"All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us." —J. R. R. Tolkien

Sunday, August 16, 2009

How Unperfect do you Make a Characters?

Happy Monday!

If you haven't told me your favorite cheese and entered to win these two books:
SECRETS OF THE CHEESE SYNDICATE by Donna St. Cyr (Paperback)
THE BOOK OF NONSENSE by David Slater (Hardcover)

then head here and comment.

I had the urge to run to the H-E-B and buy a huge hunk of Brie, smother it in Raspberry Chipotle sauce, and eat it with Wheat Thins while drinking red wine. Go figure.

Anyway...

I wonder how imperfect we can make our characters while still making them likeable.
I generally do some form of character worksheet before I start writing, but as I'm going through a draft, I let the characters develop plenty more on their own. Where they come from and what they are doing defines their backstory. How they interact with others and what their dialogue says defines their personality?

One thing I've noticed is the less perfect they are, the more interesting they are. Duh, right?

But the question is, how much can they push the envelop and still be characters we want to reach their goals? How "bad" can their past be while still making them be people we root for.

Is there a particular character that you felt went too far? That you found the "negativities" if you will of the person overtook who they were supposed to be and made you have the wrong reaction?

Let me know what you think!

32 comments:

Miriam S.Forster said...

The first thing that came to mind was the MC of The Devil Wears Prada. I liked the book, but I couldn't finish it. It was all "I hate my job and I hate my boss and my life is falling apart and here is what everyone around me is wearing."

If I cared anything about fashion, it might have been more interesting. As it was, the whining got old REALLY fast.

C.R. Evers said...

I think they can be as perfect as the story needs them to be. I think back to Ursula Lequin's Earthsea. Ged had all kinds of presonality flaws, but I was still pulling for him. I think the more you can get your reader to understand why your character does the things they do and why they think that way, then I think it works better. I think it also helps if they get what they "deserve" for their worst qualities, and yet they handle the consequences well. . . that makes them more endearing.

my 2 cents (or 2 wooden nickles.) :0)

Have a great week!

Carrie Harris said...

I usually find the opposite. Mary Sue-ish characters drive me NUTS. I've been sitting here trying to come up with an example of a character that was so unlikeable that it drove me nuts, and the only example I can think of is Crime and Punishment. Even the thought of that book makes me want to drive my head into the wall.

David Macinnis Gill said...

I like my characters *because* of their flaws, so they tend to be deeply flawed in all kinds of physical, mental, and social ways. However, I try to allow them to love something or someone so much that they find a way to be honorable in the story, even heroic, and I can only hope that the reader finds them likeable. Sometimes, they don't, which is a pity, because 'looking past the obvious' is a common thread in my work.

PJ Hoover said...

I haven't read The Devil Wears Prada, Miriam. I have heard people mention characters being too whiny (not necessarily in that book, but in others).
When my kids whine, it drives me up a wall. I think I will keep my characters from whining (I hope).

I like your reasoning, Christy. Making the reader understand the "why" of it makes a big difference. If a character is bitter, if we know why it helps us identify.

Mary-Sue-is. Funny, Carrie. I totally agree, though. Plain vanilla characters are boring. And personality flaws make everyone more interesting.

David, you did a GREAT job of making me care about your characters. I was totally pulling for them. In fact, as I was typing my post and glancing at my bookshelf, Soul Enchilada came to my mind as a very good example. They were like real people.

Thanks, everyone!

Trisha Pearson said...

What a great question! I recently read a book where I just detested the character. I wish I could remember what it was to use as an example but, alas, I can't recall. I do remember thinking that the character had no redeeming qualities. I think they need something endearing about them, whether virtue or flaw.

PJ Hoover said...

Only a couple examples come to my mind, Trisha. It's hard, but when I don't like them, I don't like them.

Danyelle said...

Great post! I think it helps if it's balanced out--whatever that balance may be. I have one that's a dragon, and thus thinks like one. He destroyed an entire village. Killed everyone. I have to figure out how to make him redeemable. >.<

T. Anne said...

I think the past of the MC can be pretty bad. It's the navigation towards the future that counts.

beth said...

I usually think the opposite--how can I make the antagonist more likable? I find the story so much more interesting when you can *almost* agree with what the bad guy is saying...

Shelli said...

this is tough. i have no clue - maybe pray?

Heather Zundel said...

I think their goals and motivations have a lot to do with how likable/bad you can make them. I am a sucker for the redemptive character. They can be just about as bad as they come, so long as they are striving toward something better than what they currently are.

I think an absolute imperative in growth as well. No one likes a stagnant character, no matter how brooding, or even good for that matter, that they may be.

I'm with Beth. I like making my villains more likable so that you can almost see where they are coming from...

PJ Hoover said...

I love that, Danyelle. A redeemable dragon who still acts bad!

Also love that, T. Anne. That the forward path is the most important one and makes the past open for anything.

Very interesting, Beth! I'd been thinking protagonist, but I also love being able to logic with what the bad guy is thinking (which you do well:))

Pray! Good, Shelli. This is always a useful thing to do :)

Totally agree, Heather. The growth is so important in a character. And in ourselves!

Thanks for visiting!

Tess said...

this is one thing I struggle with a lot. I want everyone to be nice and get along, but - alas- that makes for a boring read. I'm learning....I'm learning....

writtenwyrdd said...

I like flawed characters, but if they are too flawed in a manner that irritates me (for example whining profusely without taking action)I think it takes away from the book.

If you can make a flaw endearing in some fashion, it can draw the readers in. They are more rounded, more human in feel. CR Evers mentions Ged in Wizard of Earthsea and that's a great example, because Ged is an arrogant little piss ant at first, but you still sympathise with him. The early Anita Blake books had Anita really angry all the time, and stubborn and pig-headed--but it was what gave her her strength to carry on.

I'm working on a story right now where the character is abused and forced by her situation to be rather passive about it, although inside she's in a fury. When the situation changes, she becomes what she hated in her family, because she doesn't want to be a victim. My goal with that unsavory attitude is to make her both understandable and human. But since I think that it may go too far and push readers away, I am keeping some of her motivations underwraps (except for the usual hints) until the Big Reveal at the end, which will be an interesting twist. (This is a horror story, by the way, so I figured it was a perfect use for a rather unsavory character.)

PJ Hoover said...

I know, Tess! Nice is boring. Always was. Always will be!

Your story sounds very interesting, writtenwyrd. It seems like you've spent a good amount of time thinking about this very subject.
And I must read Earthsea. Sigh...

Thanks!

Tabitha said...

I think Christy hit it exactly - make the reader understand the why, and the character can be as flawed as anything. If the author can put the reader into the intimate, deep-dark-secret parts of the MC's brain, then we have a better chance of understanding why they do what they do. Because most people don't do things without some kind of reason. :)

For me, most recently, I didn't like Ever in EVERMORE. She was okay in the beginning, but as the story went along she got whiny and refused to listen. Though that may have been the author using that as a plot device in order to withold information from the reader and heighten suspense. Either way, it didn't work for me.

Solvang Sherrie said...

I can't think of a MC I didn't like on some level. Although there have been books that I just got bored and couldn't finish.

PJ Hoover said...

Yep, Christy hit it, Tabitha. It's needing the reader to understand why the character has the backstory (and even front story) they do that makes the difference.

I haven't had a long list, Sherrie. But some I think back on and really find I did not like the main character.

Thanks, guys!

Heather Zundel said...

First success! (You'll know what I mean when you see my blog post for today PJ) ;)

Even though I've already commented, can I say what a cool topic this is?

Kelly said...

The most unlikable character I came across (but it wasn't a main character so it worked well) is Professor Umbridge of Harry Potter. I couldn't stand her! But the main characters need to have likable characterstics with some flaws I think.

PJ Hoover said...

Yay, Heather! I'll head over and check your post out!

Ooh, Umbridge was horrible, Kelly. There was nothing likeable about that woman!!!!!

beckylevine said...

I think I'm late to the conversation, but my thought is that that flaw has to be part of their growth. They may not lose it, but probably/possibly they have to change how they deal with it. Maybe they're not aware of it, and they come to understand how this part of them works. Or maybe it's "too" extreme (for a person, not a story!), and they have to learn to work with it--"use their powers for good, not evil." Something like that?

I'm trying to figure out how selfish I can/need to make my heroine. She's going to have to be very selfish at the end, to save herself, but that's a different kind of selfishness than she may start with--ie seeing the world only through her needs? By the end, she'll know the other needs around her, but still need to take care of herself--just in a bigger, more important way.

I think. :)

PJ Hoover said...

Becky, you are never too late!
For me, I'm wondering how jaded I can make a characters past while having him still be the good guy. I don't want him to come off as an utter jerk.
I love the idea of your selfish heroine!

Anna said...

One thing that drives me nuts is when writers make their characters flawed by making them clumsy. I think this is so overdone these days that it seems contrived. If your only flaw is that you trip over your own feet, is life really that bad?

In terms of imperfect characters, I'm willing to go along with them for a while, even through bad decisions and wrong choices. As long as the characters really believe they're doing the right thing or that they have no choice, I'll still empathize with them(no matter how off their logic might be).

PJ Hoover said...

OMG, I know what you mean, Anna. It's like characters take on the traits of weak females from older movies who always trip and fall at the wrong time. In all my life, I've never actually met someone as clumsy as some characters I've read about.
Thanks for visiting!

Kelly H-Y said...

Oh my goodness ... your comment about brie, raspberry chipotle sauce, and wheat thins has my mouth watering!!!

PJ Hoover said...

Me, too, Kelly! Yummy!

Kiki Hamilton said...

I had a hard time warming up to the Queen of Attolia. Her actions were so despicable against a character I liked so much that it took me a LOOONNNGGGG time to come around to considering her worthy. Which was probably MWT's intent.

PJ Hoover said...

It's interesting when the author makes a conscious choice that way, Kiki, isn't it!
Thanks for visiting!

Lady Glamis said...

PJ, I'm going through this with my current novel right now. My main character is a great guy, but he's made some really stupid decisions, and I'm afraid that some of this other choices in the book are going to make the reader really angry and not like him, even if he is redeemed at the end.

When all is said and done, I just have to write the story the way I see it. If the character isn't likeable enough, I'll just have to the keep the book on my shelf for me. :D

PJ Hoover said...

That's my current thought, too, Michelle. Write what comes out, and then I will revise as necessary to make sure the character is likeable enough.