Wednesday, August 21, 2013

BITCHES AND BASTARDS—CREATING CHARACTERS THAT ARE BOLDLY IMPERFECT


Jade Lee was scheduled for today but unfortunately was unable to visit. We'll catch up with her later.



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 with 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?

RUSSELL CASSE--INDEPENDENCE DAY
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?

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?

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 a stand 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?

HANS SOLO--STAR WARS
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?

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.

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.

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. 

Don’t play it safe with your characters. Create characters that are boldly imperfect. Write strong fiction by creating characters that are far from bland and nice. Your readers will thank you.


                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     




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.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 


18 comments:

Kat Sheridan said...

YAY!!! I love seeing articles from Beth Hill. editor to the editors! W00t! And you are SO right about bold characters! I love them, the more colorful, the better. And yet, my characters almost always draw criticism when I enter into writing contests--commments like "s dunken man cannot be a romantic hero". Um, well, you only saw the first 50 pages, and he had a reason to be drinking and he gets much, MUCH better. I would hate reading a book where all the characters are Nancy Nice and Gary Good.

Mason Canyon said...

Beth, great post. As a reader, sure I like those nice characters that do the right thing and say the right things. But, I also love those characters that are a bit brass and rough around the edges. As the author lets us know about those rough edges the character become more realistic and most of time, becomes the character I like best.

Sia, thanks for the introduction to Beth.

Mason
Thoughts in Progress

L.G. Smith said...

Bland characters aren't interesting enough to carry a novel-length story. It's a balancing act though. They have to be complicated, flawed, and yet somewhat admirable. Or at least worthy of redemption. Great post. :)

Melanie Schulz said...

I love any character that's real- bring on the bitches and bastards!

Arlee Bird said...

Your points are all good ones. I think readers can relate better to characters with some flaws. I want to be able identify with a character I'm reading about and since I'm not perfect characters shouldn't be either. Some ground in reality is necessary to make a story believable.

Lee
Tossing It Out

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Well, I certainly succeeded in creating an unlikeable character in my first book!

Michael Di Gesu said...

RIGHT ON!

In my second novel, all my betas told me my character was nasty. Who could like such a character? He's obnoxious, crude, and vulgar. Who could have sympathy for such a character? Make him more likable...

Well I toned it a BIT, but I left him brash. He's an abused seventeen year old boy. Father's an alcoholic and in Marine...

This kid doesn't have a chance in hell to make his eighteenth birthday. So why not make him crude, a womanizer, and a scoundrel? That's how he copes with his life.

So happy to read this post!

Thanks for featuring Beth, Sia..

~Sia McKye~ said...

KAT--I'm with you. Beth is highly skilled, intuitive, and fabulous.
:-)
Yep, I hear you on that and yet decisions are made on 50 pages. *shakes head

Mason, I agree. if we see some of the reasons for the actions and some some redeeming qualities they do make the best characters!

~Sia McKye~ said...

LG--yes, worthy of redemption and it is a balancing act.

Melanie--with you on that one sister!

Lee--very true! Grounding in reality.

~Sia McKye~ said...

Alex, I didn't know if I wanted to smack Bryon or hug him but he is one of my favorite characters!

MICHAEL--coping mechanizms aren't always pretty but they're real and just because they can be modified as they grow and the story progresses.

Janie Mason said...

Very true. Take the heroine in SEP's Ain't She Sweet. She'd done some terrible things to both the hero and her own half-sister. It made her coming back to town flat broke so juicy!

Yolanda Renee said...

Great examples, Rhett and Scarlett - characters we love to hate. Can't deny the pull of such characters even on television.

Tammy Theriault said...

bold characters get the work done!!

DonnaGalanti said...

Love the bitches and bastards! Bring on the flaws and torment. These are my favorite kind of characters - real like folks that bleed and hurt and love deeply and we can follow them for the ride. Great post!

Al Diaz said...

I must ponder on this and see if my leading character is not too nice. Now I'm wondering what if I don't hold him back that much. Probably there would be something interesting happening... Thanks for the thought! Something good will come out of this.

Melissa said...

Great post. I'm tweeting this. :)

Jo said...

You are so right, I remember books by their outstanding characters as I am sure others do.

Sia, I agree, I didn`t know whether to smack or hug Byron either.

Crystal Collier said...

I like characters that stand out, but I also like there to be a balance. If one is especially cynical, show me an rainbow glasses optimist to counteract it. If you've got too much of one extreme the book become lopsided, and as human beings, I think we crave balance. At least, I do.