Friday, March 9, 2012

Is it good or bad?

Michael Haynes has a great post up right now on the difference between persistence and stubbornness.

I actually read it right before I went to bed last night... and then proceeded to toss and turn for about an hour thinking about it.

Y'know what I think about characters who are flat or too perfect?

The writer hasn't taken their good traits to the extreme.

Wait, what?

Yup. Any good trait becomes a bad one when you take it to the extreme.

As an example, let's take a character (or person) who is equally kind to everyone.

If that person is equally kind to everyone, it means that person will only have shallow relationships with those around them. Think about it. If your best friend or significant other treated you the same as they treated everyone else... sure, it's nice and admirable and that might be why you met in the first place, but wouldn't that get on your nerves? You would start to question, do they have the same strength of feelings towards me as I do towards them? And if they continued to treat everyone the same, no matter how you tried to build the relationship... you'd have to conclude that they don't want to do the same. You'd probable get frustrated and start to pull away from that person.

If a character is equally kind to everyone, they have no one *special* or have any deep relationships. Their kindness may even come across as false or condescending.

Someone who is really generous would have similar problems. Imagine you have a friend who always pays for you when you go out for lunch. It's really nice at first, but think of that over the long term. After a number of free lunches, wouldn't you feel like you owed that person in some way? You might end up feeling like you can never say 'no' when that person asks something of you, or you might just start making excuses and avoiding them. 'Cause even though we don't like admitting it, everyone keeps some kind of score-card in their heads. I'm not talking about being petty... I'm talking about the ingrained sense of what is right and wrong in whatever culture a person grows up in. As humans, we value those closest to us. If someone does something nice, we naturally want to be nice back, and it makes us feel bad if we can't.

So having your lunch paid for over and over again... that's going to start to make you feel really crappy after awhile. It's going to put a strain on your relationship, and if the problem doesn't get dealt with, the lopsidedness of the give-and-take will take its toll.

I often play with the good traits of my characters and find ways to have those be major stumbling blocks.

For example, Simon. He's 100% loyal and he puts Hector's life/happiness above his own, but this tendency to always put his brother first is almost always what makes their situation worse. He lies, he cheats, he steals, he almost kills someone... and that's just the beginning.

Loyalty is one of those traits that can be good/bad in a number of different ways. In fact, it's one of the reoccurring aspects in my writing. There's always at least one character who is brought down in some way by the strength of their bonds to someone else.

Sound depressing? Don't worry, I mostly have happy endings because one of the other reoccurring aspects in my writing is that there's always a silver-lining. Yes, that has its own problems when taken to the extreme... but I think I've written enough here.

Do you have a main character who is too perfect? Rather than try to make a list of bad qualities to patch on... why not take a closer look at all those good traits? Stress doesn't only kill, it inflates. Especially the strongest qualities that are inherent in people, or characters. It can take something wonderful like loyalty and twist it into obsession, and isn't that a heck of a lot more interesting to read about?

15 comments:

  1. Clever... yes good traits can also be flaws for sure. It's fun to flip the traits back and forth, play with them like crazy dice.

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    1. Oh, yeah :) ...the better the trait, the more fun when you flip it upside-down ;)

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  2. Yeah, that can make from some great characterization and interactions. Great post!

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  3. Well, now, I think that's a pretty good point. Hadn't really thought of it that way before. But your loyalty example is great. People can be nice, giving or loyal to a fault, giving a writer something to work with in developing scenes and characters to don't fall flat.

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    1. I think loyalty is one of the best traits out there... but no human is 100% perfect in what their thoughts/actions. Even if they have the best of intentions, it's easy for things to go horribly wrong.

      But then again, I do like self-destructive characters :)

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  4. I usually have the opposite problem. I have people with no redeeming qualities :-)

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    1. So, take that and swap it around. It's kind of the same thing, just working backwards :)

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  5. I have a hard time turning my characters' attributes into liabilities. But I'm workin' on it!

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    1. Well of course it doesn't work in every case, but I do think it's an interesting way to approach the whole rounding-out of a flatish character, or even just looking at the bigger picture... how could readers, or other characters, misinterpret this 'good' trait and cause some tension within the plot?

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  6. I take a trait that my MC would never do. And then have them do it or at least think about doing it. It's all about making them 'human'.

    Btw, I tagged you with the Lucky Seven at my blog.

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    1. I'm curious about your comment... a trait that your MC would never do...? Can you give an example?

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  7. The last writing class taught about having the character do something they would never do. And as to making them more human - my devil isn’t Now see if I remember - I did have both of them do something –I think I made her be very flippant about his job. She totally made fun of it. The scene for the lesson turned out so well that now when I re write I may use that voice for her.
    You are totally right about good characteristics taken to the extreme - when that happens it’s usually a sign of mental illness

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    1. What do you mean by, 'do something they would never do'?

      Ah, I guess if you're going to re-write from scratch, the change in voice would work well :)

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    ReplyDelete

Type me out a line of Shakespeare or a line of nonsense. Dumb-blonde-jokes & Irish jokes will make me laugh myself silly :)