A bunch of stuff has happened in the last eight or so months. Nothing I can (or want to) speak freely about quite yet. But there has been one matter that has been on my mind a lot, and I figure I might as well write it out.
Characters are a fun bunch. Forget the ones that come up randomly and take over our stories (I’m looking at you two, Felix and Kata!). Forget the ones that turn into obstacles to the story you want to tell, derailing it at every junction. I’m talking about the run-of-the-mill MC.
As a writer, I don’t “design” my characters. I let them become who they have to be in the story somewhat organically. Oh, I do begin with developed ideas of who they start out as, but I also welcome the surprises. More importantly, I never begin with a protagonist who HAS to be “relatable.”
- The trend nowadays is to laud protagonists who are easy to “see yourself in.”
- The protagonist has to be compelled: tragedy in his or her past, usually, or at least something that left them uniquely linked to the story problem.
- A character flaw has to render the protagonist helpless (or make him or her at least disadvantaged) against the circumstances of the story problem (a flaw that they, of course, later overcome).
If you are a writer, I can already hear you agreeing. But of course that’s what makes a great character! Who wants to read about a Mary Sue, anyway?
Well, I disagree.
First, long gone are the days I inserted myself in my stories…. Like, thirty years in the past or so. Why? Well, because I don’t want to write (or read) about myself. I want to explore the minds of those unlike me. I want them to enrich me, not reinforce me.
Second … compelled means that at no time in the duration of the story, the character makes a conscious, unaffected decision to become involved. He or she already is, by virtue of something beyond their control. Whether or not they’ve realized/admitted it yet.
Third, my favorite one. Please, do make characters as flawed as you want. I do. I’m all about flaws, because I think perfect characters are boring as hell. And flaws are extra fun to the writing process. But the big “but” — designing that striking character flaw to be the heart of the internal obstacle to resolving the external problem smacks of all kinds of contrived. Why is it the alcoholic who has to fight the monster in the beer factory? At some point, the flaw, no matter how realistic or relatable, becomes a parody of itself.
As a reader, what I want is truthful, fascinating, or admirable in some way characters, not “relatable” ones. I don’t want to see myself in the story. I want to see people with whom I can sympathize, empathize, take on a challenge, have fun — and through whom I can ultimately change my perspective, even if only for the duration of a book. I want people who make decisions because they want, or must, or think they probably should, not because they have no choice. And I don’t want to see the author inside the story, working in the final polish on that round peg in order to fit it in that round hole just perfectly so.
And someone once said, “write what you want to read.”
So, I will not be going for “relatable.” If that hurts wide audience appeal of my books … So be it.
[Someone else’s article to read: http://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/scourge-relatability]