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.

Finding Your Voice

Clichés are annoying and facile but they typically come into being for a reason. Something in them tends to be true or useful. Of all the clichés in genre writing I hold the least bearable, the realization that a character “had the power inside themselves all along” is one of the most nauseating.

For writers, though, it’s absolutely correct. You do have a power inside yourself, right now. It’s called your voice.

When we talk about a writer’s voice, we’re referring to a large number of small things. It could be a certain tone the writer tends to use, or a stylistic flourish. It could simple be certain words the writer uses in every work, or a bit of imagery they come back to time and again. These things add up to a unique style that marks out a piece of writing as belonging solely to that particular writer. It can be quite distinctive, sometimes–you always know when you’re reading an Andrew Vachss book, because the writing has been cut down to blood and bone. You know when you see a Wes Anderson movie because of the flattened affect mixed with the baroque visual sensibility. But voice can be subtle, too. It can just be a certain feeling you get from a writer’s work. China Mieville writes, mostly, in a standard genre register but there’s always an undercurrent of something mystical there. Iain Banks had a certain sophistication that bled through even in his most desperate action scenes.

Starting writers tend to worry about voice a lot. They wonder how they’ll ever develop a sensibility all their own. There’s good news and bad news, there. The good news is, it’s easy to find your own voice. You don’t actually need to go looking for it–as you write more and more, it will manifest itself without any effort. Straining to create a voice, or, far worse, trying to imitate someone else’s voice, is a sure way not only to drive yourself mad but also to insure your work will be pale and derivative. So don’t fight the process, and it will come to you.

The bad news is that once you’ve got a voice, you’re pretty much stuck with it.

When I hear myself on audio recordings, I’m always struck by how dull and growly my (physiological) voice sounds. In my head I have a rich baritone but what other people hear is basically the sound of a bear gargling through a mouthful of fish. I hate it. Maybe you’ve had a similar experience.

When I read back my own writing, I find myself prey to a similar revulsion. Oh, don’t get me wrong. The breathless, overly dramatic voice that I’ve developed is one of my most precious possessions (forgive the immodesty here, I’m making a point). The way I tell my stories is unique to me and it works, and that’s the most anybody can ask for. Yet when I was young and looking for my voice, I had an idea of what it would be, and it was anything but what I’m describing here. My voice, I imagined, would be lyrical and wry, with plenty of humor mixed into a deep, humanistic world-weariness. It was going to be a decadent and tragic voice, full of subtle pathos.

Oh, well. The stories I wanted to tell demanded something else. As my work developed along different lines, my voice found me.

I imagine I’m not the only writer who feels this way. I imagine lots of us don’t like what we sound like when it’s echoed back at us. Sadly, there is no option. The voice you find is the voice you’ll need to work with, for the rest of your life. It was in you all along, waiting to show itself, and once it makes itself known only a fool would turn their back on such a gift.

Embrace your voice. Don’t seek it out, don’t fight its evolution. Find it, and work with it. It’s the best friend you’ll get as a writer. We don’t choose our friends in this life, but when we need them, when the chips are down, they’re all we’ve got.

Subjectivity and Time in Prose

I want to talk about the way time functions inside a story–specifically within prose fiction. It’s all about subjectivity.

This may be the crucial difference between books and movies, actually. Time is a director’s medium–in a movie time can be measured in footage, in actual minutes of runtime. You know how long it will take a viewer to watch a movie, and you can build your scenes around exactly how many seconds they’ll last. Writers of prose don’t have these tools at their fingertips. A reader might take six hours to read a book or six months. Their experience of time passing in a story is therefore much more subjective, and that’s where the real difference lies, in that very subjectivity.

Movies are typically objective in their scope–they are a relating of events that happened in the world; prose stories are far more subjective, exploring the psychological state of a character, how they feel and react to the events of plot. Think of the difference between a third-person and a first-person video game. The latter is all about What Happened. The latter is about what Someone Saw.

This subjectivity allows time in prose to be much more fluid than it is in the movies. It’s true movies can jump around in time, or contain subjective flashbacks, but film isn’t nearly as nimble as prose can be in this regard. A writer of prose fiction can jump back and forth in time within the space of a single sentence–recall the memories of a character or delve into their subjective experience of an event, spending pages exploring a single second of real time.

Subjective time affects every element of a story.

Time is always an element of setting–you can write a story that takes place over the events of one special summer, or the life of a character who lives to old age, or you can tell a story that happens all in one hour. Subjective time makes it possible to stretch a single moment to fill an entire book, as in Nicholson Baker’s wonderful Mezzanine, which takes place entirely over the time it takes a character to ride an escalator between two floors of a building.

Subjective time is crucial to the tone of a piece. A slow, languid story full of reminiscence and regret will feel very different from an action-packed plot full of cliffhangers and sudden reversals.

It has a major effect on characters. The more subjective time that passes during a story, the deeper the characters become, the more they will be changed by their experiences. If time is sped up and breathlessly hurtles forward, characters won’t have a chance to reflect on their own actions–which may be what you want for your story.

The structure of a story can be radically remolded by subjective time. You can put gaps in time into your story that allow us to see a character at different points in their life. You can go back and revisit events that happened long before the beginning of the story, or start in media res, or even tell a story backwards, showing us how the climax of your tale developed inescapably from prior events. Iain M. Banks uses this to brutal and undeniable effect in Use of Weapons, one of his best books, which contains two parallel narratives flowing in opposite directions through time (if that makes no sense, just read the book–it’s well worth your, ahem, time).

And of course time is the fundamental element of plot. You should always have a clear idea of the timeline of your story (even if you don’t share this timeline with your readers). The strict rationing of time can kick your story into a higher gear. Giving your characters deadlines to meet forces them to take action, forces them to make decisions. Strict rationing of time keeps events from getting bogged down–it’s absolutely one of the best ways to create dramatic tension.

Backstory and Front-Loading

Your characters didn’t appear out of the ether, newly created on page one of your book. At least, they shouldn’t feel like they did. They had lives before the story starts, families, jobs, religious affiliations, pets. If you’re going to make them feel real to the reader, you need to know their backstories. You need to at least think about where they came from.

But how much of their backstory should your reader see?

Backstory can be useful when creating characters to sketch out their entire lineage and life story. It can help you get a handle on who they are, so that when you’re writing their dialogue and plotting their actions, you’ll know what they will–and won’t–do. This is useful.

But when it comes time to actually write the story, consider not including that backstory in your text. Think about leaving it all in your notebook. Ask yourself very seriously how much of that backstory matters to the current story. Do we really care whether the Space Pirate Captain’s grandmother was fond of a certain brand of tea?

Everything you write in your story should be meaningful to that story. It should serve a purpose. Whether you’re writing a 5,000 word short or a 200,000 word epic, you just don’t have room for extraneous information.

Gary Gygax, the co-creator of Dungeons and Dragons, used to talk about character stories. His players would come to him with fully fleshed-out characters who had deep, rich experiences before they arrived at the table. “Character story,” he said, “is what happens between level one and level five.”

(If you don’t understand what that means, you may be reading the wrong writing blog, by the way.)

In other words, the best way to get character details across is to show them. To dramatize them during the story.

There are a couple of reasons for this. One is that backstory–whether it’s told as flashback or narration or a letter found in an old dictionary–slows narrative down to a crawl. It distracts your reader from the rip-roaring plot of the adventure they came to read. It brings up the question of why, if this old news is so important, did you choose to start your book later on in time? Why not write the prequel first?

The other reason to avoid extensive backstory is front-loading. Front-loading is the problem that occurs when a writer needs to put a lot of detailed information into Act I, information the reader will need to comprehend and digest before they can understand the rest of the story. Front-loading is bad. It feels like homework. It doesn’t just slow down your plot–it turns it into a slog. A death march.

If your plot hinges entirely on what a character’s father said to them when they were a child, if your worldbuilding requires you to include three chapters on how the kingdom came to be ruled by somebody’s housecat… that’s front-loading, and it can ruin a great book.

Front-loading isn’t just a character problem, as we saw in that last example, but when it comes attached to characterization–when it’s all about backstory–it’s doubly deadly. There are readers who enjoy a good history lesson at the start of a book. But when you front-load the backstory of your main (or even worse, your secondary) character(s), you sabotage your story right from the start.

The first act of your story is about establishing things as they are now. Not how they got their way. The first act is where you tell us who the important characters are–if you have a lengthy scene with your character’s math teacher, then your story becomes, de facto, about that math teacher. The first act is about establishing stakes, but front-loading backstory makes it feel like your story is just the epilogue to some other tale.

Take a very close look at the backstory of the character you’re writing right now. How did that backstory effect them? How did it change them? Rather than describing those past events in detail, could you instead get away with, say, just showing us who they are today? Could the collection of tics and mannerisms that make up a character speak for themselves? Can we get that your character is an alcoholic not by describing their drinking days, but by showing how terrified they are of going to a wedding party where everybody will be drinking?

If your backstory is slowing you down, cut it. You may have to find ways to get information across–creative ways, innovative ways. But solving problems like that is ninety per cent of what it means to be a writer.

Love Stories

For Valentine’s day, I thought I’d write down a few thoughts on one of the hardest things in fiction–writing effective love stories.

This is one of those things that’s so much easier to do in a screenplay. Of course Trinity falls in love with Neo–have you seen him? He looks just like Keanu Reeves! In fiction, though, you can’t just say “two pretty people met and fell for each other, and it was super hot.” In a book or a short story you actually have to show it happening. You need to give your reader actual reasons why the two people involved enjoy each others’ company–and why they want to take time out of their busy schedule of slaying dragons and surviving alien invasions to be together. I’ve put together some basic tips here that should help you avoid some of the common pitfalls of romance stories, especially as they’re deployed in genre fiction.

You may not actually need a love story. A lot of stories don’t. If your characters don’t get along, or if it feels like you’re just shoehorning in a romance subplot… try not doing that. Let the characters be happier as friends. Not every two people who meet in a book are destined to be together. If the love story is taking up too much room in your plot or if just feels forced, let them go their separate ways.

Opposites repel. If your characters have diametrically opposed goals–say, one is a hero and one is a villain–or if their personalities actively clash, why would they even want to date? I’m not saying it can’t be done, but when your characters are constantly squabbling, they’ll often come across more as obnoxious than lovable. Instead, try giving your characters something to bond over. You’ll be surprised how when two characters actually respect and like each other, feelings can just naturally blossom. It makes them want to spend more time together, and have more scenes together. Speaking of which!

Put your characters in the same room. Nothing feels more artificial than a love interest who is always away on quests or only shows up in the character’s life when it’s least convenient. This is the fictional equivalent of the significant other who lives in Canada or goes to a different high school so we can’t ever meet them. The lover who can’t be tied down may be a romantic archetype, but it always feels like a device, not a character. You want your two characters spending LOTS of time together. We need long dialogue scenes between them, and to have them go on adventures together to increase their bond. The more of them we see enjoying each other’s company, the more we’ll believe it when they have that first, awkward, tentative, beautiful kiss.

Give love time to grow. Yeah, this is important. Like any kind of plot or subplot, the love story happens over time. It has its ups and downs, its reversals and its misunderstandings. Having two characters meet in scene one and be making out in scene two only works if scene three is them realizing what a terrible mistake they just made (and scene four is them wondering if it really was a mistake after all, and scene five is…). This is a plot, which means it needs to develop. Which means you need to devote a lot of time to it. Don’t have enough room in your story for that? See tip number one, above.

A lover should never be a prize. Just because you broke up the drug cartel doesn’t mean you get the boy. Saving a woman from zombies doesn’t mean she owes you anything. This is an old, old trope from a bad time and it deserves to die. Both characters in a love story have their own feelings and their own value. They don’t exist just as motivation for the protagonist, and they don’t just fall into bed every time something dramatic happens. In fact, it’s a good general rule–never have a love scene immediately after something traumatic or violent happens. That’s just super creepy.

Love is a two-way sacrifice. Love means both parties giving up something of themselves to be with the loved one. Both of them. A character who drops their entire life just to go chasing after a pretty other isn’t a character, they’re an appendage. If your aspiring wizard stops practicing magic because he met a pretty woman at the library, he’s a dud. If a woman quits her job so she can move to Alaska to marry the salmon fisherman, her story is over. Your characters both need to make choices to be together, or their love feels like a plot detail rather than a story in itself.

When You’re Stuck: Things to Try

There are days when you just can’t write. You can have the world’s best idea, be sitting in the world’s best writing chair… and nothing comes. When it feels like every sentence you put down just takes you farther from what you wanted to say.

And you know what? Sometimes there is no solution, except to stop, walk away, and find something more constructive to do with your time. Absolutely.

But before you get to that point, there are things you can try to bring the magic back. I can’t guarantee they’ll work, but it’s better than losing an entire writing day, right?

Change Your Viewpoint: I wrote a story recently where I just couldn’t find the right voice. I had great characters in mind, but I couldn’t make them jump through the necessary hoops. They were too smart to do the dumb thing, or too weak to effect the needed change. I tried writing that story four different ways, and in the end, the answer was to write the story from the perspective of the villain. Suddenly the evil machinations all felt natural. The dialogue, which had been forced, was suddenly crackling with malice. It turned a mournful, quiet story into a fun romp–exactly what that story needed.

Write Backwards: There are some writers, I’m told, who write the middle of a story first, or the next-to-last scene, or whatever. I’ve never been one of them, myself. I need to write chronologically, both for the sake of continuity and flow. But every so often I’ll find that the answer really is to write the climax of the story first–and then write the penultimate scene, and then the antepenultimate scene, until I get to the beginning. It’s like when you’re stuck solving a maze–often just flipping the maze over and starting from the end is the best solution.

The Extended Outline: The worst way to write, typically, is to just list a series of events, as in; this happened, and then that happened, and then another thing… except when that’s exactly what you need to do. If you know the structure and plot of your story, try writing each chapter as a single sentence (as convoluted and nonsensical as it needs to be), as if you were writing a dry and clinical synopsis of the story. Then go back and fix those terrible sentences! You may find they turn into scenes because you can’t bear to leave them as knotted up and mechanical as they look on the page.

Change Act I: If the ending of a story isn’t working, if it seems hackneyed or lifeless, often times you just haven’t earned it. Your characters haven’t gone through enough trials, or the solution to their problem is just too easy or too obvious. Go back and look at how you started the story. Did you not give your protagonist enough obstacles to overcome? Did you forget to mention that your heroine is a wizard? Find some simple detail early in the story and change it. How does that affect your ending? It could unlock whole new possibilities. Of course, the opposite can be true as well–that is:

Simplify! A story that is too complicated is one of the main causes of stuck writer syndrome. The problem may be that you’re trying to do too much. Do you really need that subplot where the characters open a bakery, only to realize they actually needed to find the Jade Parrot statue before it was too late? Are you trying to create rich, multi-dimensional characters in a pulpy potboiler? Cutting out extraneous material and diversions will free you up to really explore the things that excite you about the story.

And of course the best advice you can get when you’re stuck is this: Don’t give up! Keep plugging away. Write ten bad sentences in a row and maybe the eleventh will be the one that sings. You can always go back and edit later. Remembering that is often the golden key that unlocks your creativity. Don’t be afraid to fail!

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.