The Bad Side

It’s easy to want to make your central characters the “good guys”, and therefore nice people; even if they aren’t perfect, per se, they can end up with nothing particularly “wrong” with them, no real flaws, just sort of humdrum, plain-vanilla people.  They’re okay.  They’re not offensive.  They seem like they’d be all right to have dinner with sometime, but you wouldn’t go out of your way to find out more about them.

Wait, these are your characters.  You need people to give a damn.  You need people to want to dig around in these people’s trash cans and browser histories, spy on them when they don’t know anyone’s looking, and draw them out so they’ll tell us crazy stories about their lives.  Let them be offensive sometimes, make the wrong decision, take the wrong side, make mistakes, act inappropriately defensive, and use messy logic to justify behavior that isn’t really justifiable or logical.

It can be tricky to balance flaws so that they don’t make readers dislike a character, but I’ve found that most of the time what carries the characters I like in spite of their bad sides is just that they are all-around strong personalities.  It’s pretty simple.  A little boldness, determination, or pluck in the face of hard times will make up for a fair bit of bad behavior.  Inner conflict and self-awareness will counter a few bad decisions or ill-chosen reactions.

The hard part, sometimes, is coming up with what flaws you want your character to have.  You don’t want to just tack them on like it’s Pin the Tail on the Donkey, either…they have to feel like they fit the character, like they stem from somewhere in their past or the side of themselves they keep hidden.  Anyway, here are some ways to choose flaws for your characters:

  • Take any of your character’s “good” traits and turn it into a flaw.  I’ve written entries about this before on this blog.  Make determination turn into stubbornness sometimes, or edge heroic deeds with a little narcissistic tendency.  Make a good sense of humor into a defense mechanism or courage into simply not thinking through consequences before acting.
  • You know those zodiac descriptions listing what your birth sign is supposed to mean about you?  Well, a lot of it is an ego-stroke about how cool you are if you’re this-or-that sign, but they do list negative traits, too.  Read for the bad stuff, and come up with a few things that fit for your character.
  • Plan ahead.  What character flaws would benefit the story?  If your protagonist is too cocky and makes mistakes early on, will that be a great way to land her in the bad circumstances you’ve got lined up for the middle of the book?  Great.  Make her cocky.  Think about why people do dumb stuff, make choices that are obviously not good for them, etc.  Some inner issue that person hasn’t overcome is often a contributing factor.
  • Balance characters against those closest to them.  You have a solid idea what one guy is like, what his hang-ups are, etc., but you’re not sure about his brother, who is another central character.  In the case of brothers, you’ve got a long history between them and the same household circumstances and family history growing up.  That’s a heck of a place to start from.  If one brother dealt with the family one way, how would that affect the other brother?  And if one brother has a particular strength, can that be an area of weakness for the other?  How do they compensate for one another, where do they clash, etc.?
  • Dialogue.  How does your character interact with other characters?  Is he funny?  Cutting?  Brusque?  Does he interrupt?  Does she take the lead in conversation?  Listen more than she talks?  This is what your character is putting out into the world of your story, how he or she is affecting the folks around him/her.  Pay attention.  What is your character giving away about the not-so-nice side of his personality?
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Monstrous Considerations

Yes, I forgot to post on Monday.  Entirely forgot to post!!  It was my birthday, is my excuse.  But!  I did get inspiration for a post on Monday night and then was very confused when it was Tuesday the next day and I realized I had missed the correct posting day.

I’m generally behind the curve on movies, and the new King Kong directed by Peter Jackson is no exception – I saw it for the first time on Monday.  While I have a rather mixed-opinion Official View about the movie as a whole, when it came to Kong himself, I was wholeheartedly thrilled.  Five years old again and King Kong is my hero, the best thing in the world, a miracle on screen.  As a kid, I would likely have taken a bullet to save Kong (in spite of the fact that such a sacrifice would probably not have helped the situation) if that gives you any idea how firmly rooted in my childhood psyche the gigantic gorilla really was.

I’m a sucker for monster movies in general, especially the old ones, and the “monsters” like Kong – who simply are what they are, doing what they do naturally, pure, natural, intelligent, and destroyed essentially because of their inconvenience to humans (because they don’t fit into our world) – are the ones I fall the hardest for.  There’s an innocence to such monster archetypes, an incomprehension in the face of betrayal and manipulation and dishonesty, that makes us pull for them.  Particularly in the case of King Kong, since it wasn’t even his fault he ended up in New York.  He was minding his own business, being awesome and fighting dinosaurs, until the stupid Americans showed up and decided to make money off him.

Anyway, the point for writers here is a lesson in sympathy and vulnerability.  Godzilla, King Kong, Frankenstein’s monster…they’re all big (Frankenstein’s monster far less so than the first two, but he’s really just a smaller scale of the same archetype), powerful, capable of sweeping destruction, have bad tempers, and aren’t easy to take down.  You’d think that would add up to their being the “bad guy”, but viewers pull for them instead.  There’s something about the fact that anything so big and strong can still be hurt, can still be betrayed, can still die, and not even comprehend why everyone is out to destroy them, that makes them lovable (or at least sympathetic).  In King Kong’s case and in Frankenstein’s monster’s case in particular, it’s heart wrenching to see them taken down, confused and angry, because they had bonded with humans, had shown intelligence and the capability to reason and love and appreciate the world around them.

Maybe you don’t write in a genre where monsters are a feasible character type, but any of this can be applied just as easily to a regular ol’ human character – if someone has a lot of power, whether it’s physical strength or political clout, people will inevitably want to cut them down to size, and if your strong character isn’t pure evil (which would be lazy writing) that will garner them some sympathy, even if (and maybe more so because) they make mistakes.  A character with a terrible temper can be tragic in their ability to strike fear into people they don’t want to drive away.  Unquestioning and misplaced trust or innocence of deception can make for an extra-poignant vulnerability in an otherwise intense, dominant character you’d never expect to get hurt.

And I would still be King Kong’s real friend, because he deserves one.

Pet Peeve: Your Shiny Little Self

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.