A common response to when someone makes a mistake is, “Nobody’s perfect!” Which is true. We live in an imperfect world which is why so many of us turn to the nearest escape hatch–books.
Who We Are
We read to go seeking a world that’s a little more magical, that feels a bit more like “the good old days” or a utopian future. But “the good old days” had problems too, and utopia is unlikely. (I know, it hurts my sunshine idealist heart too.) Imperfection is who we are…and it’s who our characters should be too.
What characters are you most drawn to reading? It’s pretty safe to bet it isn’t the cardboard ones that are perfect people that just have bad things happen to them. What we see in fiction are reflections of our world, and that hope for utopia comes from a hope of growth. Much like the plants in my brother’s tiny apartment, if your characters are rooted in a stagnant box then they have nowhere to grow.
What Perfection Does
In case you haven’t seen How I Met Your Mother, which you should, meet Patrice.
She is a happy-go-lucky office worker who has never done a thing wrong in her life (we know this, and we love you). Patrice is peppy, thoughtful, and genuinely wants nothing but to love everyone around her any way that she can, to which the general response is:
Because while we adore these kinds of people in real life, even they are not as perfect as Patrice, and if they were, we would be just as annoyed as Robin Scherbatsky. Imperfection is what makes characters relatable, and makes us root for them. It’s why the protagonists of HIMYM are the heavily flawed band of Robin and friends and not Patrice.
How to Handle Flaws
Make them real. Make them hurt. Make them redeemable. Clumsiness is not a character flaw. I repeat, NOT A CHARACTER FLAW. It’s relatable, but it’s not internal. The flaws I’m talking about come from our fears, our desires, and how we enact them. A glory-seeking hero underestimates the villain and consequently someone dies. The bookish girl wants the world to operate by her moral compass, which it doesn’t, prodding her to have a hellish temper. Two best friends share a pride streak, so neither one knows that the other is in danger because they both refuse to apologize first. These are the kinds of real flaws that readers can relate too, even when inflated by fiction. While flaws may show themselves in external action, it starts at the heart of the character.
High school was where writing got serious. It wasn’t just for fun–it was for grades, for college credit, for a future career. Greenrock Writers’ Retreat was a place to experiment with writing without consequences, and with the collective influence of other brilliant young writers. We hashed out plot ideas, argued over the summer’s chosen book, and complained about the communal dorm bathrooms (because bleh).
I’m in college now, soon to be on my way out of the very university where I attended Greenrock for the first time as a newly minted high school freshman. While I didn’t choose MSU because of Greenrock, it definitely helped me to plant some roots there, and I am loving every second of being in the Professional Writing program (even the ones I whine about). I was sad to not be able to come back this year as a Greenrock alumni for the writing marathon, but excited to hear about the program expanding.
A special shout-out to Dawn and Luke, my first Greenrock mentors (and of course my original gang of GR writerly hoodlums, The Dolphins). The ones who knew how to draw me out of my shell, make me laugh, and challenge how I thought about writing.
Kids are funnier, more creative, and more astute than they are sometimes given credit for. As an adult it can be hard to remember how to think like a kid, making it harder to get inside the mind of a child character. So how do we improve the way we represent children in fiction?
Spend Time with Them
The best way to get to know someone is to spend time with them, right? Even if you’re not “a kid person”, spending some time with them can do wonders for getting those writer wheels turning. Take notes on the conversations you have. Who are more creative and honest than people too young for a verbal filter? I’ve heard some of the funniest, saddest, and purest one-liners while babysitting, and have been able to spin them into great dialogue, in some cases dialogue that isn’t even between children. Those little buggers can be wise.
Know the Vernacular
With child characters, this means being able to distinguish the dialogue of a five year old from a ten year old, etc. I have read stories that underestimate the difference in children’s vernacular as they develop, and the result is unrealistic dialogue or inconsistent/flat characters. Again, exposure can be a huge help. And while we often want to believe in the innocence of children’s language, the truth is that by upper elementary a kid probably has a more colorful vocabulary than some parents might want or expect. In writing this is often used for humor, but if it fits someone’s environment or personality it can also be reflective of realistic characterization (think Stranger Things or the “Bleep” episode of the TV show Arthur).
Recognize Their Impact
Child characters are often used to empathetic ends. We see this when they are used as foils for jaded or angry adults. Their innocence and black-and-white view can diffuse tense situations, likes Scout Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, or increase tension by obliviously wandering in on an already taut scene. However, child characters can also reveal the darker parts of human nature, like in Lord of the Flies. Either way, they can provide a lot of insight into what it means to be human. But they should also be understood as more than just a literary symbol. They need to be well-rounded characters and relevant to the story. I think Laura from the movie Logan is a great (if slightly intense) example. If kids shouldn’t be talked down to then as characters they shouldn’t be “written” down to either. Let’s give credit where credit it due.
Question of the week: What was your favorite children’s book/series growing up?
Happy Friday, friends! The weekend is here and with it, here’s a little extra encouragement as you work on that best-seller. Nothing is quite as demotivating as pitching an idea to someone who replies, “Hey that’s cool! Your story sounds kind of like…reminds me of….etc.” Sometimes it can feel like everything’s already been said, that your story isn’t worth putting out there, but fight that little brain demon and keep at it!
Want to know a secret? Some of the most mind-blowing characters we see and think, “Wow, I could never create someone as devastatingly amazing at that,” aren’t quite as stand-alone as we think. For example, Batman was not the world’s first mysterious and shadowy crime detective to make a hobby of stalking police commissioners. Much of his character draws from the 1930’s radio drama, The Shadow. (Which is actually super fun to listen to if you like podcast-type stories. You can find episodes free online.) So yes, sometimes we do need to stand on the shoulders of the storyteller who have come before us. But by incorporating our own voices we are owning our traditions and remaking the myths that have been the foundation of narrative for centuries. You’ve got this!
When it comes to protagonists, we all know the drill–child loses parents at a tender age, discovers the world is not as friendly as it seems, and eventually becomes her own hero, cobbling together a family-of-circumstance along the way. Don’t get me wrong, I love these types of stories. They’re often my favorite. But, my fellow writers, where does it end? Will no one save the parents?
Parents as Motivators
The most basic role of parent figures in fiction is probably that of the motivator. Often in YA it’s their death that leads to the main character’s emotional struggle. (For example, in classic Disney films parents have what I would guess to be a 3% chance of surviving past the first twenty minutes.) But it doesn’t have to be this way! Living parents can be just as effective at motivating protagonists. Reuniting with estranged family can serve as a strong motivation or end goal. In my novel, Marley is offered the chance to find her parents as extra incentive to comply with the antagonist’s scheme. On the other hand, parents can also serve the “prove you wrong” purpose, leading the underestimated heroes to take up a cause to prove their worth.
Parents as Protagonists
Sometimes young writers such as myself forget that a parent can function as a stand alone character, or even the hero. In this capacity, they are the ultimate protectors. Case in point, the movie Taken. At the same time, parental characters don’t have to be confined by their guardian role. They can go on their own adventures, fight their own personal battles, and be their own comic relief. Two words. Dad jokes.
Parents as Antagonists
Ah, villains. How we love thee. Although a bit cliché, parental antagonists are fantastic, creating joyous inner conflicts that have given us gems like:
Sorry, Darth. Not today. Of course, there are times when children fall in line with the evil whims of their parents as well, such as the case of Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter series. The turmoil between the will of a parent and a desperate to please hero is absolute gold. Not only does it increase tension, but it ups the stakes of the protagonist’s success. Basically, fictional parents rock, so let’s think twice before casting them out to sea.
Question of the week: Who are you favorite fictional parents?
Every book lover has had that “Little Mermaid” moment. That moment where we fall so deeply in love with a fictional world that we’d die happy if we could spend just ten minutes there. But what happens when we’re not just experiencing fictional worlds? What happens when we’re creating them? Creating a fictional world can be challenging, but not to fear fellow mermaids! Here are a few starting tips to leave readers wishing they were part of that world.
As discussed in an earlier post, setting is a powerful tool, so it’s important to use it to its full potential. When designing a fictional world, making borders is a great place to start.Building land-based borders can help define the edges of a character’s world. These edges can be limited to something as small as a single street, or as vast as a universe. There may be entire continents that make up your world, but the ones that really matter are the ones that effect characters.
There are other ways to define borders as well. Unless it’s a Doctor Who-ish world where anything can happen at any time, there are usually basic laws to how things work. Consider: What are the physical limitations of the story and characters? For example, in my novel some people like Rumpelstiltskin use magic, but they can’t go around doing whatever they want. There are lines that cannot be crossed, which adds drama by creating consequences for people who try to overstretch their limits.
Who lives in your world is a large part of its construction. What do these people value and how does it shape their world? Do they blow apart mountains to get to the other side because they value efficiency, or do they avoid the mountains because of folklore? Culture will determine how characters interact with their environment and each other. When considering creating fictional cultures, it can be difficult to find a place to start. Research can help. I often borrow aspects from already existing cultures and integrate pieces into my work to form something new.
Often culture sculpts character. Much of a character’s personality depends on the values she’s gained from her culture. In many cases, it is then her backstory, the specific events throughout her life, that decides whether a she accepts or rejects those cultural values as her own. Culture can then be used as a form of support or conflict for a character.