Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Character Flaws

I have a confession to make.  I haven't been making any progress with my writing so far this year.  I've certainly been thinking about it, and quite a bit.  But actual research?  Actual writing (other than on this blog)?  Not so much.   My current plan on the writing front is to start out February by printing the manuscript of my first draft of Living Legend, the story I wrote in November.  Then, I am going to sit down and just read through the darn thing once.  Probably with a red pen handy just in case of any glaring typos or proofreading finds, though that will not be the main purpose of the read-through.  Once I have done that, I am going to go back through the thing and start taking notes and editing.  I will also be finding the appropriate places to add new scenes or expand those already existing.  For instance, there is one scene, early on, from a specific character's point of view.  It is the only one for him, and I think the book would benefit greatly by seeing more of the story through his eyes.  I also definitely want to flesh out my characters.  Characters are important, you know.  I am anticipating at least three drafts of this thing before I start thinking about trying to publish it myself or looking for an agent (or sticking it in a closet and saving it for later before finally admitting it is crap and should never see the light of day again).  The goal is to get draft two done this year, while starting (or at least laying the groundwork for) another original story as well.

See, lots of thinking going on, if no other actual activity.  I have also been paying attention to articles about writing, bookmarking when appropriate and otherwise absorbing the information like the little sponge I am.  In the past few days I have stumbled across two that have really struck a chord with me, and I wanted to talk about what I took away from them.  Both articles spend a lot of time talking about characters and how important they are to any good piece of fiction.  I fervently believe this.  They also both suggest that characters need to have flaws that we, the readers, can latch on to and, if not actually identify with, want to know more about.  This gives us reason to root for them in their adventures. 

The first article appeared on Tor's website and was written by Jon Sprunk:  Characters:  What Are They Good For?

The second entry was the latest in Sylvia Bond's series about fan fiction over at Pink Raygun:  The Fan Whisperer-Part 4

Both authors argue that no one wants to read about a perfect character.  That character is not only less believable, but also runs the risk of being extremely annoying (or a Mary Sue, of which most of us have grown quite weary).  But.  I would argue that a character that seems perfect, at least to the other characters in a story, and is then revealed to have some really messed up stuff going on would be quite fascinating to read about.  Though that goes back to the "give your character flaws" suggestion, I suppose.

A writer certainly has to take character development and growth into consideration as well.  You can start with a "perfect" character and then present her with a situation that is completely out of her league, and which she has no idea how to solve or survive.  Focus a bit on how she does manage to muddle through (or doesn't, for that matter), certainly.  But the really interesting bit in this kind of story will be the consequences.  As a result of her failure, what has changed about her?  About how the world sees her?  How she sees herself?  Even more importantly, what happens the next time she gets thrown into an impossible situation?  You've given your perfect character a flaw, and then made her learn to live with it.  Now she's grown (whether for better or for worse is totally up to you as the writer), and the readers have a better idea of who she is, and are interested to find out what happens to her next.  It is extremely important to note (as Sprunk does), that a reader doesn't have to actually like a character to care about what happens to her.  But there's got to be something there to grab the reader's interest, whether they like the character or not.

That learning to live with it part is, I think, tricky for a lot of writers.  I'll admit that I probably haven't applied this principle very well to my own characters.  Yet.  But that is definitely something I will be looking to do as I flesh out Living Legend and try to make Cass and Niko as fully realized on the page as they are in my head.  It can be very easy for a writer to get bogged down in the struggle of dealing with flaws, and that is a very fine line to walk.  Let me give you two examples from series I enjoy to see if I can illustrate this point.

In both cases, the character in question begins to develop or discover latent supernatural abilities and, fearing what they are now capable of, tries to run away from them.  That's what I am going with for the flaw in common.

For my first example I will turn to the character of Perrin Aybara from Robert Jordan's (with some assistance by Brandon Sanderson, of course) Wheel of Time series.  In the very first book in the series (now up to book thirteen, with one left to go, not including the already published prequel), Perrin learns he has a very special ability.  He is what Jordan calls a Wolfbrother.  He can sense and communicate with wolves.  Upon leaving his home to set out on his adventures, his Wolfbrother talents, latent until that point, begin to emerge and develop.  In addition to his connection with wolves, his senses also begin to sharpen (particularly his sight and sense of smell) and his eyes turn yellow.  He is also able to walk in Tel'aran'rhiod, the world of dreams, through which wolves and some select others movie freely. 

Upon discovering these new skills and abilities (and they don't all come at once, with some developing more slowly than others, of course), Perrin, naturally, freaks the heck out.  He is afraid that these abilities come from a source of evil, or that they will at least be perceived that way by others.  This is such a rare talent that even the wolves only faintly remember it in their genetic memory.  Very few scholars and historians have heard of it, let alone the common folk Perrin encounters on a daily basis.  Then, he runs into a man named Elyas who, as it turns out, is also a Wolfbrother.  He is able to seek some guidance from Elyas, and his fears are somewhat abated.  He befriends one wolf in particular, Hopper, who practically bends over backward to welcome Perrin into the fold and teach him the ways of the wolves.

Perrin started out as one of the more well-balanced characters in the series, and was an early fan favorite.  His status as a Wolfbrother gave him great potential, and throughout much of the second book in the series his developing skills are crucial to the story.  He is, at this point, still trying to come to terms with what it is that he has become, however.  Some early experiences with the wolves have given him cause to fear that he may misuse his abilities if he relies on them too heavily.  So we've got a fairly likable character with pretty great potential.  He's been given what he considers a huge flaw in his character, and is working out how to deal and live with these changes.  His abilities really aren't a flaw in and of themselves, I think most readers would agree on this.  They are actually pretty freaking cool in my opinion.  But the way Perrin deals with them is what turns out to be his largest character flaw.  Mostly because, well, he doesn't.

After the second book, things go downhill pretty quickly for Perrin.  In the third book Perrin meets two people who alter his story arc in such a way that it quickly became the bits everyone stopped caring about and just skipped over upon follow-up readings.  He meets a woman (more of a girl, really), named Faile, who, for almost every inch of page she appears on, is excruciatingly annoying.  She gloms on to Perrin's party during a quest and refuses to go away.  Even Perrin can't stand her at first, but then, for no demonstrable reason, he ends up falling in love with (and eventually marrying) her.  This is not your typical "they hate each other but there's a spark and eventually they find out all they have in common" relationship.  No, Jordan truly shows the readers nothing to explain how Perrin suddenly and irrevocably falls in love with Faile, he just does.  That's a long enough standing gripe though that I don't want to get into it here.  The point is that the presence of Faile in Perrin's life and story arc gives him yet another flaw, and this is a huge one.  She makes his brain completely fall out of his head.  I don't mean he gets all lovesick and mopey around her (though he does), but he seriously just stops thinking whenever she's around or if a situation has to do with her.  Also, she has some insane cultural notions about how men and women should relate to each other, and he neither asks her flat out to lay out the rules for her or finds someone who has some sort of experience with Saldeans to just freaking ask.  So they fight.  All.  The.  Time.  It is painful.

Shortly after meeting Faile he also meets another young man who is a Wolfbrother (they're getting close to the end of days, so these things are popping up with more frequency than is usual).  Unfortunately, this man has completely given into the wolfish side of his nature and gone utterly feral.  Perrin then spends the next nine books worrying and fearing that the same thing would happen to him and then tries to run away from who he is.  Nine books.  Big, fat ones, with lots of words.  It isn't until the most recent book that he finally comes to grips with both his relationship with his wife (mostly), and his status as a Wolfbrother.  He finally stops running and accepts who he has become, and in the process, actually learns that he was being an idiot all along.  Huzzah!  Thankfully Jordan and Sanderson managed to give Perrin redemption in the most awesome scene of awesomeness ever, but I think almost every WoT fan would agree that it took too dang long to get there.

The point here is that Jordan had a really nice potential set up with this character and then, I can only assume perceiving he was too likable, proceeded to heap flaw upon flaw upon flaw on the character, without taking the time to actually resolve any of them and move on before it was almost too late.  He just let those flaws ride throughout most of the series, turning a really cool character into an utterly uninteresting one, which is a shame, considering that Perrin is actually one of the three primary main characters in the whole dang series.

Hint to television producers and writers:  This is actually the same affliction that causes many serialized shows to go down the crapper for audiences.  You can't just let a character's flaws ride out without having the other characters at least point out that so-and-so is being a douche.  Preferably this would then lead to some sort of confrontation and character growth or regression, breaking up the status quo.  The status quo really isn't all it's cracked up to be.

Though, I must note that in Jordan's case, the sheer volume of characters he has introduced in this series probably means that he just didn't have the time to get around to Perrin's resolution until much later in the series.  Still.  Bad form, that.

So there you have my example of character flaws allowed to go wrong.  Let's look at one that's handled a little better, shall we?

One of the first fantasy series I picked up on my own was Melanie Rawn's Dragon Prince/Dragon Star series (it is technically two trilogies, but they follow one right after the other for a six book arc).  Rawn gave us the character of Alasen, a young woman who has the ability to become a Sunrunner, which is the primary type of magic user in the series.  Usually, people with this ability are sent to Goddess Keep to be trained at a fairly young age (normally in their early teens), but because Alasen is nobility, she was never sent to be trained to access her powers.  Turns out, that's perfectly fine with her because she is absolutely terrified of those powers.  But then she meets a young Sunrunner, Andry, who is poised to take over as the next Lord of Goddess Keep (the head honcho).  The two hit it off quite well and it is clearly young love.  Andry, who loves his powers, wants to share them with Alasen, and attempts to get her to see what she's been missing.  His attempt is rather ham-handed and not only does Alasen basically run screaming into the night, she flat out refuses to pursue a further relationship with Andry because she has lost all trust in him.

This is a kind of trope that usually annoys me, I have to admit.  I can get being cautious of what you can do and respecting your powers, but hiding from what you are?  Refusing to learn more about them, about your self?  I don't get it, and I very definitely consider it a character flaw.  Too often writers will relish in this kind of character self-denial, and unless there's a very compelling reason for it, it is extremely difficult to pull off without just ending up becoming incredibly tedious.

Alasen ends up marrying the man that she perceives as having saved her from Andry, an older gentleman named Ostvel.  It is quite clear that her marriage to Ostvel is a knee-jerk reaction to get her away from any chance of being with Andry in the future, and at first, it is unclear what connection, other than an appreciation for his help, Alasen really has with Ostvel.  But.  Over the course of the next three books (all of this happens toward the end of the third), we not only see Alasen and Ostvel's relationship grow into something very real and solid and true, we also watch Alasen come to term with who and what she is.  Even if she doesn't want to use her Sunrunner abilities, they are still there, and a time comes when she can no longer afford to ignore them, because events play out that require everyone to give everything they've got.

Interestingly enough, Andry is also changed by this encounter.  He never really gets over Alasen, taking multiple lovers along the way but never committing to them.  Alasen's rejection of him, and subsequent acceptance of Ostvel, sets him on a downward spiral that has dire effects on the rest of the world.  When he gains control of the Sunrunners, he makes sweeping changes to policy that sets them apart and, in his mind, somewhat above the rest of the people.  He also, despite strong family ties, becomes very reluctant to cooperate with the leaders of the various Princedoms, even when a larger enemy emerges that requires a unified front if there is to be any chance of survival.  So even though Alasen eventually confronts her fears and grows from her flaws, these very flaws set in motion a series of actions on the part of others that have very far-reaching consequences.  That is a pretty darn good example of how to use a character's flaw within a story, I would say.

So, to sum up, characters are extremely important in a work of fiction.  It is a widely held belief by writers (and readers) that a well-crafted character comes complete with flaws that can be exploited to further the story.  While I agree with that, I think it is extremely important to remember that the flaws alone are not enough.  The character's flaws must serve a function in the development of the character.  It is in this manner that they should influence the plot, the plot should not be centered around the flaws themselves.  Just because I think I know what needs to be done here, I don't pretend I've actually figured out how to do it yet.  It's a tricky thing to get right, and even the best of authors sometimes fall down on the job. 

But that's what practice is for.

1 comment:

  1. Amen to that. It's difficult to craft a personality that remains entirely likable, but has enough hiccups and foibles to be really believable.