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Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Too Hero or Not Too Hero?

In December's Geekfest post from yesterday, she brings up a nice little discussion on the fallibility of heros and heroines. It's certainly not a new discussion, but it did get me thinking. Whether in a movie or in a book, a strong character can make or break the success. We've even heard it said that a story is only as good as your antagonist is bad.

Does that bad = to ultimate evil? In goodness or badness, characters must connect with the entertainee. I'm a fan of Heroes (the tv series). They've got an excellent villain in Sylar. A slightly twisted hero who believes other heros are broken and he is the only one who can fix them. Last night we got a glimmer of his humanity. He went to see his mom. He was questioning his future. The thought of just being "normal" was driving him. Did that weaken him as a character? No, it only made him more fascinating as a character to watch develop.

I have seen many first time writers (yes, even my own work *sigh*) write heroes that are too good and perfect and villains that are too evil and sadistic. Perfection is boring. I'm not perfect. My husband isn't perfect. He stinks from time-to-time and doesn't do the dishes nearly enough in my mind. My mother isn't perfect, though she is a perfectionist. My father isn't perfect. He definitely has anger management issues. My children certainly aren't - so if all the people I love the most aren't perfect, why would I be interested in a pretend character who is?

Some of my favorite books are my favorites because of the characters within those pages. Same thing with television and movies. I love Dr. House. His character is twisted and loveable at the same time. Pendergast from the Preston and Child books is one of my absolute favorite characters, though, for a while, he did ride a tad close to being too perfect. There is a Julie Garwood book that I love because her heroine is just so loveable, but she has a bad habit of forgetting anything she is holding and picking up items that don't belong to her.

When you are reading and you have finished - what remains with you? The characters or the plot? I'm sure we have ones that fall into either or, and many that fall into both. Writers who understand the fundamental basics of personality and have a grasp of psychology tend to develop stronger characters. What is motivating this person? This person hates split pea soup, why? How does that dislike shape future decisions?

I enjoy characters who are real. Characters who have beliefs that I disagree with or who make decisions out of reaction instead of careful plot manipulation. What is probably my biggest pet peeve in character development is when communication is tailored specifically to achieve a plot goal, instead of communicating in the way that real people do. I often see this in some of the weaker romance novels, where the writer doesn't have too much external conflict and it seems the only internal conflict she (or he) can really find is miscommunication or no communication at all... Yes, miscommunication happens, so does hiding from an emotion... but there is a fine line between "yeah, she's scared of rejection" and "Oh come on already, you are acting like a moron and I'm going to throw this against the wall."

One thing we writers should know, is how personalities work. I do believe that writers are as close to psychologists as someone can get, without actually being a psychologist. (at least the good ones anyway)

I have a book on characterization and I wanted to share an excerpt:

There is no one more expert about the psychology of personality than you. The ordinary clinician opens his bible, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association, and names your problem according to the symptoms you report. If you report that you've been feeling blue for a certain number of days, have had trouble sleeping, and experience little or no pleasure from life, a clinician runs his finger down the page, looks up, and says it's major depression. A writer does something very different.

A writer gets inside his sleepless, blue character and discovers that she is blue because she has contrived a loveless marriage that made sense from one point of view, the security angle, but was a horrible mistake from the purely human angle, since her husband is a cipher. A clinician says it's major depression. A writer says, "Hmm. Given the inner conflict, given that she really does love her walk-in closet but hates her husband, what is she going to do? What if I bring in, not a handsome stranger, but someone she'd never look at twice under ordinary circumstances but who, by virtue of the fact that she is so conflicted, begins to attract her in an obsessional way? Wouldn't that be interesting?"

- What would your character do? Eric Maisel & Ann Maisel

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7 Comments:

Blogger Rashenbo said...

/sigh, heros = heroes.... I've got to get into the habit of writing blog posts in word first :)

Nah, I don't have time for that each morning... I'm supposed to be working, doncha know? You'll just have to accept my mad spelling skills while I'm typing a blog post and trying to bounce between work at the same time!

8:43 AM  
Blogger heather said...

that heros character sounds fascinating! i really have to watch that show sometime.

good post. as a writer, the plot and simply the words stick with me. for example, recently i finished 'jonathan strange & mr. norrell' by susanna clarke. there were very few 'villians'...most of them were just people acting out of self-interest, which often made them disliked. and the words, well the words in that one made all the difference.

now i'm most of the way thru 'numbered account' by christopher reich, and i'm pretty sure i won't remember any of it afterwards. mostly boring characters and an entirely flat (and obvious) villian. i hate it when i start editing while reading (oh, they should've said THIS!) and i've done that quite a bit during this book.

9:13 AM  
Blogger Leary said...

ack i am so guilty. contrived plots, wooden characters *shrug*

by the way, I LOVE hinder!!

8:10 PM  
Blogger Christine said...

Heroes does an excellent job of blurring the lines between bad and good. Remember how much we hated Mr. Benett at the beginning of the season? If they kill him off now I'll cry! Everything he did was to keep Clair safe. No, he's not perfect, but as you said I like him all the better for that.

6:20 AM  
Blogger December Quinn said...

My character (the one I created in my head just now with the loveless marriage) would probably not do anything outright, but would start subtly trying to seduce the stranger. Or rather, to get him to seduce her, so she can have her cake and not have to take so much responsibility for having it. :-)


BTW I tagged you. Go to my blog and see.

6:27 AM  
Blogger ERiCA said...

Great post! Thanks for the food for thought. =)

8:41 AM  
Blogger writtenwyrdd said...

Good thoughts. Really, we look at the world as possibilities when we are thinking about creating characters, but the clinician is thinking about deleting possibilities, despite the fact that they are trying to be openminded about the patient's problems. Differing perspectives.

I liked the quote. I have the book but haven't read it yet. Now I might look through it sooner!

8:52 AM  

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