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.

Bad Advice: Write Like Your Parents Are Already Dead

Because, of course, then you’ll be liberated from the fear of offending them. Or you can write about them, even better, right? You can write about how crazy they were or how they treated you or what they did to keep you from writing. Right?

It’s true that writers need to be a little fearless when they choose their subjects. They have to write violent or dark or–gasp–sexy scenes and if they’re worried what their families or close friends think, they’ll hold back, they’ll soft-pedal things. It’s true that the great writers are the ones who tackle subjects nobody wants to talk about. The ideas and concepts that might make them unpopular.

Right?

I don’t entirely buy it. Oh, it’s good to be a little libertine in your choices as a writer. You want drama and excitement and a little adrenaline to spice up your stories. But there are two reasons I think this is, if not terrible advice, at least worth questioning. The first is that your parents–actually, let’s open this up and say your loved ones, regardless of their legal relationship to you–are the best support staff you’re going to get. They can nurture you and be your best first readers and their stories can inform what you write. One of the best, if not the best moment of my entire career, happened at a dinner table one night while I was visiting my parents.

“Here are my five favorite David Wellington novels, and why,” my father said. Then he went on to list and describe them.

My Dad had read my books. And liked them. He’s passed, now, and I miss so much the support, encouragement, and love he gave me. While he was still alive he got to see me succeed as a writer. He was so proud. I wouldn’t trade anything for that.

Writing is a solitary activity and it can be soul-crushing. The isolation and daily discouragement you get as a writer is your worst enemy. Your loved ones are what can keep you going in the darkest moments. Don’t see them as impediments. See them as resources. If they truly love you, of course they’ll want you to use their stories, to adapt their anecdotes. You can’t write in a vacuum.

The second reason that this particular piece of advice is bad is that strictures and limitations are what make art great.

The pure, free play of the writer’s mind gave us Ulysses, and To The Lighthouse. Those are great books… but they’re rare. And they should be. Most great stories come from some kind of artificial rule, some boundary set up against the author’s progress by forces they couldn’t control.

There’s a reason why the Monty Python movies aren’t as good as the television sketches. Forced to work within arbitrary rules of censorship on state media, the Pythons were forced to go absurd–they couldn’t just make endless jokes about shit and fucking, so they had to get surreal.

Almost all pulp fiction passed through a rigorous gauntlet of editors and gate-keepers, people who either demanded the stories be less salacious–or more so. Then there’s the greatest road block of them all: the readership, in all of its strident demands and capricious wants. I would argue–and I know there are many who disagree–that Lovecraft’s greatest stories are the ones he wrote specifically for the Weird Tales audience. Not the Poe pastiches and noodly nightmares he created when nobody was watching.

Editors refine stories. Audiences push authors to find universal themes, to find why stories are important. Writing in a vacuum would ignore those tensions, pretend they don’t exist.

For the sake of your readership, and your own mental health–don’t write like your parents are already dead. Right the story that’s going to make your father (or mother, or wife, or cousin, or crazy best friend) proud of you.

Politics in Genre Writing

Short answer? Go for it.

Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

You’ve probably heard someone tell you this by now. That they don’t want “politics” in science fiction, or horror, or Disney Princess fanfic. Of course we all know what they really mean. They don’t want you to write anything that disagrees with their personal politics.

It is in fact possible that if you include a strong political stance in your writing, you’ll lose a few readers. You might also gain a few more–who agree with you. Who want to support your message.

You may have been told that if you take a strong political stance in your writing, you’ll get harassed online. I’ve got news for you–you will get harassed online as soon as you put your name in the public eye. It’s something you learn to deal with as a writer. There will be angry words, and name-calling, and maybe even threats, regardless of what you say.

Politics is part of our daily life, maybe more now than at any time in the past (certainly more than any point in my lifetime). If your characters don’t have political views, they’ll feel less realistic.

And if you write in the most non-objectionable, most middle-of-the-road way, how will your story stand out?

I was told early on in my career to shy away from “controversial” subject matter. Like, for instance, having characters who weren’t straight, white, and predominantly male. I was given a very long lecture on this by someone I trust, someone with a lot of experience in the industry.

All I can tell you is–my two most successful characters were a lesbian state trooper and a Muslim schoolgirl from Somalia.

Whoever tells you to keep the politics out of writing is trying to stop you from using your voice. Don’t let them.

Bad Advice: Single Biome Worlds

It’s one of the great cliche responses to science fiction. “Earth has dozens of different biomes, but every planet in sci fi is just one thing, either it’s all desert or all frozen or…”

It’s easy to see why this bothers so many people watching science fiction movies. It’s very true that Earth has a wide range of climates and terrain, from snowswept mountains to dense, fetid swamps to arctic deserts and mist forests. When a planet in a work of science fiction is homogeneous from pole to pole, it feels like the creators are taking a shortcut. They’re being lazy.

But there are very good reasons why we keep seeing single-biome worlds in fiction. For one thing–as shortcuts go, it’s a great one. If you have multiple planets to depict, as in Star Wars, it allows you to instantly set them off from each other. You know by simple lighting cues and color palettes if a scene is set on Tattooine or Dagobah or Hoth. You don’t need to keep putting titles on the screen telling us where we are.

Furthermore it allows you to develop a landscape even if the characters move from place to place on the same planet. A consistent setting can grow and develop depth, whereas you just don’t have room to describe fifty different biomes in the same book, say.

This concern over single biome worlds didn’t start with Star Wars. It was old even when Dune was at its heyday. Arrakis is desert from pole to pole. It’s literally called the “Desert Planet”. This makes it the butt of one of the oldest tropes in sf criticism. Yet Herbert wasn’t trying to create a lushly diverse world in Dune. He was specifically trying to create a world which appears to be empty and hostile to life. What J.G. Ballard would call “psychic zero”–the same desolate landscape that is the setting for most of the Bible, a place where his zensunni warriors could test themselves both physically and spiritually. He also wanted to show the life cycle of the sandworms, which is so complex they may be the only living things on Arrakis, pre the arrival of humans. It’s funny that Dune, which is often called the first ecological science fiction novel, started this trend of worrying so much about biological diversity.

Looking outside the science fiction world, we can find a pretty solid defense of the single-biome planet as well–we need only look at the actual universe we live in. While Earth is home to multiple habitats and giant variations in its weather patterns, it turns out that it’s the exception, not the rule.

Wherever we look in our own solar system, we find nothing but single-biome worlds. Mars is cold, dry, and dusty. The polar caps are slightly different, but only slightly. Mercury is even more homogeneous, with maybe a few patches of water ice in craters at its poles–otherwise it’s nothing but sunblasted rock. Venus is shrouded in such a dense atmosphere that its entire surface is just molten rock and maybe liquid metals.

Beyond the orbit of Mars, diversity in planetary surfaces drops off considerably. The four giant planets are nothing but unitary weather patterns. Their moons are almost universally made of ice and rock in equal measure. Titan has methane lakes and deserts of electric sands, but again, it sticks out for its incredible wealth of biomes (two, maybe three). Beyond Neptune, there is nothing but an endless succession of Hoths. Worse than Hoths, because they lack the atmosphere to even have variable weather.

The criticism that worlds in science fiction are too samey, too much of a piece, is perfectly legitimate when we’re talking about planets exactly like Earth–planets with incredible genetic diversity, planets where life has sculpted the environment into biomes that favor individual species’ reproductive success. But please, when you’re creating worlds for your own sf stories, don’t feel obliged to throw rain forests onto your alpine planet. You don’t need them, and despite what anyone says, they aren’t all that realistic anyway.

Bad Advice: Static Protagonists

Everyone knows that your characters need to go through arcs. They need to change, or grow, or learn a lesson, or discover something about themselves before the story’s over.

Don’t believe it. Plenty of great stories are led by static characters. Most writing guides will insist that every character you create needs to be dynamic and grow over time, but in fact this is a choice (like everything in writing), one you can forego under some circumstances.

There are many different kinds of characters–many varieties of protagonist–and some of them don’t benefit from deep, character driven stories.

Let’s look at a couple kind of characters that benefit from not being so three dimensional:

Aspirational characters don’t–and shouldn’t–develop over the course of a story. These are characters who are held up as paragons of a certain desirable quality. Kind, noble, smarter than the rest of us. Sherlock Holmes never changed, in the original stories. Modern attempts to recreate the character focus on giving him substance abuse problems or neurological impairments. They never improve on the original. Every time they try to make Superman more human, or flawed, the story falls apart. Why? Because Superman isn’t supposed to be human. He’s a symbol of something nobler and more pure, something we aspire to. He has weaknesses, sure, but no movie ends with him accepting that he is helpless before kryptonite, or understanding that he and Lois Lane are never going to be happy together and moving on.

Tragic characters, as well, lack arcs. They start out with a flaw and we watch as that flaw tears them apart. The only lesson they learn is that fate can’t be avoided. In fact the whole point of the story is to show that people can’t change, that they are locked into preordained paths. Think of Oedipus, bound by prophecy–his story is not improved by him learning to love himself. Jay Gatsby, who is defined by his attempts to redefine himself, ends up dead in a swimming pool, because he found that there was something in his heart he couldn’t reinvent.

Badass characters start as their best selves and end there, too. Action movie stars don’t have arcs. Oh, they may discover that they care about the orphan child being hunted by the cartel. But that soft spot in their hearts was always there–it’s never developed beyond one touching moment of recognition. I have a friend who despises the movie 300, because he feels Leonidas starts out as the ultimate warrior… and then simply lives up to his reputation. From the perspective of character-driven drama, sure, 300 is a failure… but does anyone really think it would be made better by giving Leonidas a lengthy subplot where he has to discover the Spartan within?

Static protagonists do not have self-realizations; they simply end the story better informed than they were before. They don’t grow and mature, because we are told from the beginning they’re already at their wisest and best. They may not stop at every station on the Hero’s Journey, but sometimes we don’t need them to.

It’s up to you to decide how much your character needs to develop in the course of your plot. In fact, you will often have to choose between having a more complicated external plot and telling the story of a character’s more human side.

It’s not my position here to suggest that character-driven stories are bad in any way. Simply that they are not the only way of telling a story. Of course, you can have a story about a superhero who fails, and has to learn to live with the fact they aren’t the hero they thought they were. You can have a story about a tragic character who rises above their suffering, and accomplishes something noble even as they watch their doom approach. Sure! Those can be great stories, too! The point I’m trying to make is that arcs, like everything in writing, are choices and you don’t always need them. You can write a book that’s one long character sketch or a series of farcical events with no real plot. Some of the great works of literature don’t go anywhere. There are lots of really terrible books with exquisitely engineered character arcs. As always, it’s up to the writer to choose which rules they want to follow, and which they want to ignore for the sake of the story.

 

Unconventional Devices: Direct Address

Any story is a conversation between a writer and a reader. There’s an unspoken agreement you make when you pick up a book–the author is going to tell you a story, maybe even try to make a point, and they know you’re listening and (hopefully) paying attention. That’s a lot to ask from a reader, and sometimes we need to trick you into compliance. Writers use any number of devices to keep this relationship tacit. We distance ourselves from the reader by sticking to a character’s viewpoint (these are the characters words, not mine, dear reader) or by dramatizing events rather than editorializing on them. This distancing, this careful construction of an invisible wall between the two parties, is central to the work of writing.

Yet sometimes we break that wall. The writer directly addresses the reader–either to clarify a point or simply to foreground the work of narration. It can be used for emphasis–the classic example being: “Reader, I married him.” It’s a hammer in the writer’s tool box, and not a very subtle one. Writers differ on their opinion as to its utility. Fashions in writing change, and in recent decades direct address has become a little sinful, a little louche. Writers like Vonnegut and Tom Robbins used it to great effect back in the 60s and 70s–it was practically Vonnegut’s trademark–but as with many things from those decades, it’s now seen as quaint and overly precious.

Funnily enough, it’s made a resurgence in television, with the main characters of House of Cards and Mr. Robot actually treating the viewer as a confidante. It’s clear that the showrunners/writers/director of the show are speaking directly to us here, through the words of their characters. The device has appeared in many movies made since the turn of the century as well–and let us never forget Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

So if our screenwriting colleagues occasionally dabble in direct adress, will we see a resurgence of it in fiction? It’s in the nature of fashions to change.

Should you, as a writer, use direct address? As is true with employing any device, it’s a decision that shouldn’t be made lightly.

Direct address can create that old chestnut “immediacy”, of course. It yanks the reader right onto the page and forces them to acknowledge their half of the literary contract. It allows an author to deliver plot and setting information in a compact, economical form as well, and can highlight your themes. Hell, it puts a neon sign around your theme with a big arrow that might as well say “moral of the story here, get it while the take is hot.”

Which may be the best argument against using it. Do you really want your theme stated so baldly on the page? Many themes and, yes, morals are best viewed through a thin veil of story. Direct address always runs the risk of coming across as overly chummy, didactic, even downright preachy (a true cardinal sin of writing).

You may be better off distancing yourself from your narrative, if only a little. Consider the effect you want to achieve. Are you going for polemic, are you a firebrand who needs to thump a pulpit? Or do you want a dreamier feel to your story? For anyone writing fantasy (of any flavor) direct address can be dangerous. It can shatter the illusion of a secondary world, make it look false and brittle. And for horror stories it’s downright lethal. Horror is all about seductive immersion, about luring the reader into a quiet corner and then springing nightmares on them. Direct address can kill mood and tone faster than anything.

It’s always been the opinion of this writer that writing is about choices made thoughtfully and with care. I won’t tell you not to use direct address, reader. I just hope you’ll use it with care.

Questions People Ask Writers

What are you working on?

Is it finished? When can we see it?

Do you have a day job?

Are you published?

But seriously, what do you do for money?

Are you also looking for a real job?

Is your book any good?

How long did it take you to write it?

Are you published? No?

What do you do for health insurance?

Does your spouse/partner/parent support you?

Are you published? Yes?

What have you published? Anything we would’ve heard of?

Is it a best seller yet?

Are you famous?

Are you rich?

Can I have some money?

My cousin wrote a cookbook, can you help him publish it?

Why won’t you help my cousin? He’s very nice.

If I tell you my life story, will you write the screenplay?

Can we split the money?

Why don’t you write screenplays? Isn’t the money better?

What do you write?

No, I mean, what kind of novel?

No, I’m asking what genre?

No, like, there are only three genres, right?

You write science fiction? So you’re a nerd?

You write fantasy? So are you a flake?

You write horror? Are you a closet psychopath?

Just kidding. But seriously, you have a sick mind, right?

Would I like your book?

Can I have a free copy?

Oh, you’re a writer?

Anything I would have heard of?

Who are your influences?

No, I mean, what writers did you copy?

No, seriously, whose work did you model it after?

Where do you get your ideas?

You’re a writer? Really?

Oh, you’re successful! So when does the movie come out?

You’re a writer? Would I know your name?

Can you spell it? No, I’m not going to write it down. I’ll remember.

They tell me you’re a writer?

Are you any good?

What’s your day job?