Sorry I’m running late again. I seem to do that a lot, don’t I...?
I was going to do a whole piece on character building this week (since nobody suggested anything else). But it kind of felt wrong. We talked about characters at the Writers Coffeehouse this month, and we’re going to talk more next month, and I always feel a little odd addressing Coffeehouse topics here on the blog. Especially close to the same time.
Yeah, not everyone here goes to the Coffeehouse, but still... One way or another, it feels kinda cheap. To me, anyway. It’s just how I’m wired. Like I’m re-using material here or there, giving one group minimal effort.
But while I was writing out the character piece, I thought of a new angle I wanted to explore. The more I thought about it, the more I was sure it could be a post all on its own. A new take on character development.
So, here’s an easy question I should be able to answer about any of my characters.
What are they not good at?
Seriously. This shouldn’t be hard. Can I name five or six things my character isn’t good at? No, not ridiculous things like “gene splicing” or “space shuttle repair” or “aboriginal dialects.” Just name a couple basic things your character isn’t good at.
Let me make it personal.
I’m terrible when it comes to pretty much any kind of sports. I don’t know players, teams, leagues, anything. I can name a few New England teams, just because I grew up there, but even then I’d be pretty pathetic.
I wish I was more musical. I love music, but have never been good at music, if that makes sense. Horrible at telling music genres/styles apart, can’t play anything more complicated than a triangle. Hell, in high school I played bass drum in the marching band, and a couple people can vouch for the fact that I screwed that up sometimes.
I’m really bad at taking compliments, on any level. People telling me I have nothing to worry about is pretty much guaranteed to freak me out. I’ve been a full time writer for ten years, my ninth novel is coming out this year (plus the new collection this week) and I still have a ton of career anxiety.
Anyway, I could go on and on, but you get the idea, right? I’m not a perfect person (not by a long shot). Most people aren’t.
And, if I’m doing it right, my characters are people too. So there should be things they’re not good at. They should have bad habits that cause problems. There should be fields of interest they know nothing about. Blind spots to political/cultural ideas. Phobias that mess them up. You’ve probably heard of these referred to as character flaws. It doesn’t mean there’s anything blatantly wrong with the character. It just means they’re... well, human.
If I’m doing this writing thing really well, these areas where my characters have problems are going to cause specific issues in this story. Maybe even a few plot points will hinge on them. And my characters are going to have to learn and grow and change to get past these problems. They’ll have to make an effort to overcome fears, work past prejudices, and maybe figure out new ways of doing things.
That’s a good thing. It’s called a character arc. You’ve probably heard of those, too.
Now, let me address a couple of quick points, if I may...
There are those folks who believe, well, more is better. Their characters don’t have a flaw, they have flaws. And they don’t really have flaws, they have faults. And I use “faults” in the geologic, California-drops-into-the-Pacific sense. Yawning, bottomless chasms. Each character generally has six or seven of these. Maybe a baker’s dozen. These people don’t just have feet of clay. They have feet, ankles, calves, knees, thighs. hips, groins, and lower abs all made of wet, soft clay.
Yes, groins. There’s no way someone this screwed up doesn’t have a ton of sexual issues. That’ll come up, too. Or... maybe it won’t. One out of five...
Again, this isn’t unrealistic. I’m willing to bet most of us have known one or two really messed up, annoying people in our lives. I’ve known a couple.
As I’ve often said, though—reality isn’t our goal as fiction writers. Think of that messed up person from your own life. How much time did you really want to spend with them? Would you want to read a short story about them? A whole novel? Sit through a two hour movie?
Y’see, Timmy, there’s nothing wrong with an overly-flawed character, but I need to balance that with the realization that my readers need a reason to like this person. A reason to keep reading. It doesn’t matter how beautiful or artistic my prose is, the majority of people aren’t going to want to read about an awful character who’s a failure on every possible level.
If someone’s going to have serious flaws, they need some serious strengths, too, to counterbalance them. A grocery clerk who gets blackout drunk every weekend to forget her past isn’t that interesting, but a popular billionaire philanthropist who gets blackout drunk every weekend to forget her past... well, that probably got you thinking of story ideas right there, didn’t it?
Also, to got to the other extreme, nobody likes the flawless character. Seriously. I’ve talked before about some of the problems with characters who are never caught off guard or never get scared. What’s the challenge going to be for someone like that? If Dot is always ready, always prepared, always calm, and always wins (of course she always wins—how could she lose?)... well, that’s going to get boring really quick. And unbelievable. When somebody’s ready for absolutely every contingency—especially when there’s no real reason for them to be—it just gets ridiculous. Plus, there’s no space for character growth. If I’m already at ten in all categories... what kind of arc can I have? Where can I go?
There’s a wonderful line in the first Hellboy movie—“We like people for their qualities, but we love them for their defects.” I think that’s extremely true of fictional characters. The more well-rounded they are—with strengths and weaknesses—the more we’ll be able to identify with them. And care about them. And want to read the next book about them.
Which is what we all really want to happen.
Okay, look, I’ll be honest. Next week’s my birthday. There’s a good chance I’ll be drunk the entire day. Possibly the night before, too.
But... if I manage to be sober somewhere in there, maybe I’ll talk a bit about shutting up.
Until then... go write.