The Flawed and the Vulnerable: why characters need to be both

Have you ever read a book and about halfway through – for some reason you couldn’t quite put your finger on – you started to feel bored?

There’s a lot of reasons for this:  lack of forward momentum, too much backstory, poor writing, not enough tension, nothing big for the characters to do, no important stakes. But there’s another reason that could underlie all these things:  boring characters. I don’t mean characters that do nothing, or have boring dialogue. I mean characters that are too perfect.

In writing, there’s an axiom:  give your characters flaws. Or more accurately, give them vulnerabilities. No one wants a hero that can’t be stopped. Where’s the fun (and tension) in that?

Imagine if we’d known Harry couldn’t be defeated by Voldemort. Would anyone have bothered to read the last book, let alone 8.3 million of us in the first 24 hours? Nope. The tension lies in the not knowing. If the reader has doubt your hero can really pull it off – whatever ‘it’ is – then they’re invested. They’re rooting for your hero. They want to see him succeed – but it’s up to you to make sure the reader is on the edge of their seat, biting their fingernails, turning the pages long past the time they should have gone to bed.

I’ve been reminded of all of this in the past week through my new favorite TV show, Lucifer, as well as the latest installments of two of my favorite book series.

luciferIf you’re not familiar with Lucifer, it’s a fantastic show, and the main character, played by the devilishly handsome Tom Ellis, is Lucifer. In the flesh. Got bored with Hell and decided to go to Los Angeles and get a life. Though truthfully, it’s much more complicated than that, and the writers really should get Emmys for how well they’ve done with this material.

Lucifer is a tortured soul, mischievous and charming, the consummate bad boy – but beset by his own demons (both literally and figuratively). As an angel, he can’t be harmed, except by a heavenly weapon – but then he meets Detective Chloe Decker, and for some inexplicable reason, if she’s around . . . he’s mortal.

This instantly raises the stakes.

Add in the fact that he’s always with her on cases and in shootouts and the stakes are raised even higher. Let’s face it:  a hero who can fall off a ten-story building without a scratch is, well, a bit boring. Put him in proximity to Chloe, though, and suddenly there’s tension, because there’s real danger.

51gpkfudefl-_sx328_bo1204203200_Now. If you’re not familiar with Darynda Jones’ Charley Davidson series, you’re in for a treat. Charley is a private investigator, but she’s also the Grim Reaper. She’s shiny and bright and spirits from all over not only see her, but cross through her to the other side. She was born that way. She’s also smart, sarcastic, and funny as hell even when the situation doesn’t call for it. For instance, in this book she went to rescue a client, got caught, and now they’re both about to die:

“He must be returned to the earth,” she said. “He must learn from his mistakes and be allowed to grow again.”

“You’re going to replant him?” I asked.

“And you as well.”

“Can I come back as an azalea?”

I love Charley. But I admit, this book is slightly on the boring side for one reason:  Charley can’t die. We didn’t know that until a few books ago. The first few books in the series are fantastic because Charley can’t help but put herself in harm’s way; sometimes it’s to help someone, and sometimes it’s just because she’s That Kind of Person, but we’re always on the edge of our seats because we know something bad is coming. She can heal fast, but she’s not immune to pain, torture, or dying. But now we know she’s a god, and she can heal herself. There may be a few things that can kill her, but not many. So we no longer have the great tension we once did of ‘how will she get out of this?’, because we know she can.

But by this time, Jones has created an entire world of secondary characters that are almost as endearing and fun as Charley herself – and they’re almost all mortal. She’s fiercely loyal to her human family and friends, and will do anything to save them. So we do worry for them, and for her daughter Beep, who is in hiding. But as I was reading the ending of the most recent book tonight, I realized that I was a little disappointed – because I knew Charley could get out of it any time she wanted, really. The tension of that scene was gone.

bjfioefvegrhthtThe other book I’m reading is Feversong, the last book in the Fever series by Karen Marie Moning. I. Love. These. Books. In the world Moning has created, everything has limits and rules.

Basic premise:  MacKayla Lane can see the Fae. The walls between Fae and mankind have crashed, and Mac needs to put it back up. Not easy, but she has help from the other sidhe-seers, as well as Jericho Barrons and the rest of the Nine. We don’t know exactly what the Nine are, but we know they can’t die – well, there is one way, but let’s not go there. If they do die, they just magically go back to an original starting point, heal, and then come back to Dublin.

The rules:  Mac’s human. To defeat the Fae, she can use one of two weapons that can kill them. She can also snack on Fae in order to gain their capabilities, but if she does, she’s vulnerable to her own weapon. The Nine can regenerate, but it takes a while, and in the interim, they’re gone. Sure, they return eventually, but will it be in enough time? That’s the question. So there’s built-in tension with the rules, especially before Mac knows they come back. They are vulnerable. Plus, we really like them and don’t want bad things to happen to them, either. 🙂

This is why, when you’re writing a thriller, a mystery, or – well, anything – your hero must be flawed and vulnerable. Vulnerable is the key, though. Lucifer is flawed, but without Chloe, he’s not vulnerable on any level. She makes him that way, both physically and emotionally. Charley is flawed, but again, not very vulnerable. It’s the people in her life that are her Achilles’ heel. Mac – and the Nine – are both flawed and vulnerable in certain circumstances.

Flaws make us human. Flaws lead to downfalls. Flaws lead us to make irrational choices, to do things we’d normally not otherwise do. Flaws in your characters do the same thing – they become overconfident, overlook things, get hurt, cut people out of their lives, make mistakes. In a truly good, character-driven book, it’s the flaws that help drive the narrative.

Flaws  and vulnerabilities are what we identify with as readers. Who wants a perfect main character?

That’s just boring. 🙂

Character Descriptions

Last week, I discussed setting descriptions (sort of; there’s an entire book there!). This week, I want to look a bit more at character descriptions.

Most writers have drafts sitting on their hard drive or in their desk drawers in which they describe characters by having them stand in front of a mirror and contemplating the way they look.Something like this:  “Petra stood in front of the mirror, contemplating her long blond locks. Her blue eyes stared back at her; she could count the five freckles dotted across her nose.  The high aristocratic cheekbones were a gift from her mother, while her heart-shaped mouth was from her father’s side. When she wore white, as she was doing now, it made her look even paler.”

WRONG. In most cases, WRONG. WRONG, WRONG, WRONG.

But why? you ask? Veronica Roth did it in Divergent. Yes, she absolutely did. And she got away with it – but just barely. The reason Roth gets away with it is that she’s using Tris’ mirror-gazing as a microcosm of the larger whole, as a way to introduce us to the dystopian world we’re about to enter.

There is one mirror in my house. It is behind a sliding panel in the hallway upstairs. Our faction allows me to stand in front of it on the second day of every third month, the day my mother cuts my hair. . . . I look at my reflection when she isn’t paying attention – not for the sake of vanity, but out of curiosity. A lot can happen to a person’s appearance in three months. In my reflection I see a narrow face, wide, round eyes, and a long, thin nose – I still look like a little girl, though sometime in the last few months I turned sixteen.

In reality, .Roth’s goal here isn’t so much to describe Tris – we don’t even know what color her hair is, or her eyes – but to describe Tris’ world. Factions? A mirror hidden behind a panel? She doesn’t know when she had her birthday? This evokes questions in the reader. And remember, the goal of your first sentence, first paragraph, and first page is evoke questions that the reader MUST have answered.

So why is it so bad to sit your characters in front of a mirror and describe them? Because every single word counts. And you need to do a lot more with your descriptions than convey what someone looks like. If all they’re doing is sitting and staring, that’s boring. And when readers are bored, readers stop reading. Your descriptions need to evoke emotion, feeling, atmosphere, what era your character is in, what their social status is, and who they are.

Last week, I said the best way to describe your setting is to have your character interact with it. And this extends to character description as well.

I have to go back to Diana Gabaldon here – she’s the queen of this. And she does it mostly by weaving the descriptions seamlessly into the conversations. Like this example from Outlander:

“You’ve the loveliest hair,” Jamie said, watching me.

“What:? This?” I raised a hand self-consciously to my locks, which as usual, could be politely described as higgledy-piggledy. . . . “But it’s so . . . curly.”

“Aye, of course.” He looked surprised. “I heard one of Dougal’s girls say to a friend at the castle that it would take three hours with the hot tongs to make hers look like that . . .”

Of course, if your main character is as vain as the day is long, maybe they do spend countless hours in front of a mirror, contemplating their own beauty, counting the pores on their faces, making sure they don’t have any new blemishes threatening to erupt. If they’re that vain, though, they better have some really good redemptive qualities, because no one is going to care about them. You could, perhaps, pull a Sunset Boulevard kind of thing if your MC is older, looking back on her life, and wondering where she got all those wrinkles and age spots. But I would find a different way to do it.

You can always have other characters describe each other, and in romance novels, this is usually how it goes. We see the heroine’s POV in which she sees the dashing hero for the first time (usually shirtless), and then we switch POV so we can get the hero’s reaction to the ravishing beauty he’s just been introduced to. Readers have come to expect this, in fact, so if there’s a way you can mix it up, do so.

Here’s an example from my own work in progress, from the point of view of Kai, who died more than 250 years before Erin shows up at his door. So I wanted to be sure to spin his reaction in that direction.

But then the car door slammed, and if he’d had any breath in him, the sight of the girl standing in the drive would have taken it away. She was tall. Nearly his own height, in fact. Her long blond hair was pulled away from her face, and she wore clothes that left little to the imagination. . . He watched as she struggled to pull a large bag out of the car, displaying attributes no single woman ought to display so well.

Later, he – not in a creepy way! – sneaks up to study her:

She rolled over in her sleep, one long leg slipping off the edge of the sofa. He stared at her toenails, fascinated. Since when had women bared their toes long enough to need them painted?

I wanted my descriptions to highlight the differences between them, to show as much about Kai as they do about Erin. Your character descriptions should not focus solely on the physical; they need to also show the things that cannot be seen easily.

Some authors – especially in literary fiction – seem to have no character descriptions at all. I hate this, personally. For one, I really want to know what the characters look like. For another, one or two GREAT choices can always remind the reader exactly who this person is and what they look like. I know this is weird, but think for a second about Adolf Hitler. Think of how he’s portrayed in movies. Let’s face it, all you need is an actor who is kind of short and has beady little eyes. Give him that mustache and the Nazi uniform, and everyone knows immediately who this is supposed to be. Same thing with your characters. Jamie Fraser’s slanted, blue cat-eyes and knife-edge nose – not to mention his red hair – are forces to be reckoned with. Claire’s riotous hair and gold eyes (YES, in the books she has gold eyes, Jamie says they’re whiskey-colored) set her apart instantly.

In Laurie R. King’s Mary Russell novels, Russell has very long, straight hair, even though she’s a modern girl – she’s reading theology at Oxford and owns a Morris – and it’s 1915 when we first meet her, just on the cusp of the women’s lib movement. King has an unusual task in her novels, though:  not only does she have to create Russell, but she also has to remain faithful to one of the most iconic fictional characters ever, Sherlock Holmes. And she does, magnificently. Russell’s long hair is at first a source of confusion for Holmes. Later, when Holmes has been taken prisoner by a maharajah in India:

And then the maharajah said to me, ‘Do remove your topee, Captain Russell; you’ll be able to see better.’ Holmes tensed, his hand making a fist, his eyes darting to the guards as he prepared to fling himself to my protection.

But a topee is not a turban, and I had been my teacher’s pupil before I became my husband’s wife, learning to my bones that half a disguise is none at all. I lifted my topee, smoothed my regulation officer’s haircut with my other hand, and bent forward obediently to witness the lack of tricks up the magician’s sleeve.

The moment my short-cropped, pomade-sleek, unquestionably masculine hair passed beneath his nose was the closest I’ve ever seen Holmes to fainting dead away.

Character descriptions are just as important as any other descriptions, and just as tricky to get right. They need to convey more than the physical; they need to convey emotions, time period, changes in your character .  .  . It’s a tall order! But with practice – and lots of reading! – you’ll get there.