Friday, December 2, 2011

You Are Not Special.

CE Jenkins
           Your character is not perfect. If your character is perfect, then we have a problem. Very few people want to read about a half-elf, half alien that can shoot lasers from her nostrils and bitch-slap a t-rex with a shark. Actually, I take it back; I would read the hell out of that book. Rephrase: No one wants to read about a character that is super pretty and super powerful who everybody loves and who never makes a mistake or has any flaws at all. There are a lot of reasons behind this: readers don’t enjoy being nauseated, for one.

            I’m confident that most of us who have ever spent time around other human beings have run into a person kind of like this; they’re peppy, intelligent, kind, beautiful, altogether perfect, and odds are you can’t stand them. They remind us far too much of robots or aliens inhabiting human meatsuits and quietly plotting our demise.

Just sayin'.

 Personally I can’t imagine spending an hour with someone like this, let alone 500+ pages.

            One way to counteract this is to give your character imperfections; I know that’s a pretty shocking statement, so I’ll give you all a minute to pick yourselves up from the floor. Aside from that bit from Sir Patrick O’bvious, it’s also important to be sure the flaws you start slapping down aren’t just good things masquerading as bad. A few examples of this fallacy include a character who is stubborn, read, “he never gives up!” or a character whose acidic temperament results in a bunch of snappy one-liners which the supporting characters take in stride instead of getting irritated or defending themselves like normal people. The key is to make your imperfections actually unlikeable sometimes. For one thing, unlikeable traits don’t necessarily make an unlikeable character, and an unlikeable character isn’t necessarily a bad one. Your audience doesn’t have to want to hang out with the hero on weekends for them to want to read about her. And after all, there are plenty of things that you hate about yourself that don’t necessarily make you a terrible person.            

            So instead of having Billy’s shyness make him cute and relatable, also have it get in the way of his ability to socialize properly like it would for a real person. You say Donna likes to pick fights and is tough and cool as a result? Why not have it give her a bad reputation and get herself and her friends into trouble as well?

            One facet that seems especially fallible is the issue of beauty. When appearance is dragged into things, characters can either end up being one of two things: an airbrushed angel with rippling muscles and an eye color you’d expect to see on the side of a crayola crayon, or kill-it-with-fire ugly to show how they’re going against the status quo. The problem is that your character’s physical description should not revolve on how perdy they look, but on how their appearance reflects on who they are as a person. If you have a good reason for them being so stunningly attractive or repulsive, then go for it. Otherwise, I’d avoid it. It’s easy to fall victim to making your other characters dote on your protagonist’s beauty in a vomit-inducing way, or having your unattractive hero constantly whining about the evils of appearance. Whatever you do, make sure it’s not just for the sake of indulging yourself or your characters.

            Another thing that’s often glazed over is a character’s ability to make mistakes, especially ones with lasting consequences. Maybe it’s just me, but I live in continual fear of the inevitable moment when I do something so incredibly embarrassing that I’ll be forced to live in a secret underground cave for at least three years until I can forget my shame. I have one of these incidents about twice a week. But people in books hardly ever respond to someone who wasn’t talking to them, or writhe in the wasting agony of the awkward silence. They rarely make the kinds of errors that drop a heaping helping of lasting consequences into their laps on a regular basis.

 Yet mistakes are what makes us human, and if you’re sitting there grinning because your protagonist isn’t human to begin with, then congratulations, you won the internet. And yes, that was sarcasm. Every kind of character can benefit from errors of some kind to make them more believable. I mean, think about it; if you were a humble farmhand suddenly chosen to wield the magic sword and de-throne the evil king, you would be lucky to make it a couple weeks without slicing your own toes off or otherwise fucking the whole thing up. Besides, it can be a lot more interesting to read about how characters that done goofed deal with their errors and work to correct them. So in short, characters could stand to make mistakes and then have to deal with the repercussions.

            Lastly, many protagonists end up with some kind of super power or ancient weapon as one of the perks of being a main character. Be careful of this. It’s really easy to overdo it and make your hero a living god with so much power that all the challenges they have to face start to look almost pathetically easy. If there’s one thing I got out of government class is that great power should have checks and balances and something about great responsibility; Social studies wasn’t my number one subject. If your protagonist is immensely powerful, I suggest you have a damn good reason why and make sure that they don’t leave their supporting characters swooning in the dust. Then make your hero suffer for it. Everything has a cost, and the universe is one hell of a collector. Reflect this.  

            If you make your protagonist too perfect, pretty, and powerful, they will probably end up boring to read about and completely unbelievable. Everything needs to balance out in the end; like yin and yang, the cosmic scales, the circle of life; take your pick of metaphors. I'm out. 

Picture Reference