Setups, Flawed Characters, Ginger or Maryann?

Last night I finally got my files uploaded for the print version. They’ve been reviewed, and I had a problem with my title page, so I have to get that fixed this morning, and then upload the interior file again. But it seems like that was the only issue, so I might be able to order a proof copy tonight.

This morning I’m doing some thinking about first acts, how I understand them, and how I approach them. What follows may be a lot of me talking to myself, so don’t let all the yous get to you.

For me, the first part of a book is all setup. The actual story, the thing your characters are going to have to work through—you’re not into that yet. In fact, the point where you actually get into that doesn’t even happen until the end of this section.

Now, you can’t just do nothing here. You can’t just go about describing the characters, their environs, their backstories, etc, and not having anything going on to engage the reader. That’s about as much fun as watching someone else play Barbies. There should be something going on, something the reader is going to want to know more about.

So you’ve got a character (or characters) and a something going on. And part of what the reader wants to know is: how is this something going to affect the character? When is she going to a) either become aware of what’s really going on, and/or b) have to deal with this? And then what’s going to happen? While she’s reading on, to get to that moment when things come together and you come to that point of shoving your character through the door into the story world, you’re feeding her lots of important information about the world and the people in it, you’re planting seeds, doing a little foreshadowing, but, most importantly to me, you’re setting up your character arc.

The stories I love best are those in which a character learns and grows, is changed by the events of the story. I think I probably especially love characters who seem a little hard to love when they’re first introduced.

Take Lost’s Sawyer as an example. (Oh, I’d like to.) He’s not a nice man. In fact, he’s a criminal. Not only is he nasty to everyone on the island with the name-calling and the constant lashing out, he also does things like gathering up and “claiming” as many supplies as he can so that he can profit from everyone’s plight. I think there’s a part of Sawyer that remains inherently selfish at the core, which keeps his character consistent. But in a show in which the challenges presented by the island transform many characters, helping them find the inner hero that may lie within all of us, I think Sawyer is the one whose change is the most dramatic, and therefore the most moving. (Or I could be just blinded by the dimple. It happens.)

Spike is another example of this kind of character. Someone who starts off really enjoying the killing, especially of slayers. Until he falls in love with one, and is changed by that love, and by his story into someone who ultimately—does something spoilery that’s pretty selfless. You know what I’m talking about.

So yeah, I guess I’m into that. Characters need to have a starting off point in which they are somehow less that they’re going to be at the end point. And in a series, in which they’re going to appear in more than one story, that means they’ll need even more room to grow.

They have got to be likable in some way, and often, with flawed characters, that’s a matter of empathy. When a reader talks about characters that seem real, what they’re saying is that they felt empathy, they recognized something that they’ve felt, or at least something that they understand, in something that your character feels. There has to be something they connect to. This is why they tell us to make the character care about something.

Spike had Drusilla, for example, showing that he was capable of some kind of love, even if it wasn’t the nicest relationship to watch. Later, he formed the same kind of obsessive attachment to Buffy. And we really got to see how it hurt him, to be so constantly rejected by her, to feel that she was so unattainable, because he was so unworthy. To feel the hopelessness of that obsession, even if one hasn’t been a vampire obsessed with a slayer who won’t have them–a lot of people can still relate to, and be moved by, those kinds of feelings. And that’s what keeps them tied to Spike as he waits for his moment, his opportunities for growth (internal, not always conscious), and to win the Slayer’s affections (external).

But be advised, it doesn’t work for all readers all the time. If you present flawed characters, not everyone is going to connect, empathize, or wait around for them to get better. Sometimes a reader will be so turned off by something your flawed character did or said that, not only will she give up on them, but the book, and you as an author. Our different tastes, experiences, the issues that can pull us in or make us throw the book at the wall, that’s all part of what it is to be human and sentient, and makes all these varied stories possible.

After all, it’s this variation in taste that makes possible questions like:

  • Angel or Spike?
  • Sawyer/Kate or Sawyer/Juliette?
  • Marvel or DC?
  • Ginger or Maryann?

And where would the internet be without that?


Filed under books, characters, Hush Money, ideas, love, romance, story structure, Talent Chronicles, tips, writing

16 responses to “Setups, Flawed Characters, Ginger or Maryann?

  1. Nothing you do is ever going to please every reader. Attempting to make a character everyone will love will only result in making a character no one will love. IMHO, anyway. 😉

    As for me, I’d rather read about those flawed characters who make mistakes, act on faulty information, and occasionally screw up. There’s nothing wrong with a character’s problems being partly of their own making–in fact, I think it deepens the story. Nothing bores me to tears faster than perfect characters.

    • I would definitely agree with that. As writers, it’s so important to us that people like our characters, our stories, us. More important, probably, than it should be, because working too hard at making everything pleasant, making everyone like us, makes for boring stories, like you said. It’s kind of traumatic when someone rips into the work because a character pissed them off, but you’ve got to keep taking those chances and pushing the characters.

  2. Lauralynn Elliott

    There’s nothing more boring than a “perfect” character. Even though we read to “get away” and we usually want the main characters to be hot, we still want them flawed. And when some of those flaws are worked out in the end, that’s good, too. As long as they still carry a little baggage around. Because that’s what makes them interesting. IMHO.

    Btw… Spike, Sawyer/Kate (or Sawyer/Me!), Marvel AND DC, and Maryann because she’s so much prettier, not because she’s so sweet! Bwahahahahaha.

  3. Hahaha, loved your answers!

    **Lost Spoiler Warning!!!!!!!!!**
    OMG, dude, Sawyer/Kate. TV people, you cannot put me through watching Sawyer fall for Kate and then make up this whole relationship with Juliette that you didn’t even SHOW us happen, but just dumped us in whilst we were still waiting for Kate to make her way back to the friggin’ island, and expect us to just switch teams like that. Tremendous flaw and part of what makes the last season less satisfying.

    So….ok then, Lauralynn, I could maybe root for Sawyer/you, as long as I get to watch.
    err…that didn’t sound very good…

  4. I love the topic of the flawed character. Probably one of my favorite flawed characters in fiction is Larry Underwood (Stephen King’s The Stand). Larry’s a class-A selfish jerk, but by the end of the book his transformation–though done very subtly–is so phenomenal I was completely in love with him.

    Since I don’t write fantasy, my characters will always be flawed. It’s simply realistic. 😉

  5. Andrew Mocete

    For me flawed characters give me hope. If they can get out of the hole they’re in and become something great, why can’t I? I definitely gravitate toward the outcast variety.

    Using the Buffy example, my favorite was Andrew from The Trio. In 2 seasons he went from a wannabe villain to a murderer to a major player in the fight against evil. But the change didn’t fix everything. He’s still the same guy that almost cried when Spike threatened his Boba Fett, but a better and more evolved version.

    If you haven’t seen it, you should check out “Damage” from the 5th season of Angel. (Netflix has it for watch instantly) Aside from being a good Spike centered episode, you get to see how far Andrew has come since the end of Buffy.

    Oh and thanks for the a-ha recommendations.

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