Shiny Happy People…or not
Perfect people are boring. At least, I think they might be. They don’t exist. Outside of fiction at least, and when they do populate the book you’re trying to read, or the movie you’re trying to watch, it can get tedious very quickly.
We all try to make real people, and that means giving our characters flaws and foibles. Foot in mouth disease, a little clumsy, a quick temper. But what about characters with seriously dark stuff in their past or present? How far is too far…when do you take them where readers can’t follow.
This is highly subjective. So my post is going to be highly subjective. But hopefully, somewhere in there, you can figure out some things that work for you.
I’ve written a few characters with Big Mistakes in their backgrounds. And writing those characters I struggled with how far to take them. The conclusion I came to, more or less, is that it’s no so much about what they did, but why they did it, and how they feel about it now.
So when dealing with dark and damaged characters, characters you want readers to love, and even hurt for over the sins of their pasts, there are a few things to keep in mind.
Motivation: Why did they do it? If the reason is compelling enough, if you make us get it, put us in their shoes, help of feel their desperation, then it’s a rare reader who will condemn them for having it all blow up in their face. If the heroine commits a grave sin to save her child, then of most readers will be able to forgive her.
Side note: I think strong motivation is helpful, but it’s also possible to have a character who spent some time in their life just not being a very good person. But that makes the next step even more important…
The past in the present: How has it changed them? Are they remorseful? And by that I don’t mean are they wallowing in self-pity, but I mean have they admitted they were wrong to themselves? I think, and this is that subjectivity, it looks pretty ugly to have a character who did some Very Bad Things copping an attitude like ‘well what!? I did it. I’m not ashamed.’ Reason being, if it’s something that really hurt someone else, they just look like a total jerk. I want to see that they’ve changed because of it, that there was a consequence.
Let us see the change: The above change we were talking about. I want to see it. If the hero was an alcoholic I don’t want to see him relapse ten pages before the end of the book because if that happens, I’ll question his ability to truly be different for the heroine. I’m all right with seeing him struggle with it, but I want to see that he can master it now. Because I want to believe the change, so show it to me, don’t just tell me it will all me okay!
Make us understand: If the bad behavior is happening in the book (The Christmas Love-Child by Jennie Lucas is one of my favorite examples of this, because she takes us into her very damaged hero, and has us rooting for him!) then make me understand why. If the hero is flat out lying to the heroine, put me in his shoes. Show me WHY he’s doing it. (this doesn’t mean we always have to have it all explained right away, but it’s nice to have insight into characters so you can still root for them too. Rather than having them cast as the villain until the very end of the book!)
Remember that you already love your characters, and I don’t: I think this might be where some of the flawed characters fall down. As writers, we know them inside and out, we love them at conception. But the reader, and the editor, do not. Our characters have to earn their love, and while we, the writer, will love them through all manner of bad behavior without any redeption in sight, the reader will not. They have to see a glimmer of good. They need a reason to care.
This brings us too…
Redemption: The flawed character needs redemption. They need to find a way to forgive themselves, or find a way to ask for redemption. If it’s a heroine living in guilt for long enough to needs to be able to step out of it and demand better than the condemnation she’s been getting from those around her. If it’s a hero who’s been hiding from his past sins he needs to stand up and face them. But the greater the damage, the bigger the triumph must be in the end. It’s what makes reading about a flawed character worth it. That ultimate payoff where we see them move forward with their life and into their happily ever after.
So there are some of my thoughts on flawed and damaged characters. Feel free to add your own!