Saturday, November 29, 2008

Rough those Characters Up

There is a tendency, particularly when we 'role-play' our characters we are writing, at a site like Pan Historia to make them a little too good, too bad, or too beautiful. This is perfectly natural, and I cannot make a good argument against it if you're just writing to have fun imagining yourself as your perfect creation. I totally believe in the magic of the imagination. If, however, you are interested in creating characters that fascinate your readers more than yourself you have to let go of some of that perfection. I don't even think the Great Divine All That Is loves perfection because it so seldom, if ever, exists in creation - so if you're writing even a teensy bit for your audience you need to spice it up a bit and use all the paints on the palette (mangling metaphors is my specialty).

Of course if your character is an evil Prince of the Unseelie Court, one of the immortal Elves (in the Tolkien and historical sense, not the Pixie sense, thanks Skyclad - see previous posting and comments), you can get away with a lot more perfection. First of all we love to root for that sexy alluring villain who just seems to have it all, including absolutely no moral barometer at all, because he's very much a fantasy figure for most of us, and we know he gets what he deserves in the end. "Oh if only I could get away with that behavior and be that sexy…" or my favorite Black Widow Spider syndrome: "I could bed him/her but would I be able to get out of bed before she/he bites my head off?" This will not do, on the other hand, for the hero.

Fine, make your hero handsome, but there has to be some character flaws there and their path to victory must never be simple or easy. In other words you have to let that sexy villain have their way with them for a while. Or don't make your hero handsome - he could be a shy slightly over-weight computer programmer that suddenly finds himself in post-apocalyptic Nevada with a girl to protect and an over the top gung-ho Rambo type with a chip on his shoulder as fellow survivor. It's the flaws that make the hero riveting. The hero of my supernatural novel starts out as a cynic, a lost his belief romantic, and a slob. He will have to be slapped around a lot to even understand that he has to BE the hero. Your hero can be fooled, duped, or even lied to. It's ok, he's only human (unless he's not). Your heroine might not have the biggest breasts on the block and she might have to wear glasses to read. She may not know all the ninja arts and also look great in 4 inch heels.

Another thing to remember about real people is that not everyone likes them. Remember to let your writing partners view your character through their character's eyes. In collaborative fiction writing we have a tendency to want to make sure that the other person writes our character 'right'. That's fine - it's important to make sure your character is not acting out of character - but it should not extend to how the other characters view your character. It's ok to be misinterpreted, misconstrued, or even just disliked. That creates tension in the storyline and drama to the plot. Non-player characters are great for giving another point of view on your character so don't forget to use them liberally. I particularly like to portray my character's appearance and demeanor through alternating POVs rather than doing a lot of description from my character's story posts.

Anyone have good tips on making your character more real?


Bayley said...

Very very good post. One of the things that made writing Bayley at for me was that I wanted her to be flawed. Very flawed. Because people are incredibly rarely perfect, and those we think are, we probably simply don't know well enough to discover what troubles lie hidden.

One of my goals in writing was to manufacture a story that was believable, yet fun, and the believability part really depended on a character that could be easily identified with by many, or at least, accepted as a person you think probably could exist in your town, or even on your street. Once you have done that, you can write a lot and still have readers accept it. The trick at that point is to stay believable, but be interesting. It's what makes contemporary writing (as opposed to fantasy, for instance) really challenging.

Pan Historia said...

Right... it's the flaws of a character we truly identify with, not their perfections. For a character to speak to you and really feel like someone you might or could know they need to be vulnerable, sometimes ridiculous or sad, like when I made Nick have a tumble in the john when he was scared by a ghost.

But fantasy has to have some of the same elements of the real and mundane for it to truly sing and be a enthralling read.

Joielle said...

I totally agree; I have found that to really make my characters more interesting, I've got to find some imperfection, some flaw that will make them more interesting to the reader. My problem, more so in the past, I think, than now, is that I wanted them to be perfect starting out, but how boring, how mundane. that was for the reader as well as for me, the writer. Where was the challenge, where was the joy in seeing them grow? Where are those characters going to go, and how are they going to grow if there are no flaws. One of the things I've always hated about some characters, (not mine, of course) that they simply stayed the same and were the same at the end of the novel as at the beginning, making me wonder why did I ever bother finish that novel.

Kemsit at Panhistoria said...

Love your title. I'm the queen of roughing up my characters you just have to check out kemsit sometime or even kemmiew. i love realistic characters with lots of quirks and flaws and i love working with heroines or rather not so heroic lady characters from history because of the challenging historical restrictions on their actions that can cause them to act in very devious fashions to get their way.