not recognize about herself–and was threatened by her. This does not have to be a romantic situation. There could be a part of her resilience or toughness that was maybe threatening to a manager, and the manager realizes there is no need to continue to try to control her by working with her and watching her true strength in action. This does not need to be a major arc, but it can be used to show believable humanity between characters.

Even in otherwise sublime situations, we can use CDT to help organize depth beneath these characters’ actions. Spending a bit of time thinking about how these elements work together can help create multidimensional characters that react to our speculative worlds in a way that feels real.

Ultimately, although it may seem like a complicated idea at first, CDT can be a good way for helping worldbuilder in any genre map out characters. This can be particularly useful in rendering the reactions of characters in speculative fiction and fantasy, where some of the environmental stimuli lie outside of our normal range of experience.

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