Saturday, August 13, 2011

Who's more flawed, the character or the author?

I’ve discovered several character issues in what I’ve been reading lately so I felt compelled to blog about it. Characters are what make a story so if you screw that up, well, you’re in beeeg trouble. In my opinion, anyway.

A lot of writers either prewrite or conduct character interviews in order to get to know their characters better. That’s an awesome start. You hear about writers saying how it feels like their characters are real people, or their characters talk to them. Though my characters don’t talk to me as in voices inside my head, I do dream about them sometimes, which I think is my subconscious way of solving plot problems that may arise during the course of writing a book.

Because characters are so vitally important to the success of a good story, I thought it worth mentioning a few of the mistakes I’ve encountered lately in what I’ve been reading.

Disclaimer: The actual material I read is revised for the purpose of these examples so as not to offend the authors.

Contradictory behavior

In the first chapter the main character describes herself as she imagines the man she just met is seeing her. The description is bogged down with her extraordinary beauty, fabulous fashion sense, amazing charisma, mind-blowing sexuality… You get the picture. Aside from it being heavy on the Mary Sue, it’s unlikely she’s going to know how a man she just met perceives her unless he tells her. Or shows her.

So that’s how it starts. The contradiction comes a chapter later when this character is brooding over her double shots of scotch in a crappy bar, reflecting on what a horrible person she is. No reason is given for the sudden low self-esteem, so I guess it’s a mystery we’re supposed to figure out later in the story. Maybe the author’s critique group said the main character needs to be more vulnerable, who knows. Point is, this self-deprecation could work if it matched the overblown high opinion of herself expressed earlier. Even so, no reader likes to be told about a character’s attributes or flaws. We prefer to observe and interpret it for ourselves.

The uncharacteristic character

A character is introduced as a rebellious teen with multiple piercings, rooster style Mohawk, spiked boots and a switchblade in his holey jeans pocket. He’s young and riddled with angst. We know him; he’s the next door neighbor’s kid or Uncle Mike’s foster son who stomped out a cigarette on our living room carpet at last week’s family dinner party. Get the picture?

He chooses the day’s wardrobe from the bottom of the dirty laundry hamper. Of course, we’d expect him to do that. He leaves the house through his bedroom window. Not a tony kind of guy. Satisfied with our rugged bad boy, we read on. Our rough and tumble teen describes a man on the street in terms of his Miuccia Prada double breasted overcoat, knife-creased Gucci trousers and Fashion Flat Cow Leather Lace Up High Mens Boots. As a reader I’m going WTF?

It’s not that he notices the man is well-dressed, it’s how he describes the clothing by brand name and style. That’s not our angsty kid talking, it’s the author, and we’ve just been yanked from the magic of the story because the character is now out of character.

Unmotivated motivation

Every character has a goal and a purpose, even the bad guys. Say you have a nefarious group of magicians who worship the great god Bumble. Everything they do is in his name. They gather disciples and convince them to worship Bumble. These evil doers are menacing and cruel, and make our hero’s life miserable. They want to sacrifice our hero to Bumble. It’s scary and exciting and… confusing. Because we don’t know why. Who the hell is Bumble and what does he want with our hero? What do the magicians get as reward for their devotion? If the author doesn’t clue us in on these reasons, we’re not going to care much about the outcome. Too many whys result in a book getting slammed shut.

Are you finding character mistakes in what you’re reading these days?


Melissa Jarvis said...

I think it's the author who's flawed. We sometimes forget what attributes we've given to a character. We also tend to insert a bit of ourselves into our heroes and heroines, and the problems we have may not fit them. I think a great example is Laurell Hamilton's Anita Blake series--where Anita started out with a very definite sense of what lines she would not cross sexually (ie she was very rigid) and now has sex with just about every character in the books. The explanation for her change in behavior was blamed on something called the "ardeur" that just popped up in one of the books one day.

Karen Duvall said...

I agree, Melissa. Of course we "want" flawed characters because that's one of the fun things about reading fiction. Imperfect characters are interesting. But they still need believability and consistency.

I used to love the LKH books. All the up until the 9th one when it started to get a bit squicky. Plot seemed to have been thrown out the window in favor of exploiting Anita's sexual antics. The had a major yawn factor, at least for me. But such a huge change in a major character didn't make the character better. It wasn't growth, which is what we like to see in series characters. It was done for the soul purpose of titillating readers (fail) and didn't benefit the series one bit, in my opinion at least.

Mike Ruchhoeft said...

Flawed author who is inserting a bit of herself into a character who has gone sex crazy? :) Hmmm. I don't know if I want Melissa reading my stuff. Well, okay, what the hell, probably there is some of me in many of my characters.

I think you can get away with having your character do the unexpected if you justify with internals. I haven't read any Anita stuff but if you give me a reason for the change, I'll go along.

As far as the contradictory behavior in the first example, I have a character who is always going back and forth on a variety of things. People love her/people hat her. She loves him/she hates him. He loves her/ he's trying to kill her. Etc. I did that to show she's unstable (nuckin futs).
Could the author have been trying something similar?

Good post.

Karen Duvall said...

It's possible the author could have been trying to show instability, but based on the rest of the narrative, i doubt that was the case. I know the author wanted to show another side to her character, but it didn't work because there was nothing from the character to support her change in attitude. It was like a light switch had been flipped. And being that this was on page 10 or so of the book, we don't know the character well enough to find this sudden switch believable.