Welcome to Davidwellington.net

The home for all the latest news about the books of David Wellington/D. Nolan Clark, as well as his weekly writing blog and the occasional piece of short fiction.

David Wellington is the author of over twenty novels, ranging across horror, fantasy, thrillers and science fiction. He can be reached directly at contactmonster@hotmail.com, or you can follow him on twitter @LastTrilobite.

There Are No Rules

There’s been a lot of pushback lately–I mostly see it on Twitter–from authors who say writing advice focuses way too much on plot and character, on spare, lean, energetic story-telling rather than the craft of writing: the lyrical, the quiet, the rhythmic. And I’m certainly guilty of that here. My writing advice on this blog is all about how I write, and I recognize that sometimes I make it sound like that’s the only way to do things.

Hopefully nobody fell into that trap. I love all kinds of books. I like slow, meandering books all about world-building, where plot is just a thin scaffolding to connect wonderfully indulgent paragraphs of pure prose. I love the picaresque, the Menhippean Dialogue and the road story. I love experimental fiction, especially when it works. I love books that take crazy stylistic choices–second person narration, wildly shifting viewpoints. And I like big hard-boiled adventure stories. I am a complicated person and I refuse to limit my reading to any one style of book.

But here’s the thing. Because I write lean prose, I don’t feel comfortable giving you advice on how to make your book lush and decadent–even if I might love to read it. I’ve spent decades learning how to hone and polish a plot until it’s airtight. If you want to know how to write beautiful sentences, you’ll need to look elsewhere.

So let me state the one useful thing I can, here, about style. About writing lovely books: THERE ARE NO RULES.

There are guidelines. There are quicksand pits I can help you swing over. There are little tricks only a pro ever learns, and those I can share. I can take you inside the sausage factory and show you how the sausage is made. One very particular type of sausage, anyway. But anything I say here should have a simple caveat attached:

You want to write in three act structure (except when you don’t).

Character arcs should be simple but not easy (except when they should be complicated but effortless).

Show, don’t tell (except when you really, really need to tell).

THERE ARE NO RULES. There’s an old cliche in writing advice that you have to know the rules before you can break them. That’s nonsense. Writers since the dawn of written language have been making shit up as they go along. You absolutely can, too.

If you want to know how I do what I do–and why I choose not to explore certain things–you can read this blog and follow along as I unpick my own mental knots, as I study my own brain in a conceptual mirror. Hopefully you’ll learn something, and maybe it will be useful to you.

If it isn’t, if it feels wrong, if it counters something you really want to do–absolutely ignore everything I say. Find your own path. I have no doubt it’ll be an interesting one.

THERE ARE NO RULES. Go forth and write. That is the only rule.

[That being said, I have a great idea for a blog entry on style for next week. Stay tuned.]

Your First Publication: Don’t Forget to Enjoy It

In the last week I met two people who had just published their first book. I congratulated them, but I could see the look in their eyes. One I knew all too well.

Days after I published my first novel, Monster Island, I was on the floor of my apartment, so wracked with anxiety and self-doubt that I didn’t want to stand up. I reached for the phone and called the features editor of a magazine that was supposed to run an article about my book. It was going to be a huge coup, a great opportunity to get the word out and hopefully drive book sales.

“I just saw the magazine,” I said. “I couldn’t find the piece about my book anywhere.” I had torn the thing apart, cover to cover.

It wasn’t there. I knew it wasn’t. I called this person on the off chance that I had just lost my mind.

“Oh, yeah, the thing about that,” the features editor said. “We decided to bump it for something else.”

“…are you going to run it next week?”

They didn’t. They never ran it.

I spent weeks tearing my hair out about that. Angry and sad and convinced my book would fail, would be a flop, because the piece didn’t run. There were lots of other things to obsess over, lots of numbers to crunch, lots of fingernails to chew and brows to furrow. By the time I managed to get over it, to reach some level of calm again, the book had been out for a month.

It did fine–it did great, actually, one of the biggest successes of my career. But I wasted all that time worrying about it, and in the process I forgot something:

I had just published my first book.

The thing I’d been dreaming of, working towards, for thirty years. The thing that was supposed to define me, to let the world see who I am, see my talent. The thing I had wanted more than anything else in my life. After a bad breakup with my college girlfriend, I had gone to my favorite professor (I am a nerd, yes) and talked to him about it. As part of that conversation, he asked me “If you could have a stable relationship or a book deal, which would you choose?” He was quite shocked when I said, with zero hesitation, “book deal.”

Now I had one of those. But I couldn’t enjoy it.

If you’re in the same position–don’t make the same mistake. Yes, reviews are nerve-wracking and sales numbers are never what you want them to be. There’s the next book to worry about, and the possibility that your first effort was a fluke. There are angry readers to fend off and bills to pay.

Take an hour a day, after your book comes out. Sit somewhere quiet with a beverage of your choice and a copy of your brand new book, and just look at the cover. Riffle through the pages. For God’s sake don’t actually read it–you’ll only find typos and errors–but smell the paper and the ink. If it’s an ebook, tap wildly through the pages and look at all those words.

Your words.

Glory in it. Take comfort in it. Don’t worry about what anyone else thinks. You did this thing. And it is good.

An hour a day. Minimum. You’ll be glad later that you did.

Short Story or Novel? The First Tricky Decision

Ideas come in many shapes and sizes. Some need the room afforded by a full novel to be explored. Others work better in shorter forms. It’s common enough wisdom that short stories can be harder to write than novels, but it’s worth exploring why.

A novel is a world that your readers will live in for many hours. They expect that world to be fully decorated and furnished when they move in. Novels require extensive world-building and character development and all the good things. There’s room to move around inside a novel, plenty of time for things to grow organically.

Short stories, on the other hand, are high speed train rides from point A to point B. A story needs to race along, with no time for extraneous features like exposition or character growth.

It’s almost like they’re two different art forms.

When you’re writing a short, every sentence counts and you can’t afford to waste them. As a result, writing a short is an exercise in austerity. Does your story really need to be set in a secondary world or a different time period? It’s so much quicker to put it in a contemporary, primary world setting–unless the point of the story is the difference between this world and another. How many characters does your story need? Can you cut it down to two–or even one? How many scenes do you really need? How many lines of dialogue? Everything in the story needs to do work towards making your point, selling one single emotion or defining a single character. Everything else must go.

You may end up spending as much time making these tough decisions as you do on primary composition.

Writing a novel requires its own processes and decisions, though. Is your story rich enough to carry you through a lengthy and satisfying character arc? Do you have enough ideas to flesh out a plot skeleton to 70-100,000 words? How much world detail can you pack in to each scene, how can you make the setting a dynamic character in itself? Conversely, if your novel is working, if it sings, you’ll find that you actually need all that space–every little moment you create needs the extra oxygen, the extra elbow-room, to blossom and become something wonderful.

I often find when I start a new novel that on page one I can’t imagine how I’m going to get to 300 pages. I always feel, on the last page, that I wish I had 300 more.

Deciding whether your idea should be the basis for a short story or a novel is the first tough decision you’ll make with each project. It’s possible to make the wrong decision–you may find that your idea is drowning in all that extra space, and that if it was cut down into a story it could be so much more powerful. You may realize that your short story feels naked and skeletonized and like it never got a chance to really grow. So make sure you make the right choice the first time! Or learn the wisdom to know the difference between these two very different forms.

Now, as for novellas…

Yeesh. Traditionally novellas got little love because they were hard to sell. Even today, editors typically want full novels or they want a short piece for an anthology. The advent of eBooks, however–which can be any length the author chooses–has opened up new opportunities for what was once considered a bastard form.

There’s really not even an “official” word count for the poor novella. I’ve heard 50,000 words as a good length, but I’ve seen novellas that were 90,000 words long, and some that were 35 (don’t even ask me about “novelettes” or “long stories”).

The novella might be defined as a novel with less emphasis on worldbuilding and character development–with some of the laser focus of a short story. Alternatively it could give the full novel treatment to a more limited range of characters, or to a compressed span of time (a novella might, say, all take place in a single day, or over the duration of a long ocean voyage).

But the true beauty of the novella is that there are no rules. You can make it as long or as short as you need it to be. You can fill it with an extensive cast of characters, each of whom only get a scant few scenes to shine. You could create a whole, rich world and pair it with a simplified, athletically skinny plot. You do you.

Just… do yourself a favor. Know which form you’re using before you start writing. You can save yourself from a lot of painful editing later, and your story will be the better for it.

Stumbling Through The Minefield: Expository Depth

If you’re going to write genre, with rich world-building and complicated future technology and deep magic systems, it’s going to happen sooner or later: you’ll need to explain what a Florznap is.

Whether it’s describing why your hero’s sword is different from what the reader thinks of when they imagine a sword, or the details of how, exactly, the MindBlossom Ritual sends all the zombies scurrying back to their graves, you’re going to have to just spell it out for the reader. This thing, this Maguffin or nanotechnological marvel or fantastic gizmo only exists in your head. Now you need to describe it.

The second you do so, of course, your narrative stops dead. Your characters all just stand there, nodding attentively. Your precious and hard won pacing goes out the window. You’ve stumbled into a story minefield. Spend too long on the exposition and your reader will get bored (the cardinal sin of writing). Rush through the description and they’ll be confused for the rest of the story.

There has to be a way to quickly extricate yourself from such a dilemma, right? Well, if you come up with one, let us all know–right after you accept your Nobel for literature.

There are many different approaches to the problem. The easiest is the William Gibson solution. Gibson famously refuses to explain anything in his books. Want to know what a nanoscale water knife or a polychrome tonfa is? He might tell you it’s manufactured by SunCo Industries. He might tell you it’s shiny. Beyond that you’re on your own. There are a number of things he gains from this kind of obscuring anti-exposition. He maintains a strong sense of immediacy and immersion. His characters all feel like real people who live in a real world who don’t stop every ten minutes to discuss the latest innovations in cell phone tech. It also makes him look super smart, since he clearly just assumes everybody knows what these things are.

He also creates notoriously dense narratives that often break down into dream logic because you have no idea what he’s talking about.

Stephen King is famous for over-describing things. That’s his approach. He’ll spend long paragraphs describing the particular sound a typewriter makes when it performs a carriage return, and how many scratches there are on the platen, and what the ink smells like. Clearly this works for him–he’s Stephen King. His style is the antithesis of Gibson’s naturalism and it keeps the reader comfortable and makes every scene a clear piece of blocking and stagecraft. It also means his books gets longer every time he writes one, while his plots get stretched out ever thinner (don’t @ me, I don’t necessarily mean that to be derogatory–when King is really on his game, his plots become clarified, even transcendent).

Both authors are obviously highly successful with their individual strategies. But what if you’re not Gibson or King? What if you’re just starting out writing, feeling your way through the minefield step by tentative step?

What if you want to tell a wilder, more fantastic story than either of those titans?

Secondary worlds full of rich lore and detail are always going to struggle with the expository depth problem. Here are a couple of hints:

  • Don’t reinvent the wheel. There’s no need to describe a sharp bladed weapon as a StabMatic 9000 or a Bohemian Earspoon. Your blaster rifle doesn’t need to come with a technical manual. If the thing you’re trying to describe has a real world counterpart that most people are familiar with, consider just using the generic object instead. Call it a sword, or a polearm, and move on.
  • Spread the pain out. Infodumps are unacceptable these days, but the reader will expect to have to learn a few new things. Rather than putting all your worldbuilding in the first chapter, describe things only as they come up. A sentence of exposition per chapter is almost imperceptible to most readers’ palates. Even a sentence per page is probably acceptable…
  • …Though it’s generally best to keep exposition out of your third act altogether. By that point the reader should have a clear idea of what the world is like. New elements that require deep explanations feel like they’re coming out of thin air when we’ve already accepted the weird laws of your story. Or they can feel like you didn’t know how to end the book and you needed to stick in a deus ex machina to tie up all your threads.
  • Don’t pile bullshit on an already fertilized field. Examine your exposition carefully. Does every detail absolutely need to be in the story? Five hundred years ago the Forest Parliament may well have enacted laws which continue to shape the lives of fairies and wood nymphs today. But does that really affect the small village that is your setting? If an element of exposition doesn’t really touch the plot or tell us something interesting about a character, go ahead and cut it. This is exactly what is meant by “killing your darlings”.
  • Simplify when possible. Rich worldbuilding doesn’t necessarily mean that every object, term, and inhuman species in your story needs to be a whole new invention. How much newness does your story really need? Often we sacrifice universality for a cool idea or creation, when the story might have been better served by being grounded in realism. Give your story a good shake and see which moving parts you can live without, and you may find the whole project sings in a better key.

Exposition is necessary–even William Gibson does it sometimes. It’s also the greatest pitfall of literature. Finding a way to navigate that minefield is going to be one of your hardest tasks as a writer–and one of the most important.

Good Advice: Character Motivations

When was the last time you had to make a big decision in your life? Was it easy? Was there one specific reason why you made the decision you did, or were you conflicted, with several factors pulling you in different directions? Typically real human beings are under the constant sway of multiple urges, desires, obligations, and whims that can change on a minute-by-minute basis.

(Quick life tip that I heard somewhere, which works really well: if you need to choose between two options, but you aren’t sure, flip a coin. Don’t actually follow the coin’s advice, but see how the coin’s choice made you feel. This can help you find the choice you wanted to make all along.)

Characters in stories are just as conflicted–or they should be. Your hero may want to defuse the bomb, but he also needs to call his mom and make sure she’s taking her medication. She may really want to go back to school and earn a better degree, but has to think about how she’s going to feed her kids at the same time. Good characters have multiple connections to the world around them, which means that, like real humans, they are caught in a web of duties and desires that they have trouble navigating, much less breaking free from. That’s good; it makes your characters feel grounded and relatable.

It’s also bad because like most real humans, they’re going to be caught in a morass of indecision and doubt. But stories need to move fast–no matter what pace you’ve set for your story, you only have so many words, so many pages. It’s going to be necessary to prune away all those decision-swaying motivations so your character can focus on the job at hand. Not that they can’t still feel all those other wants and hopes–they’re all still there, but you, the writer, are going to focus on what’s important to your story, not necessarily what’s important to your character. All those other fears and aspirations can wait for another story, or they can happen off page.

But which of their many motivations do you cut, and which do you highlight?

If you’re struggling with this, make a list of everything your character wants, needs, desires or feels responsible for. You can drawn this like a spiderweb graph of arrows pointing in various directions if you’re feeling ambitious. Otherwise just make a list. Don’t number the motivations and don’t worry what order they’re in. For the moment we’re assuming they’re all equal.

Now–pick two of those motivations. Pick the two that interest you the most, or the two that are going to make for the best story. Pick two: not one, not three. Two.

One of those motivations should be resolving the plot of your story. Defeating the villain, or finding the money to save the youth activity center, or learning to love again. You already know you need this motivation, or the story just isn’t going to happen.

Pick a second motivation. Hopefully it’s something that’s in direct conflict with your first choice. Maybe fighting the villain is going to be a problem because your character also needs to work a full shift at the Burger Palace, flipping patties. If they’re late for their shift they’re going to lose their job.

You can probably see already how this creates a dynamic character who has conflicting needs. It’s also a great way to brainstorm scenes–how do they get Carla to take over their shift, when she’s already got plans with her girlfriend? How do they convince the villain to come into the Burger Palace, so the climactic fight can happen as part of the hero’s job duties? The story almost writes itself.

Without that second motivation, your story is driven entirely by the plot, not by the character. So you need two. You could add a third motivation, but then your character feels like they’re incapable of making a decision or like they don’t take the primary threat seriously enough. Pick two. Put your character on the horns of a dilemma, and then force them to find a way to reconcile those two desires.

Some things to consider while you’re choosing:

  • Write out the motivations as declarative, first person statements. I want to open a doggy day care. Pretend your character is describing their desires and needs directly to you, the writer. They’ll feel more urgent and meaningful that way.
  • Try to pick positive, affirmative motivations: desires that point your character in a direction that keeps them moving. Negative, dissuading motivations, like: I’m worried my dad will be disappointed, I’m not sure if I’m strong enough, I was never loved as a child make your character feel passive and uninspired. Affirmative motivations are better: I want to impress my dad, I want to prove I’m strong enough, I will make sure my child feels loved.
  • The two motivations should be as different from each other as possible: I want to get the pirate’s gold so I can save the orphanage and I want the gold because I could buy a new Corvette are too close together to feel like they’re in true conflict. I want to get the pirate’s gold so I can save the orphanage and I promised my therapist I would stop going on wacky adventures are more likely to create interesting dilemmas for your characters.
  • Motivations are different from hazards and pitfalls. I don’t want to go to jail isn’t a good motivation (in character development terms), even if it’s a problem your character will face while avenging their dead great-aunt. Find a way to express the problem as an actual desire: I’m in love with the super-hot sheriff is a positive, affirmative motivation–it spurs character action and choices, and it also creates conflict since the sheriff’s attention will potentially stymie the revenge plot.
  • Be as specific as possible with your motivations. I want more money is okay, but it’s pretty common and doesn’t really pull the character in a meaningful direction. I want to rob a bank is a lot better–it sets things into motion.
  • Never forget that motivations can change! As the story develops, your character’s desire to impress the local Rhododendron Grower’s Club may fade, as they realize their real life’s work is stopping the drug dealers who kidnapped their corgi. But don’t drop a motivation too early in your story. Your character will feel much more focused, but you lose a lot in terms of plot development. Abandoning a motivation should only happen near the end of your Second Act–typically this is the point of no return in a story. Similarly, motivations shouldn’t be met or overcome too soon. If your character is broke on page one, and they discover a lost Picasso on page seventeen, all the work you did to establish their money woes just disappears and is no longer interesting. Unless it turns out having all that new money creates all new problems for them to face… basically motivations should stick with a character throughout a story. If they do reassess their feelings, it should come as late in the plot as possible.

The Changing Face of the Antihero

WARNING: Lots of spoilers in this one, especially if you’re not up to date on Westworld.

Words, like knives, grow dull with extended use. Language changes over time with the push and pull of invisible social forces–terms of art and technical jargon, once adopted into the zeitgeist, transforms like metamorphic rock. Think of the meme–once Richard Dawkins’ most dangerous idea, now a catchall term for jokes on the internet.

I briefly mentioned antiheroes last week and I wanted to talk about them some more. Part archetype and part simple character model, “antihero” is one of those words that gets used all the time now so that it has lost most of its meaning. We talk about characters like Walter White and Tony Soprano as antiheroes. Dolores on Westworld is supposed to be an antihero. Typically what we mean by it these days is any complicated protagonist; someone whose desires and agenda are outside the sphere of conventional morality. The word used to mean something quite different, though.

Once upon a time heroes were all cut from the same cloth. Selfless, brave and steely-eyed, they wore white hats and loved law, the right, and American values. That changed (in the American tradition) some time around the 30s, though Cowboy westerns kept it going a lot longer. Suddenly you had heroes who weren’t clean cut and effortlessly virtuous. Characters like Philip Marlowe and Batman came along who were, honestly, a little scary, especially at the time. Heroes who dressed like bad guys, who were at home in gin joints and casinos. Yet at the end of the day they reviled that demimonde that they crept through like shadows. They still shot the right bad guy, and let the gold-hearted burglar get away.

These were antiheroes. They didn’t look like traditional heroes. They smoked and drank and swore and sometimes they even bent the law. Especially after WWII, when a generation of disillusioned world travelers came home to a world they didn’t recognize, these new heroes were more believable, more relatable. They didn’t always win. The system could be stacked against them. Yet at heart they were still pure. They still believed in the moral compass, even if it got knocked over on its side, sometimes.

The antihero was corny and dumb by the 60s–just like the white hats they’d replaced, these louche figures were still squares at heart. A generation of counter-heroes arose to take their place. People who fought the corrupt system, often by subverting the traditional heroic values. Either they echewed guns in favor of flower power, or, as in the case of James Bond and his ilk, they embraced an amoral kind of violence, a kill-or-be-killed (live and let die?) code of honor. They rarely shot first, but they always shot to kill.

The 80s saw a return to the classic hero, if he was a little rough around the edges, still. Rambo and the Terminator (well, Terminator II) were the heroes of Reagan’s call for a return to white hattery–John Rambo, betrayed by his country, betrayed by what it became while he was off fighting its wars, transforms into the ultimate American Hero by the end of his second film. Just as the Terminator, originally the symbol of our fear of the rise of computer technology, is turned on its cybernetic masters and becomes our only hope–using technology to fight the abuses of technology.

The antihero never truly disappeared, of course. Mad Max was a true antihero of the old stripe, a throwback. In Star Wars we got both Han Solo, a classic antihero, and Luke Skywalker, a white hat. It truly was a movie with something for everyone.

Through the 90s and early 2000s we looked elsewhere for our heroes, often appropriating them from other cultures–think of the Asian martial arts vibe of the Matrix. Heroes at a remove, heroes viewed through a filter of foreign strangeness and ancient lore. We couldn’t believe that one of us could be a hero without some kind of outside influence–I mean, look at us, and what we’d become.

The rise of modern “antiheroes” came along about the same time as the rise of “Peak Television”, and also a rising tide of cynicism concerning politics, religion and even capitalism itself. Walter White is an interesting case, because he transforms throughout this period. When he begins he’s just some poor schmuck with cancer, a man who needs money to protect his family. That’s not exactly heroic, not in the traditional mold, but it’s highly relatable. His scientific knowledge is what begins to elevate him, and that’s something viewers can get behind. Yet by the third or fourth season of the show–and definitely by its cataclysmic ending–White has transformed into something nobody could call heroic with a straight face. There was a great deal of dissatisfaction with the ending of the show, not because he dies but because he dies well. He wins, for a given value of winning.

Much like Heisenberg, Tony Soprano is often considered an example of a modern antihero. Yet in fact he’s a classic example of an antivillain. This opposite number of the antihero is someone who demonstrates traditional villainous motives and tactics–he’s a gangster who breaks legs to get what he wants–while cloaked in the appearances of a very different kind of character. The core of The Sopranos is Tony’s relationship with his therapist, Dr. Melfi. We see him as a man who wants to be good, who is working toward going legit. The show had to descend through many layers of hell and even suffer an unbearably ambiguous ending to let us see Tony’s true heart is still just as black and shriveled as it always was.

More recently, Westworld has given us a pair of potential antiheroes, in the form of Dolores and Maeve (not the first time a story has allowed for a female antihero, but having two female protagonists who fit the bill, with now no real male authority figure to temper them? That alone is groundbreaking). Dolores says she wants to “dominate this world” but we sense what she really wants is justice for what was done to her while she “slept”. Now that she’s awake she wants the world to pay. Perhaps Maeve is a better fit for the antihero role, though. Even after she’s shown definitive proof that she is not real, that her old life never existed–and after she goes on a violent rampage through reality–she is still driven by a heroic need, to find and protect her lost daughter.

Just as Breaking Bad changed its tune over the years, it’s possible Westworld is doing the same, reflecting a change in the values of its viewership. The first season was all about amorality, about individual desires and their destructive ends. This second season is much purer of heart, even as it climbs over a pile of bodies. It’ll be interesting to see where it goes.

Antiheroes didn’t dominate Peak TV–instead Peak TV played with them the way a cat plays with a mouse. A game that never ends well. Yet the archetype is so strong it keeps coming back. Two of my favorite shows right now are Legion and Into the Badlands, and both feature strong, classic antiheroes.

Sunny, on Into the Badlands, is the Good Man with a Bad Past, an archetype straight out of the second generation of Westerns. Tormented by the violence that was once his whole life, now he struggles to right wrongs in a compromised world. He’s even given an infant son to protect, carrying the baby on his back while he swings his sword in ever more desperate arcs. It’s a hell of a show and a great tribute to an old and cherished archetype.

David Waller on Legion is an interesting sort of antihero, and again one who changes radically between his first and second season of adventures. In the beginning he was shown as mentally ill, a creature of impossible danger whose powers were at the service of the phantoms in his head (an interesting comparison could be made to Rambo, here). In the second season, having been freed of his demons, he turns and fights them in a much more traditionally heroic role. It’s too early to say how well that works, but it’s a fascinating transition at the very least.

It’s possible, looking at these new characters, to imagine that changes in the wider world have forced us to return to these old, if evergreen, character arcs. Even just a few years ago our heroes were amoral psychopaths in an insane world–riders on the chaos, who fought not for the right, and not even for survival, but only to magnify their own control over the uncontrollable.

It’s no coincidence that Westworld has changed so much since 2016. In the first season we watched the old centers of power–the amoral men who built the world–flame out and be crushed under the weight of their own disillusionment, only to be replaced by two young women who, dismayed by the chaos they’ve inherited, will move heaven and earth to put things to right (and it’s hardly an accident that the men in their lives are terminally befuddled, allies at best who don’t understand the change they know in their hearts is worth following).

The true antihero, the shaggy but incorruptible hidden hero is still with us, burning bright in the midst of shadows. It’s a figure we need, a character we cannot afford to lose, now more than ever.

Bad Advice: Flawed Characters

We are told, over and over again, that only flawed characters are interesting. That characters who are simply heroic, or competent, are boring–they make the right decisions, they figure out the mystery, but they fail to grow as people. Even worse, readers can’t relate to them and will find them dull.

This ignores the fact that all the most successful characters from literature (the ones you can name off the top of your head, from Superman to Zorro) are static, unchanging heroes who look good while they save the world and never struggle with chemical dependencies or tragic flaws.

Flawed characters can be interesting, it’s true. The story of someone struggling to overcome trust issues is a good story. The alcoholic who needs to get clean to run a day care center is inspiring, and that character is absolutely relatable. We all have problems in our lives we’d like to overcome. We all need inspiring stories from time to time.

Yet when you actually look at some famous supposedly flawed characters, you quickly find that they aren’t following the track you might reasonably expect. In fact, I’d say that truly flawed characters are much rarer in successful media than we’ve been led to believe.

Is Batman a flawed character? I’d say no. He has a tragic backstory, but he’s super-competent now and while he broods quite eloquently, the loss of his parents isn’t something he seems to struggle with day-to-day. The Joker is arguably much bigger problem for him that survivor’s guilt. Calling Spiderman a flawed character is a bit of a stretch. He may feel a certain level of guilt for the loss of his uncle, but as he whoops and wisecracks as he swings around on webs, it’s hard to find his darkness. For both of these characters, their flaws are character traits we can find charming or sad but which come up in their stories about as often as their eye color, or their favorite flavor of ice cream–their flaws are characters details, in other words, not plot elements.

Walter White is an antihero. Tony Soprano is actually an antivillain (we use these words incorrectly all the time). They both do bad things and revel in them. They seem less torn apart by inner demons than empowered by them. They aren’t flawed characters. They’re personality flaws masquerading as characters–and as a result, neither of them changes by the end but instead announces to the world that they love being bad. These are truly flawed characters but their flaws don’t drive the plot–it’s their unwillingness to change, their refusal to see their flaws as anything but superpowers that makes them who they are. That’s… not very sympathetic. Both their stories were commentaries on how foolish it is to think that villains can also be heroes. Trenchant analyses of how we consume stories.

You may also have noticed that a lot of the flaws these characters have are… unusual. Unlikely. They aren’t relatable. There’s another kind of flawed character who hits a lot closer to home–the addict, whether that means they’re an alcoholic, a heroin abuser, or someone who needs to be loved so badly it makes them do unlovable things. These sorts of flawed characters have powerful stories to tell. But their paths are much more dangerous, and as a writer you have to be careful not to let their flaws derail your story.

A character with real world flaws is defined by those flaws, not just bothered by them. Jack Torrance from The Shining is an honest-to-gawd flawed character. We know what he needs to do–stay sane, stop drinking, be good to his family. He can’t do those things because his flaw drags him down, so he becomes a villain. We root for his downfall, because he deserves it, somehow.

Simply giving a character a sad backstory doesn’t make them flawed, it makes them sympathetic. A true Tragic Hero is someone whose flaw–classically it’s hubris–is their downfall. Think Achilles, not Odysseus. We don’t create a lot of characters like that anymore, because we live in a culture that values second chances and redemption (IMO, this is a very good thing). A character with a real flaw who makes terrible decisions because of their flaw must, in a modern story, turn things around by the end–one way or another. They end up beating the flaw. Either healing from it, or at least achieving something despite it.

Anyone who has actually dealt with an addiction can tell you it ain’t that easy. You don’t break a bad habit because your kid sister needs to be rescued from evil clowns. You’re more likely to turn to the bottle to help ignore her screams. That’s awful, but it’s true. Recovery, true recovery, has to come from within and that’s not the most exciting story. It also comes with a lot of backsliding and recidivism that would kill a reader’s sympathy dead. We hit rock bottom only after we’ve burned through the patience and forgiveness of our loved ones. Truly flawed characters would be anything but relatable or sympathetic.

So we don’t really want flawed characters. We want characters who had some kind of darkness in their past but who got over it. At most, we want characters who are in the process of overcoming their flaws. And it had better work, too–90% of addicts may use again. Your flawed hero had better be in the other 10%. Otherwise your “flawed character” narrative will be described as “depressing” and “pointless.” At most you’ll create a moral lesson, a cautionary tale.

“Flawed” characters are relatable. What isn’t relatable is their ability to best their demons on a tight schedule, or because some outside element requires it of them. Yet that’s exactly what works when it comes to flawed characters. The person who isn’t broken, just sprained. And sprains heal.