Wednesday, March 28, 2012

BITCHES AND BASTARDS, Maybe. But No Perfect Characters Wanted





My guest, is fiction editor, Beth Hill. Her topic is on creating characters the touch readers. If you get the chance, do stop by Beth's Blog and check out her archives. She has some fabulous articles on craft and they are a great resource for writers.
I was recently  talking to a frustrated writer, frustrated because beta readers were finding fault with her lead characters.
Some readers didn’t like her male lead; others had trouble with the female. They said the characters were unsympathetic, unkind, or just not nice.
No, her leads aren’t rotten; they aren’t the bitch and bastard referred to in this article’s title. They are simply characters with character.
And isn’t that what we want for our stories, characters who stand out, who grab our attention? Don’t we want characters who make us notice them? Characters with character, characters we’ll remember for their bold actions, characters who stir our emotions? Don’t we want stories peopled with characters who aren’t safe and who don’t blend in?
The characters we most enjoy have some growing to do. They aren’t necessarily nice. They certainly aren’t insipid.
They don’t always do the right thing, say the right words, and have the correct motivations. They aren’t always politically correct and they may hurt others, both willingly and unknowingly.
They may never apologize. They may make excuses. They may lie or cheat or steal.
Characters who are bold, who aren’t always nice or polite or solicitous, are the characters readers will remember.
So why all the fuss from beta readers?
My guess is that the readers don’t want the writer to submit something they think won’t be popular with either agents or editors. Yet characters that stand out, who are outrageous or who stumble or who push the readers’ buttons, are exactly the kinds of characters agents and acquiring editors are looking for.
Who wants to read about nice characters, characters who don’t ruffle feathers or who don’t get into trouble or who always say the right thing?
Wouldn’t we rather read about flawed humans, people who make mistakes but who still manage to redeem themselves or a portion of their lives? Don’t we want bold characters who are different from us, who speak their minds—even when fearful of consequences—who press ahead despite fear and anxiety and feelings of worthlessness?
I know I’m seldom looking for nice characters. Nice characters don’t create tension—they’d work to diffuse it. Nice characters mean bland scenes and ho-hum motivations. Nice characters mean not-so-nice stories.
And lest anyone take offense, I’m not talking about doing away with characters who are good, who stand on the side of justice or integrity or decency. Good characters can be strong and bold and powerful. But nice characters, characters who don’t take stands and who have no outstanding quirks and who don’t rock the boat are not strong enough to be the leads in a novel.
Characters without flaw are flat and the stories told about them can’t draw the readers’ interest the same way stories about imperfect characters can. What surprise is there when a perfect character defeats his enemy? Doesn’t he always defeat his enemy? Was there any doubt that he’d win again?
But what about the imperfect character who’s admitted to cheating to get ahead—can he win the biggest challenge in his life without resorting to cheating again? Will those around him let him forget what he’s done before and pull for him or will they always stand against him, no matter how honest he now is? Can a rude or belligerent character change enough to get other characters on his side when it counts?
If your lead character is perfect, how will he grow? If he’s perfect, how will his next victory be any different for him than his last? If he’s perfect, how will the reader relate?
Perfect characters are fit for cartoons. It’s the flawed ones who make for fascinating fiction.
The writer I was speaking with said the characters didn’t resonate with the beta readers. Yet after hearing some of the comments her readers had made, I told her the characters certainly did resonate. They had those readers upset. The characters had succeeded in touching the readers.
And that’s exactly what you want your characters to do.
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Exceptions
~  There is a difference between characters your readers refuse to follow through a story and characters who are flawed or who have problems or who irritate the snot out of the reader.
Flawed and irritating characters belong in fiction. But characters who are poorly written or who are repulsive to most readers deserve to be shunned. Yet, keep in mind that some characters, no matter how abhorrent, can make compelling stories.
~  Genre is an important consideration for character personality. In romance, readers are going to want to like your hero and heroine, even through their flaws. Be aware of what the genre allows. Be willing to push expectations, of course. But realize that you might not change those expectations with a single book, a single severely flawed character.
But don’t necessarily bow to what the beta readers say they want. They definitely don’t want perfection in their leads. They don’t want the beautiful and perfect and flawless. They may want redeemable; they don’t want main characters who don’t ruffle feathers.
Courtesy of Free Extras
Consider Rhett and Scarlett, whose movie was on TV just in time to bring them to mind for this article. Neither Rhett nor Scarlett are perfect, but they are good characters. Great characters. They give us reasons to both loathe them and root for them. They are bold, brash, audacious, and larger than life. They pull us into their lives not by their goodness, but by their manner. Their personalities. Their daring and confidence. Who would work his way through Margaret Mitchell’s tome without the reward of Scarlett’s nerve and Rhett’s disregard for propriety?

So, be bold in ruffling feathers of both other characters and your readers and don’t be afraid of writing characters who stir the puddin’. Certainly don’t shy away from giving characters unlikable qualities. Give them those negative qualities and make us like them anyway. Or make us root for them, even if they have flaws.
Don’t play it safe with your characters.
Don’t make readers wish they had picked up a more engrossing book rather than yours.
Do remember character traits and behaviors can have a range of intensities. That is, not all characters have to operate at the peak of their traits at all times. Adapt character behavior to the story you want to create, to the needs of the scene. Use lively characters to establish tone and to make other characters nervous. Use the behavior and thoughts and words of characters to make readers uncomfortable. They’ll thank you for it. And they’ll come back for more.
*******
No, characters don’t have to be bastards or bitches or cruel or crazy or repulsive. But they could be. And if you write them well, readers will enjoy reading them.
Take your beta readers’ comments under consideration? Absolutely. But don’t allow them to strip the emotion and verve from your stories and characters. Write bold characters with quirks and faults and flaws. And remember that you don’t have to redeem them or heal all their frailties by the end of your book. You could. But if the ending, if the story, is more powerful with a still flawed protagonist limping home with the prize, then keep him flawed.
Create characters that are boldly imperfect.
And allow yourself to be bold as you envision imperfect characters to live in your story worlds.
Write strong fiction by creating characters who are far from bland and nice.

I love the written word, the ability we have to create worlds and emotions with well-chosen phrases. It’s my intention to share tips and insights and encouragement with writers at all levels, to help you craft stories that will entertain and satisfy your readers. That will help satisfy you as writer as well. I am both writer and editor. My editing focus is on long fiction, primarily novels. I also mentor beginning writers.




16 comments:

welcome to my world of poetry said...

The title of the post intriuged me, this was a wonderful post to read, evnjoyed every last word.

Yvonne.

Jo said...

Never thought of this before, but you are so right. Thanks for the insight.

Liza said...

I have one character who my betas tell me, hasn't grown enough...is a bit flat. This post gives me good ideas to implement to help her grow.

Journaling Woman said...

So true. I find myself following difficult and unsavory characters in books and on TV. They hold me in their spell even though, many times, I don't especially like them. I can't help myself. :) I go back.

Great article!

Teresa

Clarissa Draper said...

It's a fine balance. You don't want to create your characters too perfect and have the readers not relate but then you don't want to create them too irritating and have the reader frustrated.

Kat Sheridan said...

Lord give me broken characters every single time. In my one MS, people HATE the hero at first sight. He's drunk, he's belligerant, he's overbearing. If they make it to the second chapter they discover he's in mourning, he's strong, he's being protective of his child, he's been in turmoil for a long time. And he has room to grow. And DOES grow.

How utterly boring if he were a charming gentleman on the first page.

Give me Philip Marlowe. Dexter. Rhett. Blanche du Bois. Maggie the Cat. Give me broken, unattractrive, flawed, real characters.

And then give me a reason to root for them.

Joanne Kennedy said...

Thanks for the great post! When we went over my first manuscript, my agent pointed out that my characters didn't have "room to grow." It turned out that making the protagonist more flawed was the key to creating a story that sold.

~Sia McKye~ said...

I can see that this article resonates with many of us--writers or not.

I went the other way when I first started writing one of my favorite stories(6 or 7 years ago). I made them all too perfect and likable. Not enough room to show how their life went on despite the scars.

I had a beta reader, who is published, read it and that's what she told me. She liked the story premise but she said I needed to amp up the flaws (they were there just not developed enough), and the conflict more to give the reader something to root for. Room for growth. She gave me a few examples. Just a few words and they went from okay to wow.

This article was a good lesson for me to review as I finish up a couple of story edits.

Cherie Reich said...

Awesome post and so true! It's the characters that infuriate us the most (in a good way) that we remember the best.

C.M.Brown said...

Great post, when I read books myseIf I am drawn to characters who have a bit of the tough, mean streak in them, but are balanced with a gentle side as well!
Good advice!

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Safe to say I wrote a lead character that annoys the snot out of some readers. But he gets better!

Monti said...

What a good article about characters and the importance of characters growing and overcoming flawing in the process of story! Thank you!

Monti
Mary Montague Sikes

Arlee Bird said...

Flaws cause a character to screw up and that can make the story more interesting.


Lee
An A to Z Co-Host
Tossing It Out

Carol Kilgore said...

This was an awesome post, Beth. I struggle with this "make sure the reader likes your character" dilemma on what feels like a daily basis. Now I know that likability comes in different forms. Thank you.

Waving to Sia!

Kat Sheridan said...

Of course, the other direction to go is to start with a really nice, likable guy and then completely screw up his life. Kidnap his child. Injure his wife in an accident. Let him witness a murder, and suddenly ruthless gang-bangers are after him. Frame him for embezzlement. How long does he stay "nice"? What underlying character traits are discovered? Can a nice guy really finish first? These kinds of characters are also fun to watch.

Beth said...

I am late to the party! I'm glad to see the topic resonates with so many. We like our characters with character, don't we? There's nothing more satisfying than seeing a protagonist, despite his flaws, find success. Unless it's seeing the antagonist get what's coming.

Thanks for inviting me, Sia. And thanks to those who added to the discussion.