Saturday, May 12, 2012

Storytellers Unplugged Revisited: Now with Extra Warts!


Want to know why no one ever writes about a perfect day? Because it’s boring. Want to know why no one cares about a perfect person having a perfect day? Same answer.
It’s simple, really. Your characters have to be human enough in one form or another for people to read about them and to care about them. If they don’t have any flaws, no one will be able to empathize.
I recently had one of my regular readers explain to me that he didn’t much care for one of my characters, Jonathan Crowley. When I asked why he said, “because nothing ever hurts him.” Well, having done several books with the character and having seen the character bloodied a dozen times I could have argued the point, but it would have been a waste of my time. He’s right to a certain extent. The character regenerates a good amount of the damage inflicted on him. That’s a side effect of dealing with fantasy, science fiction and horror characters. They aren’t exactly normal in a lot of cases. They aren’t even human from time to time. That one reader is the only person I’ve known to run across Crowley and have that problem, but that doesn’t make his point any less valid. On the other hand, the knowledge that he doesn’t dig the character isn’t going to change the way I handle the character, either. As I’ve said before, I write first and foremost for myself. If I’m not having fun with it, no one else is either.
Crowley has plenty of flaws. He’s borderline sociopathic, has all the social skills of Dr. Gregory House M.D., is arrogant to a fault and quick to lose his temper. He just happens to be hard to kill.
Like every character, he has flaws. He should, too. Listen, if you want to write stories about characters who are perfect, I can’t stop you. But I can almost guarantee you that no one aside from you will give the least bit of a damn about them, with the possible exception of your mother. Mind you, she’ll probably just tell you she likes the characters you’re creating for fear of hurting your feelings.
In DC Comics, Superman is nearly indestructible, but he has flaws. He has the allergy to Kryptonite and there’s the fact that his powers come from hanging around a yellow sun and basking in the radiations released by that particular color of star. Over at Marvel, Spiderman has all sorts of awesome powers and he can be taken out of commission by the common cold. There have to be limits to the abilities of these characters because without them, there is no conflict. Seriously, with all of the power that Superman holds he could rule the world if he wasn’t mentally stable. So to make sure that sooner or later there’s something that can pose a threat to him, so that there’s a struggle he has to overcome, they gave him weaknesses aside from merely having a fondness for Lois Lane and a few other people. I’ll do you one better: the fine folks at DC have even managed to use his status against him a couple of times by having him distance himself from humanity too much, to the point where he not only felt a bit alienated, but to the point where his alien heritage came back to bite him in his invulnerable rear end.
It is the flaws that shape your characters as surely as their physical appearance or their particular way of looking at the world. Going to a different media and a name I already mentioned, let’s look at Greg House from the show House (We can also look at his literary inspiration, Sherlock Holmes). House is a genius. It’s that simple. He can diagnose most medical cases without ever talking to the patients. He can observe them in action and normally tell you what their problem is. He’s that good. In fact it’s that very ability that makes him the best damned medical diagnostician around. That said, he also has a medical issue of his own, involving atrophied muscles in his leg and chronic pain. Pain so bad that he started taking heavier and heavier doses of serious narcotics in order to function. Through the course of the show he has evolved beautifully. He’s gone from a rude bastard with a bum leg to an addicted rude bastard with a bum leg, to a seriously delusional and addicted rude bastard with a bum leg. Through the course of multiple seasons the character has evolved and along the way the writers and creators of the character never forgot that he has a serious medical condition or that he’s an addict. This season, just to change things up, the show’s creative force have Gregory House dealing with the fact that he is now clean and sober and wants desperately to stay that way.
Want to know what’s even more amazing about that show? Every single major player on the series is just as flawed as House in their own ways. Those personal neurosis and the complicated relationships the characters get into are what make people come back to the show every week. Sure, there are cool medical cases with (mostly) good medical research, but in the long run, the characters and their flaws and the interactions they have with other flawed characters are what bring the viewers back.
Whether you love or hate soap operas, the same is true of the stories that interweave within the scripts of the regular daytime dramas. The characters and their flaws are the draw that keeps viewers coming back. The same is true in most ongoing book series, too.
Just a little food for thought. You want people to care about your creations? Remember that they can’t be perfect. If they are, no one will be able to understand them or care for them except for you and maybe your mom.

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