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. 🙂

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An Evening With Elizabeth Gilbert, part 2

Two weeks ago, I was lucky enough to see Elizabeth Gilbert live in Wichita. I started looking at her words of wisdom in last week’s blog, but there was so much good stuff, I knew it would take at least two weeks to cover it all!

One thing I loved was that she took so many questions from the audience. Most of us, it seemed, were writers or artists of some sort, looking to get our creative mojo back – or wanting to figure out how to get it to visit for the first time. And that was at the heart of one of the questions that was asked:  If you don’t do your writing regularly, does it go away?

Well. You and I know that sometimes, that happens. This particular person had suffered some terrible setbacks, moved at least twice recently, and felt she had lost everything that tied her to her writing. She used to be able to sit for hours and let the words pour out of her, as if she was channeling rather than creating (OH, do I know what she’s talking about, and do I know the heartache when that stops!), and she wanted to know if, in fact, she would ever be able to write like that again. Liz’s response? “The work wants to be made, and it wants to be made through you. If you can’t believe that, then it will go away.” (Which is one of the things she talks about in her book Big Magic – the phenomenon of having an idea, and working on it, and then being unable to work on it for a long time and coming back to it and realizing that the idea has moved on.) “We get addicted to the past experiences, the rock star moments . . . but the real work is not at those moments. It’s when it’s boring, when you feel your faith shaking.”

That, Liz said, is the moment you must ask yourself one very important question:  Can your creativity trust you?

In Big Magic, Liz makes the point that the Latin word for genius doesn’t describe a person; it describes a force, a muse if you will; it describes something that visits a person, what she calls a ‘guardian deity.’ You don’t have genius; you have A genius. And that’s the heart of her next point to this audience member:  “Show your creativity that you’re still trustworthy. But it won’t believe you unless you dig in and do the hard work.” In other words, sometimes we have to sit down and write even when our genius isn’t there. All we can do is hope it’s hovering nearby, watching, judging. Finding us worthy. Finding us trustworthy again. You may think about this differently. For me genius = my characters. They need to know I’m here. They need to be able to trust me. Lately, they haven’t been able to do that.

Another point Liz made – which made all of us a bit sad, I admit – was this:  you shouldn’t just quit your day job and be creative. Because it usually doesn’t work out. “When someone says ‘I’m going to quit my day job and write a novel,’ I get hives! I didn’t quit MY day job until four novels in. Four novels. And that was Eat Pray freaking Love!” 

Why? In part – the money. But in part – “I made a commitment to my writing in my teens that I would not ask it to support me because I loved it too much and I didn’t want to wreck it.” That’s why, when Eat Pray Love was published, she was still working weekends at a flea market, among other jobs. 🙂

Yes, for those of us who dream of quitting jobs we hate and being able to sit at home and channel our characters, this was just so . . . depressing. Like many other authors, Liz suggested you get up earlier or go to bed later, or write on your lunch break. But when there’s just no time for that, what do you do?

She had an answer for that, too. And again, most of us didn’t want to hear it.

What in your life do you need to start saying NO to, to do things you WANT to do? What are you willing to give up to have what you keep saying you want?

For me, this was hard to hear. I feel like I’ve already given up so much, particularly in these last few months. I wake up some mornings and I’m not even sure I know myself anymore. I’ve given up virtually everything in order to do this job – this full-time job that I no longer want – and I feel like I’ve given up everything I am for it, too. I tell myself that I’ll write at night, or I’ll steal an hour a day at work – and I can’t. There’s too much to do at work, and by the time I get home, I’m too exhausted to think about writing. I want to write – but how do you push through the exhaustion and shove aside things that have to be done, in order to do it? I don’t know yet.

Is it easier for others, who have spouses who can take care of dinner and trash and whatnot, while you write? I seriously have no idea what else I can give up. The last few weeks, in fact, I’ve considered giving up EVERYTHING. Chucking it all in, clearing out my accounts, selling out, and moving far away to live in a cabin by a lake somewhere, where I can sleep and recharge and write and sit on a deck in the sunlight. Walking is one of my favorite things – it’s where I get some of my best ideas, and work through puzzles in my writing – but I can’t even do that anymore. There. Just. Isn’t. Time.

Above everything, I fear losing my characters and my books. But when you can’t spend time with them, what do you expect? Stephen King says it should take you 2-3 months to get a first draft down. Which makes sense; that shows your creativity that you’re serious. You can grab that idea and bring it from the ether and into the real world. But if you don’t do it in that time span, what does that mean? Is it going to get up and leave? Or can it hang on a bit, waiting?

I wish I knew.

A Tale of Two Romance Novels

Once again, over the past few weeks, I was reminded that in novels, characters are the most important thing.

I used to read romance novels all the time, especially historical and Scottish romances. Then I got into my paranormal phase – which I’m still not out of yet, so maybe it’s not a phase – and discovered urban fantasy (though paranormal romance just doesn’t do it for me; when a dust jacket makes inane statements like “Just as Laura realizes the only thing she wants is to live with Luke and his pack in the Grand Canyon and have his little fur-covered babies, an old enemy comes to call,” I’m sorry, but I just can’t do that).

But it’s been a while since I’ve read a straight historical romance. So this past month, I downloaded two on my Nook:  The Turncoat by Donna Thorland, and The Suffragette Scandal by Courtney Milan.

The Turncoat is set during the Revolutionary War, and it’s not your typical romance (for starters, it’s way over 80,000 words . . . or at least, it felt like it). For another, this could have been another trope-ridden romance, with a splash of history thrown in. Instead, Thorland makes it more of a trope-ridden history book with a splash of romance thrown in. She’s clearly done the research, though I have to take issue with her insistence that all Redcoats and Hessians were awful, degraded, vicious creatures. Sure, you had the rare one like Banastre Tarleton (“Tarleton’s Quarter” was anything but) – but most of them were decent guys. Just doing a job. In fact, I’ve read reports of Hessian soldiers, forced to quarter with families, who ended up on babysitting duty!

But I digress. This novel focuses on the romance between Kate Grey – patriot and good Quaker lass – and Peter Tremayne – dastardly Redcoat AND nobleman. Double strike! Kate becomes a spy for the colonists, embedded with the British in Philadelphia. Peter must figure out where his loyalties truly lie – with his country and army, or with a girl he’s only met once but can’t get out of his head? When his cousin decided to pursue Kate himself, Peter’s decision is pretty much made for him.

This is the thing I really, truly hate about romance novels. The couple meets once – ONCE – and falls madly in love. Lust. Whatever. Never mind that they’re usually on opposite sides of a war, or they don’t even know each others’ favorite color. No. Forget such banalities as that. SHE’S PRETTY, DAMN IT, I MUST HAVE HER! Can she speak? Who knows? SHE’S PRETTY, I MUST HAVE HER!

The fact is, the lead characters let this novel down. I never liked Kate. I never liked Peter that much, either, and I truly despised him when he decided to abandon his post and go join the freaking colonists against Britain. Sure, he became an emissary to France, but face it:  he became a turncoat. Hence the title. The main characters should change in some way, yes; that’s part of the story, that journey towards change. But once Peter chucked it all in for a girl – particularly Kate – I was done. I had zero sympathy for him at that point. I never felt that Kate and Peter had true lives of their own; they always felt like cardboard cutouts, being marched across the pages by the author.

MUCH better is the second one (to be honest, I’m not quite done with it yet), The Suffragette Scandal by Courtney Milan. I chose this one because the female lead is – guess what? – a suffragette in Britain, which sounded interesting.

And it is.

Milan has also clearly done her homework when it comes to this time period (the late 1800s and the early suffrage movement). Free Marshall, the FMC, runs a paper ‘by women, for women’ in which she’s basically Nellie Bly, having herself put into mental wards and prostitute hospitals, going into mines where women are forced to work fourteen-hour days, and enduring all sorts of horrendous abuse from the men of London – and Greater England – for it. I like Free. She’s smart and tough and takes crap from no one, and she’s funny.

And her life takes a turn for (hopefully) the better when a mysterious man named Edward Clark shows up to ‘protect’ her from her worst enemy, the soon-to-be Viscount Claridge, James Delacey. Clark makes no bones about it; he’s a forger and a thief and a scoundrel, and he’s not to be trusted.  But he’s the only thing standing in the way of James Delacey’s plans to destroy Free. As it turns out, he’s also the only thing standing between James Delacey and the Viscountcy.

I adore this book, because I adore the characters. Sure, Edward rambles on too much and he’s too willing to just jump into love with Free even though he’s spent his entire adult life avoiding entanglements, but I can live with that. He’s got real issues in his past that affect – that dictate – what he does today. Abandoned by his family, forced to endure the siege of Strasbourg and tortured afterwards, wandering the Continent trying to find himself . . .Unlike Peter, who is driven purely by lust for Kate and some ridiculous thing about he and his cousin really being brothers or something (I admit, I got lost there), Edward is three-dimensional, real, believable. His motives are real. His problems are real. His solutions will also have to be real.

In all honesty, I never felt that Kate and Peter had any issues. Not real ones. They both seemed whiny, self-centered, and one-dimensional to me. (And it’s a romance novel, so let me just say that the sex scenes were not just boring, but weird.) Kate was certainly not a heroine worth throwing away your career – your honor and title – your life – for. I never got a sense of chemistry from them either. But Edward and Free are all that can be right with a good romance novel. (And the sex scenes? Not bad!)

As always, it boils down to the characters.

  • Will your readers care about them? Are their problems real and believable and most of all, can readers relate to them?
  • Have you given them pasts that affect their presents in genuine ways?
  • Have you given them a pathway to change in your book – to change in a meaningful way? Meaning they may have to sacrifice something in order to be with their beloved? (Or, in not-a-romance-novel, change that’s necessary for them to achieve their goal?)
  • Do they take on lives of their own? Do they, at any point, take over the story? Because if they don’t, you’re just pulling strings. You’re not writing real characters. And readers will know it.

All the research in the world can’t make up for lack of good characters. If there’s no chemistry there – and it doesn’t matter if it’s a romance novel or not; imagine Harry Potter without Fred and George! – then you can’t force them together.

Characters are the most important part of your novel. They’re the driving force behind your novel. Make sure they’re characters your readers will like and care about!

Those Pesky Secondary Characters

Often as writers we spend so much time perfecting our main characters — describing them, thinking up actors/actresses that resemble them, developing their back stories and family life, favorite music and movies and cars, and maybe even their genealogy back five generations — that we neglect another very important group of characters.

Our secondary characters.

I don’t mean the ones that get listed as “Waiter” or “Subway Rider 1” in the credits. I mean the ones that have names and faces and quirks and personalities and lives. We know they play a big role in our stories, but maybe we sort of don’t think they’re quite as important as our MCs. Right? I mean, they’re not driving the story. It’s not their choices that get us from Point A to Point Q.

Or is it?

Right now, I want you to think about your favorite three books (or movies, or TV shows), and then think about the secondary characters in them. Not all of the, but maybe the MC’s best friends. Envision them in your mind. What do they look like? Sound like? How do they behave? Do they talk with an accent, or use particular slang? What’s their job? Do they have a family? Pets? My guess is that you were able to answer all those questions immediately. And that’s because good authors know the value of those secondary characters.

I’m struggling with this right now, so it’s a good thing for me to think about, too! So let’s look at some secondary characters from some of my favorite books, and see what they do and why they’re memorable.

1.) Cookie Kowalski, from Darynda Jones’ Charlie Davidson series. I picture Cookie immediately, because Darynda Jones does such a great job of describing her from the get-go. She’s divorced with a 12-year old daughter who may or may not be psychic. She has a crush on Charlie’s uncle. She reads romance novels. She’s smart and efficient, and slightly overzealous when it comes to protecting Charlie. She’s Charlie’s secretary/researcher/coffee maker. She provides Charlie with the information she needs to close cases (sometimes), and she knows Charlie is really the Grim Reaper. So she also fulfills the role of Secret-Keeper. 🙂

2.) Pretty Much Everybody, from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. I know, I know, it’s not fair when there are movies, but the entire reason we connect to those movies is because Rowling did such a masterful job of detailing ALL of her secondary characters! How many of us bawled out eyes out when (spoiler alert!) Dobby died? And Fred? And Sirius? We knew exactly what the Weasley family was like, and we’d recognize Hermione and her bushy hair anywhere. Plus, think how much help Harry gets from his secondary characters. Who provides all the knowledge? Hermione. Who’s there fighting alongside him? Ron. And Dobby. And Fred and George. And Ginny. You can do a LOT worse than to study how Rowling creates her secondary characters and utilizes them.

3.) Lord John Grey, from Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. I hated John when I first met him! Today, I can’t fathom why. I know what he looks like — that blond hair, those gray/blue eyes. He’s tall, but not as tall as Jamie. He carries himself like an aristocrat. He rides well. He’s smart and self-deprecating and fiercely protective of those he loves. Because of this, he takes in Jamie’s illegitimate son and raises him as his own. But he has his own secrets and his own conflicts. We know his entire backstory. Gabaldon even devoted a series of novellas just to him.

4.) Again, Pretty Much Everybody from Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden series. Butcher, like Rowling, has a knack for developing secondary characters that help drive the plot forward, while at the same time becoming people readers care about. And they constantly surprise us. They evolve and grow along with Harry, adapting to new circumstances, living their own lives (and sometimes, losing their lives).

5.) Dani O’Malley, from Karen Marie Moning’s Fever series. She’s fourteen. She gets on my nerves sometimes. She’s superfast. She has red, unruly, curly hair and freckles. Her favorite word, apparently, is “pissily,” and if she says it one more time, I will reach through the page and slap her. She doesn’t know her own limits, her ego is the size of China, and she’s sarcastic and alone and prefers it that way. She is the perfect foil for MacKayla Lane, in other words.

And sometimes, that’s what a secondary character needs to be — a foil.

Secondary characters need to perform different roles. Some, like Hermione and Ron, are there to support your MC in everything that he does. Some, like Lord John Grey, perform more complex roles. And sometimes, like Dani, they change roles. Your secondary characters must be as alive and vibrant as your MC. They must have lives that don’t necessarily revolve around your MC. They aren’t there just for ‘hero support.’ They’re there to drive the plot forward as well.

Does your MC have to do everything? Sometimes we think they do! But how much research did Harry Potter ever really do on his own? Virtually none. Hermione was there to give him the answers. Don’t be afraid to give your secondary characters something to do. Make them an expert in something the MC needs to know. Put them at cross-purposes with your MC. Think about the world your MC inhabits. If they’re a detective, then they will be interacting with police officers, coroners, reporters, victims, perpetrators, clients. If your MC is dealing with the supernatural, what sort of creatures will they encounter? If she’s a historian, she’ll deal with librarians, other researchers, archivists, private collectors, students, professors. Now. Of these, which step forward (in your mind) as potentially great secondary characters? Flesh them out just as you would your MC. Know them as well as you would your MC, especially if they’re going to be recurring in a series.

Like I said, I’m learning this the hard way. But I am learning it. So I’m going to be learning much more about my secondary characters over the next month or so. Hopefully, if you need to, you will be, too. 🙂

Here’s some online articles about creating memorable secondary characters:

http://beyondstructure.com/techniques-for-creating-great-secondary-characters-used-in-juno/

http://io9.com/5896488/10-secrets-to-creating-unforgettable-supporting-characters

http://www.writersdigest.com/whats-new/how-to-write-effective-supporting-characters

http://www.writersdigest.com/whats-new/questions-to-ask-strengthen-your-minor-characters

http://www.writersdigest.com/whats-new/what-is-a-minor-character-understanding-the-minor-characters-role