A perfect character?
Have you ever read a story and something just seems, a bit off? There is a decent story line, snappy dialogue and perfect characters. Ah, there’s the rub – perfection.
No one is perfect. Ever. Not even a Disney character. I mean think about it. Prince What’s-His-Face, is riding around in the forest and happens upon a dead girl. What’s the first thing he does? Call ye old 911? No, our perfect prince proclaims the dead girl the most beautiful thing he’s even seen and makes out with her. First, Prince, dude, you gotta get out more. And second, Necrophilia is never an option.
When I’m writing a story with an all too perfect character, my mind wanders. When that happens, I catch a whiff of ozone and the voices begin.
Voice: Hello Clarice. Is that you Agent Starling?
Me: No, it’s not Clarice. It’s me.
Voice: Oh, damn. I was looking forward to an intelligent discussion. What is that you’re scribbling there? It’s dreadfully boring. Wad it up and sauté it with some fava beans and a nice chianti.
Me: I’m writing about my main character. You know, the whole hero’s journey bit. I need to make him likable. That’s what everyone says.
Voice: It’s all so vanilla. You need to forget about likable and make the character more appealing, like me. Opinions seem to vary on that count. I’m not widely “liked” but, I do get the reader’s attention.
Me: My main character isn’t a psychopathic serial killer.
Voice: That was a bit harsh.
Me: It’s not the same. My character is a good guy, the one everybody turns to when the shit hits the fan.
Voice: Well, there is shit here all right and it’s on that page. Even fairy tales had more depth. Take the Old Lady Who Lived in a Shoe. She starved and beat her kids. This isn’t a popularity contest. You’ve heard the bit about a flawed character, right?
Me: Flawed character? But, my character is the good guy.
Voice: You have to show the flaws and fears, along with his positive attributes, just like real people. Everyone has secrets, shortcomings and fears. Oh, I especially like the fears. I can do so much with a person’s fear.
Me: So, it’s like Clarice and her fear of the dark, her father’s murder and witnessing the slaughter of the lambs?
Voice: All those things are part of her, motivate her and make her someone we want to follow. Without them, no one would care, other than she had a pleasant smell about her.
Me: So, this is less about liking the character and their hero’s journey, than it is how their flaws, fears and experiences influence their reaction to the obstacles in the story.
Voice: Now, you’re getting to it. It’s more about the change we see in the character when they encounter these challenges. Remember, typhoid and swans, they all come from the same place.
Me: Same place? My characters aren’t all the same?
Voice: Oh God, you make me very hungry at times. Simpleton. Think about it in terms of dark and light. The characters move along a spectrum, degrees of illumination. Degrees of insight to the character’s innermost fears, failures and betrayal on one end with hopes, dreams and unicorn whispers on the other end of the scale. Move that character a bit toward the darker elements and you have an interesting character, one that will keep me interested in how the story plays out.
Me: I get it. That will mean some revisions on the current manuscript. But…
Voice: Don’t make me angry. I have no plans to call on you, writer. The world being more interesting with you in it. But tell me when the lambs stop screaming, will you?
I’m suddenly hungry, but I’d best get on with these revisions and make my characters a bit more fraught with fears and misgiving.
What about you? Having issues with a flat character? How did you get to the bone of what makes your character tick?