jgraeme2007 (jgraeme2007) wrote,
jgraeme2007
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When Good Characters Do Bad Things - Part I


I was talking recently with someone offlist about the difficulty of creating believably flawed protagonists, so I said I'd post on that one of these fine days... 

In order to have strong internal conflict in an m/m romance, your main characters must occasionally clash -- they can't get along on every score, they can't be in harmony on every point -- they must occasionally disagree in earnest. No, really. They must. Otherwise, you'll be reduced to having them miscommunicate or, worse, bicker in order to keep them from having their Happy Ever After in the first ten pages.  

Bickering is tiresome. People who bicker in real life are tiresome. You don't want your main characters to become tiresome.

Miscommunication can also be tiresome unless the writer is pretty good at making the miscommunication believable and reasonable.

Now, you might be wondering to yourself why you need to have internal conflict in your story -- isn't external conflict enough? Why can't everyone just get along and have a lot of sex?

Good news. You can write that story if you want to. Go right ahead. Maybe your external conflict is such that there really isn't time to waste on internal conflict. Or maybe you just don't like internal conflict. Fair enough. There are writers who concoct engaging and deceptively simple tales about two men in love. James Anson's The Larton Chronicles  is a case in point.  It takes a skilled writer to pull off that kind of thing, but it can be done and done very well. However, you have to remember that most romances require plot. And plot requires conflict. It doesn't mean the characters have to be at each other's throats, it just means that they want different things.

Here's another way to look at it. Your main character wants something -- and the thing keeping him from getting it is the man he's falling in love with. Sometimes what he wants most is the other man, which is where we start getting into flawed characters. Because if everyone was perfect, we'd all get along beautifully. We'd only make healthy and smart decisions in our lives. And we'd always choose the right people to love.

I don't know about you, but that ain't the way it works for me. Or at least, it didn't back when I was single. And it can't work that way for your characters either. They have to want or need different things. Or think they do. And we often excuse this lapse in judgement by giving these characters flaws. In fact, sometimes it's not even a matter of a "flaw" so much as they the world differently based on their history and experiences. At any moment in time we are our own end product...see?

Which means if your character is "promiscuous" -- which is often a tricky one for a feminine audience (and often means a different thing than it does for a male audience) -- the reader needs to understand why. The reader needs to know (in a way we often can't grasp in real life) what is motivating your characters to act the way they do. In real life other people's hurtful actions often just puzzle us. In good fiction, we have an understanding of why characters are motivated to act the way they do. We don't have to like it -- there are readers who are never going to like Jake Riordan -- but liking a character is not central to good writing. Creating a believable character, is.

Granted, in romance we need the reader to want those characters to wind up together, so likability is maybe a factor here in a way that it isn't for literary and other genre fiction.

What we want to avoid at all costs is the reader reaction of No way! He would never do that! Because, while real people often surprise us with the things they do that seem "out of character," fiction is not real life. Fiction needs to make sense in a way that real life doesn't. Fiction needs to satisfy in a way real life doesn't. When someone dies a pointless death in fiction...that's the point! There are no pointless deaths in fiction.

The most interesting characters to me are flawed characters. Perfection is boring -- perfection is unrealistic. In real life interesting people are often the people who take chances, who fail, who make mistakes -- sometimes on a grand scale. They are the people who often garner a lot of criticism. You think George Washington didn't piss a lot of people off when he decided to become Commander and Chief of the Continental Army? You think the neighbors weren't talking?

There are flaws that readers find acceptable and flaws that readers have a hard time with. Stupidity is hard to accept. We don't like our characters to be dumb. A couple of bad decisions...sure. We can all identify with having punched the wrong button under pressue. But never choosing the right button? No. A character who is TSTL (Too Stupid to Live)? No.

Think of the people you admire or find interesting in real life. Think about your favorite characters in fiction. Who among the real life people that interest you would make good characters in fiction? Seriously -- consider that a bit. The characters who stay with us are rarely the paragons of virtue. Okay, Sleeping Beauty's prince excepted because he is HOT.

(Yes, I'm kidding. Cinderella's BF is much hotter.)

Anyway, child molesters, rapists, and serial killers (in general) don't ring a lot of bells for most of us. Stupidity, greed, cowardice...we don't like these things in ourselves or others, so if they pop up in a protagonist, something has to balance our instant rejection. The key to creating believably flawed characters has to do with flaws and weaknesses a lot of people recognize or identify with. Having one drink too many and doing something stupid...probably most of us have been there. Homicidal mania...probably not.

Not having the courage to say...I love you. We can identify. Betraying your platoon's whereabouts to the enemy...upside down smile.

Not that it wouldn't happen, not that it isn't believable in the right circumstances. I'm not saying you can't do it. I'm saying it takes more work to pull it off. You may not be that good -- in which case readers are going to let you know about it. Maybe you care. Maybe you don't.

The individual reader may not like the choices a particular character makes, they may strongly disagree with the choices the character makes, but the clues to the characters behavior should be there...so that when readers are at their book club arm wrestling this stuff, the trail is there and that naysayer can be loudly shouted down.

You have to sprinkle the bread crumbs, lay the groundwork.

More on this later -- feel free to share your thoughts.
Tags: m/m fiction, man oh man, writing
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  • The Weekly (okay looking more like monthly) Round Up!

    The (rough draft) of The Haunted Heart is now complete at Wattpad. I'll be leaving it up until I expand, edit and publish the final version…

  • Beautiful Words

    If you’ve read Come Unto These Yellow Sands (Pssst! Now in audio) you might remember I cite Wilfred J. Funk’s 1932 list of “most…

  • Q&A on Writing Gay Mysteries

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