Tuesday June 27
Subscribe to RSS Feed

Bitches and Bastards, Maybe. But No Perfect Characters Wanted

November 24, 2011 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified November 24, 2011

I was recently talking to a frustrated writer, frustrated because beta readers were finding fault with her lead characters.

Some readers didn’t like her male lead, others had trouble with the female. They said the characters were unsympathetic, unkind, or just not nice.

No, her leads aren’t rotten, they aren’t the bitch and bastard referred to in this article’s title. They are simply characters with character.

And isn’t that what we want for our stories, characters who stand out, who grab our attention? Don’t we want characters who make us notice them? Characters with character, characters we’ll remember for their bold actions, characters who stir our emotions? Don’t we want stories peopled with characters who aren’t safe and who don’t blend in?

The characters we most enjoy have some growing to do. They aren’t necessarily nice. They certainly aren’t insipid.

They don’t always do the right thing, say the right words, have the correct motivations. They aren’t always politically correct and they may hurt others, both willingly and unknowingly.

They may never apologize. They may make excuses. They may lie or cheat or steal.

Characters who are bold, who aren’t always nice or polite or solicitous, are the characters readers will remember.

So why all the fuss from beta readers?

My guess is that the readers don’t want the writer to submit something they think won’t be popular with either agents or editors. Yet characters who stand out, who are outrageous or who stumble or who push the readers’ buttons, are exactly the kinds of characters agents and acquiring editors are looking for.

Who wants to read about nice characters, characters who don’t ruffle feathers or who don’t get into trouble or who always say the right thing?

Wouldn’t we rather read about flawed humans, people who make mistakes but who still manage to redeem themselves or a portion of their lives? Don’t we want bold characters who are different from us, who speak their minds—even when fearful of consequences—who press ahead despite fear and anxiety and feelings of worthlessness?

I know I’m seldom looking for nice characters. Nice characters don’t create tension—they’d work to diffuse it. Nice characters mean bland scenes and ho-hum motivations. Nice characters mean not-so-nice stories.

And lest anyone take offense, I’m not talking about doing away with characters who are good, who stand on the side of justice or integrity or decency. Good characters can be strong and bold and powerful. But nice characters, characters who don’t take stands and who have no outstanding quirks and who don’t rock the boat are not strong enough to be the leads in a novel.

Characters without flaw are flat and the stories told about them can’t draw the readers’ interest the same way stories about imperfect characters can. What surprise is there when a perfect character defeats his enemy? Doesn’t he always defeat his enemy? Was there any doubt that he’d win again?

But what about the imperfect character who’s admitted to cheating to get ahead—can he win the biggest challenge in his life without resorting to cheating again? Will those around him let him forget what he’s done before and pull for him or will they always stand against him, no matter how honest he now is? Can a rude or belligerent character change enough to get other characters on his side when it counts?

If your lead character is perfect, how will he grow? If he’s perfect, how will his next victory be any different for him than his last? If he’s perfect, how will the reader relate?

Perfect characters are fit for cartoons. It’s the flawed ones who make for fascinating fiction.

The writer I was speaking with said the characters didn’t resonate with the beta readers. Yet after hearing some of the comments her readers had made, I told her the characters certainly did resonate. They had those readers upset. The characters had succeeded in touching the readers.

And that’s exactly what you want your characters to do.

——————————-

Exceptions
~  There is a difference between characters your readers refuse to follow through a story and characters who are flawed or who have problems or who irritate the snot out of the reader.

Flawed and irritating characters belong in fiction. But characters who are poorly written or who are repulsive to most readers deserve to be shunned. Yet, keep in mind that some characters, no matter how abhorrent, can make compelling stories.

~  Genre is an important consideration for character personality. In romance, readers are going to want to like your hero and heroine, even through their flaws. Be aware of what the genre allows. Be willing to push expectations, of course. But realize that you might not change those expectations with a single book, a single severely flawed character.

But don’t necessarily bow to what the beta readers say they want. They definitely don’t want perfection in their leads. They don’t want the beautiful and perfect and flawless. They may want redeemable; they don’t want main characters who don’t ruffle feathers.

Consider Rhett and Scarlett, whose movie was on TV just in time to bring them to mind for this article. Neither Rhett nor Scarlett are perfect, but they are good characters. Great characters. They give us reasons to both loathe them and root for them. They are bold, brash, audacious, and larger than life. They pull us into their lives not by their goodness, but by their manner. Their personalities. Their daring and confidence. Who would work his way through Margaret Mitchell’s tome without the reward of Scarlett’s nerve and Rhett’s disregard for propriety?

So, be bold in ruffling feathers of both other characters and your readers and don’t be afraid of writing characters who stir the puddin’. Certainly don’t shy away from giving characters unlikable qualities. Give them those negative qualities and make us like them anyway. Or make us root for them, even if they have flaws.

Don’t play it safe with your characters.

Don’t make readers wish they had picked up a more engrossing book rather than yours.

Do remember character traits and behaviors can have a range of intensities. That is, not all characters have to operate at the peak of their traits at all times. Adapt character behavior to the story you want to create, to the needs of the scene. Use lively characters to establish tone and to make other characters nervous. Use the behavior and thoughts and words of characters to make readers uncomfortable. They’ll thank you for it. And they’ll come back for more.

*******

No, characters don’t have to be bastards or bitches or cruel or crazy or repulsive. But they could be. And if you write them well, readers will enjoy reading them.

Take your beta readers’ comments under consideration? Absolutely. But don’t allow them to strip the emotion and verve from your stories and characters. Write bold characters with quirks and faults and flaws. And remember that you don’t have to redeem them or heal all their frailties by the end of your book. You could. But if the ending, if the story, is more powerful with a still flawed protagonist limping home with the prize, then keep him flawed.

Create characters who are boldly imperfect.

And allow yourself to be bold as you envision imperfect characters to live in your story worlds.

Write strong fiction by creating characters who are far from bland and nice.

***

Share

Tags:     Posted in: Craft & Style

4 Responses to “Bitches and Bastards, Maybe. But No Perfect Characters Wanted”

  1. J.P. Hansen says:

    Great post. I love this line: “Nice characters don’t create tension—they’d work to diffuse it.” Very true, but so is this—here in Minneapolis the prevailing ethic is called ‘Minnesota Nice’. Guess what sort of juicy, repressed characters you can get out of that?

  2. So all the nastiness is forced inside until the people can’t contain it anymore and they blow? That tendency could make some great characters, J.P. Thanks for the reminder that surface nice can mask the not so nice.

  3. “Perfect characters are fit for cartoons. It’s the flawed ones who make for fascinating fiction.”

    Is it really necessary for Beth Hill to demean cartoons (animation films) here ?
    She has produced a fantastic blog but comments like the one above makes her look like an uneducated layman on the subject.

    I need to educate her on the aspect that animation screenplays have just as detailed and dynamic a story structure as live action films and screenplays do.

    In fact when a story is written, oftentimes the writer may not know whether a live action film producer or an animation film producer will buy it. They are just two different medias in cinema – albeit with their characteristic differences – but maintaining the basic structure and details of storytelling nevertheless.

    – Indraneel Mallik (Senior character animator – ‘Alpha and Omega’)

    • Indraneel, thanks for sharing your feelings. No slight was intended nor made toward animation films. Using one of the widely accepted definitions of cartoon and cartoonish, I was encouraging writers to write more than one-dimensional or stereotypical characters. I certainly never said or implied that animations don’t have dynamic story structure. Animation films obviously follow the same storytelling processes as live action films and novels.

      It’s encouraging to see the passion you bring to your profession; I hope that all artists and craftsmen carry such passion into their work. At the same time, I hope that passion doesn’t lead to invalid assumptions. The use of the word cartoon in this article was as an adjective, nothing more.