Great characters: Perfecting imperfection

In Writing on April 25, 2012 at 2:28 pm

In yesterday’s post, I talked about how you should be willing to put your characters through Hell – to punish them, hurt them, and generally make them wish they were dead (or, in some cases, just actually make them dead). This is important even for your best characters, your favorite characters and your most likeable characters.

But what does ‘likeable’ mean here? In everyday life, ‘likeable’ is more or less synonymous with ‘nice.’ Someone who is likeable is someone who does nice things, who says nice things and thinks nice thoughts. The best characters, though, are generally not entirely likeable in this sense. If yesterday’s post was about killing your darlings, today’s post is about making them deserve it just a bit.

It’s easy, when crafting your main character, to make him or her a model citizen. Bad things happen around your character and to your character, but you want your character to be a force for good, a crusader against whatever malevolent forces are at work in your story. I do this all the time, in first drafts especially (after all, this character is my hero!), and invariably I end up with a character who is nice, and likeable – a character who consistently does the right thing – but one who, frankly, isn’t very interesting.

It’s important, therefore, to fight this impulse, to not always have your character do what you would do (assuming you’re a nice person) – or even what your reader would want them to do. That last part is key. Even if your character is someone whom your reader respects or roots for or likes in general, it’s important that they sometimes do things your reader doesn’t quite approve of and (if their thoughts are written out) thinks things your reader doesn’t quite approve of either. It may have worked for Dickens, but not every character can be as innocent as Oliver Twist (and almost no main characters should be).

Some of this can be taken care of by giving your character one or more obvious flaws (maybe they’re selfish, or short-sighted; maybe they secretly hate elephants). If this flaw ends up being a fatal flaw, well, so much the better (again, see yesterday’s post). But I find that flaws still don’t quite do the whole job.

Svenska: Illustration på sida 5 ur boken Olive...

Oliver Twist. To the best of my knowledge, he never did heroin and rarely visited prostitutes.

The key, for me anyway, is to give a character some sort of internal contradiction, something that is logically inconsistent but, psychologically anyway, still makes sense to the outside observer (your reader). Your character could be a control freak who has a deep desire to be controlled; they could be a murderer who hates the sight of blood; they could be a straight-A student who can’t help but skip class to shoot heroin with prostitutes. You get the idea, and really the options are endless, but the point is that these characters don’t always do what is right and they don’t, for that matter, even always do what’s logical. They are complex and dynamic and – wouldn’t you just know it? – interesting too.

So, put your characters through hell. Put them under immense pressure and give them important decisions to make. Then, let them sometimes make the wrong one. They can still be likeable, but only in very, very, very rare occasions should they be anything approaching perfect.

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What do you think? How do you make your characters more complex and dynamic?

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