It’s a pet peeve of mine when a character is clearly just a vessel for the author’s little fantasy of themselves and their life – as they wish they looked, acted, felt, lived, etc. If you want to have an alternate reality life of yourself, then go play The Sims 3, do your best to make the Sims in your household look like you and Johnny Depp or Catherine Zeta Jones (depending on your gender preference and all), and give those little folks some fantastic goals and life fulfillment.
Please do not write a polished-up version of how you wish you looked, fawning over the waves of scarlet tresses that your spunky little self is always fighting not to make frizzy (thus making you super-cute to the hunky guy), or, if you’re a male writer, fawning over the badassery of your jawline or the sharp looks of your suit and sunglass combination. Don’t give me a protagonist full of your own best qualities, who always does the “cool” thing, if not the right thing, and always makes the predictable, plain-vanilla, obvious decision at every turn. Don’t give me a protagonist with all the bad bits cut off, because you’re more interested in “playing pretend” than writing good fiction.
Good fiction requires ugliness. Ugly truths, flaws, mistakes, accidents, injuries, pain, suffering, and existential crisis. The dark pit full of stuff we don’t like to face – about ourselves, about other people, about life. Not that it’s all bad. It’s just that, to make characters real, they must have an awareness of the ugly stuff, even if they glaze over it, even if they deal with it well, even if they deny it so well you’d never know (if you met them in real life) that they felt anything that wasn’t superficial. Why? Because real people are aware of these things. The constant struggle to meet all of your needs, to maintain a tolerable (if not healthy) internal life and a tolerable (if not healthy) external life, to present yourself a certain way in public, to hide things you hate about yourself, to have the life you want, to find meaning, to LIVE before you DIE….even people who don’t directly, consciously think through the dilemmas involved in being a mortal creature that’s incessantly struggling to properly identify itself, still feel the effects and, on some level, battle with it every day.
So it’s fine if you want to give me a tough guy narrator that’s the coolest thing you could ever wish to be, as long as you give me some hint that you, the writer, know that there’s a reason he presents himself as a tough guy. That you understand what lies under that surface presentation, that you understand that he, the character, not you, the writer, chose to present himself that way and that he reaps the benefits and suffers the consequences of that self-created image. Or maybe he doesn’t mean to be a tough guy, and others perceive him that way no matter what he does – now that’s interesting, too. How does he feel about that, and does he fight against it, or has he given up trying and just embraced it? Or did he grow into it naturally? This is where your character stops being a stereotype and a wish-fulfillment, and starts to be a real person – when you start running off questions like this in your head and get excited because the answers start to get more and more interesting.
Sometimes I think writers are afraid to let their protagonists be realistically flawed because they’re afraid people will read it and know how deeply flawed the writer himself/herself is. And I’m not saying your protagonist has to be the antichrist. But let’s be honest: we’re all coping with life as best we can, and none of us do it perfectly…and none of us do it without some struggle, even folks who take it lying down and have no ambition or drive. There’s still a struggle there. None of us are perky, spunky, self-assured heroes who just so happen find the perfect mate in the midst of a major catastrophe and live happily ever after.
We’re all screwed up one way or another, and frankly, I find it somewhat reassuring to read about people more messed up than me. Another point: most readers aren’t thinking about how messed up the writer must be (or if they do, it’s with a certain admiration) – they’re too busy looking for themselves in the characters. Don’t ever assume, dear writer, that, to your readers, your book is anything to do with you. Once it’s published, it’s a game between your readers and your story. You’re not even in the arena anymore.
“Once it’s published, it’s a game between your readers and your story. You’re not even in the arena anymore. ”
Ain’t that the truth? How often have we been talking about a book–sometimes by someone we’ve met–and said, “Why did they have to make THIS happen?” We said the generic “they”, even though we knew it was a he or a she–had shaken hands and spoken with him or her. “They” is the faceless non-person entity behind the STORY.
Great post, as always!