Today, we’re going to take a break from our regularly scheduled blogging programming to discuss some important character traits. There’s a somewhat disturbing trend roaming through YA right now and while this deals mostly with female “action hero” protagonists, it’s affecting the male characters too. We can call it exceptionalism, prodigy, or perfection but there is a pervading trend right now in popular literature that says a hero must be perfect to succeed. We have a steady stream of heroes who make no mistakes, who travel on a simple, single line towards an inevitable destination. Their flaw is that they are without flaw, the mistakes they make are the fault of someone else, and all the choices are easy. I sort of wish that in real life, we fit into such easily identifiable boxes but alas, the world is a bit more confusing than that. Worse, a perfect character is a boring one. A character whose fall is softened, whose antagonists are left on a choke chain, who is perfect, ends up negating tension in their story.
Below are some basic suggestions to keep in mind when crafting your characters. This applies to female action protagonists as well as male ones, but keep in mind that female characters (unfortunately) walk a much tighter line than their male counterparts. For them, you’re fighting an uphill battle against audience expectation.
We’re Only Human:
This one is going to be a bit more general, rather than specifically about fight scenes, but it’s worth talking about: Your character does not need to be perfect. They can be wrong, they can make mistakes, and they can fail. And all of this can make your story stronger. A character with flaws will always be more interesting, to the reader, than one without. So, let’s talk about a few writing flaws, that can massively improve your characters.
The Master or the Apprentice:
Your character doesn’t need to be skilled at everything they want to be, and they certainly don’t need to be the best. Ask yourself, which is more interesting? A character who is trying to earn their place and learn the ropes of a skill, or a master of all they survey. A character who is a master of a skill can be useful if you’re trying to teach the audience about that skill, but in nearly every other situation, you’re going to get a more interesting story if other characters exist who outclass your character.
For instance, Star Wars isn’t interesting because Luke and Vader are on an equal footing. Throughout the original trilogy, Luke is playing catch up to Vader’s skill as a combatant.
Having characters who are flat out more powerful than your protagonist, creates a real threat that the they can be defeated, and for your audience, a real threat to your hero. Who will win? It’s hard to say. And that’s what’s going to keep your audience turning pages.
Beyond Right and Wrong:
Your character can be wrong, make mistakes, and screw up, just like any other person. And, to an extent, this won’t hurt your story. This is a bit trickier, because you can swing too far, have your hero be wrong about everything, and end up with a mess. But, don’t be afraid to let your character make mistakes. Trust people they want to, but shouldn’t. Misunderstand situations they’re not familiar with. Even get manipulated into doing thing things they really shouldn’t.
Bad calls are something everyone has to deal with sooner or later. How your hero deals with them can be far more interesting than a character who never makes mistakes.
What is important is the decisions the character makes have to based on a rational thought process, just one that doesn’t have all the information.
On that subject, your character doesn’t need to know everything. Really, they can’t. When they’re making decisions, ask yourself: what do they know? What do they understand? What do they believe?
When you put this together, you’re character will be constructing their plans, and making their decisions, based on the information they have. This will inevitably lead to mistakes. And, again, that’s a good thing. A character scrambling to adapt to a situation they didn’t anticipate or dealing with information they didn’t even consider is far more interesting than a character who makes a perfect plan and executes it.
The original Star Wars trilogy pulls this over and over, the final acts of both Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi swing on these kinds of situations. (For both the heroes and the villains.)
I’m not saying the villain needs to be your character’s father, but any time you can pull the rug out from under your character like that, especially against expectations, is a wonderful moment.
Another example comes from a game called Arcanum: Through most of the game, the player is told they’re the reincarnation of an Elven Jesus figure, “Nasrudin”. You encounter the religion that sprung up around him, you learn about the religion’s history, all while preparing to deal with the religion’s sealed evil in a can. And then, about 80% of the way through the game, you actually meet Nasrudin, he’s been alive the entire time, in seclusion. The player cannot be his reincarnation, and the entire chosen one construct in the story is a sham. I wouldn’t even remember the story of a game from 12 years ago if it wasn’t an interesting and memorable twist.
As a writer, you can create the truth of your setting and your story, but your characters don’t need to know what that truth is, and they can build their understanding of the world off faulty information.
Loved by Children and Small Animals:
Liking or disliking someone on contact can be a good indicator of potential personality conflicts, but it’s a poor excuse for knowing if someone’s good or evil. The biggest problem is, now you’re telegraphing who will betray your heroes later, or who will betray your villain.
People (and characters) like and dislike one another for any number of reasons, unrelated to plot and faction. You can get much more interesting material by forcing two characters who actively dislike and distrust one another to work together towards a common goal, or by pitting two good friends against one another (without the whole, “you turned to the dark side, the friend I knew is dead,” shtick).
Above all else, it makes your story harder to predict and more interesting. While I’m loathe to recommend most TV writing, FarScape did an excellent job shuffling heroes and villains around and forcing everyone to work together at least once.
Because Losing is Fun:
Finally, it’s okay for your character to lose. Lose a fight, lose an argument. Sometimes this goes back to making mistakes, sometimes it goes back to your character being outclassed. How your character deals with defeat can be far more interesting than having them cruise through every challenge they encounter. Do they sulk? Do they break down? Do they rage? Do they get back up, and throw themselves at it again? Do they go back to the drawing board; look for more allies; look for ways to undermine their foe? Do they even accept it happened? Also, what are the consequences of their defeat? Are they injured? Does it cause their allies to doubt them?
If you’re writing in a serialized format, be that chapters, episodes, or a series, don’t be afraid to end a sequence in utter defeat. Your heroes can rally for the final act, but the idea that your characters can lose will do wonders for showing that your villains are a legitimate threat.
Again with the Star Wars examples, the entire reason that Empire Strikes Back works (and a large part of Return of the Jedi’s ability to work as a story), is because of the defeat that kicks in at the end of ESB. I’m not saying rip off Star Wars, but you can learn a lot about making a compelling story from the original trilogy.
-Starke (just wants you to know; fifteen Bothans died bringing you this article)