Thursday, March 16, 2006

Character development

"The good have flaws, and the bad have reasons." ~ Bonnie Hearn Hill

This is another writing lesson I’m learning. Characters that are perfectly good--who have no flaws--are boring, or even worse, annoying. Remember that perfect girl in high school with the perfect skin, perfect figure, and perfect grades? Hated her. Bet you did, too. Now, give that girl a zit on the end of her nose on the most important night of her life--prom night--and make her worry that the boy she’s dating really loves another girl and only asked her out because she said no, and you’ve made that perfect girl more vulnerable. Give her a backstory in which she always tried to be perfect because her father was both demanding and exacting, and for whom a 4.0 grade point average was considered merely “acceptable,” and you’ve made her poignant. Add in the fact that she struggled with anorexia in her teen years, but conquered it and helps others to do the same, and you’ve made her courageous.

A perfectly evil character is just as boring. In my current work-in-progress, I resisted making my villain--a “healer” gone bad--a true evil guy. Something in me understood him, even though he is a murderer. He has a reason for the choices he has made, reasons rooted deep in his psyche, and he genuinely believes he is the hero of his own story. He has noble qualities, the ability to make great sacrifices, and, unfortunately, very poor judgment. He might have been the hero of this story, but he had a desire to do good in the absence of the will of his God. This leads to great evil, in which, while trying to search for a universal cure for disease, he falls under the belief that the end justifies the means, and innocent people die as a result. My goal is to make this character so sympathetic, yet so wrong in his choices, that the reader aches for the lost potential of his life. Sort of like how Darth Vader’s backstory makes you realize how much lost potential there was as a result of Anakin’s choices.

In actuality, it is a character’s own traits which move the plot forward: his or her choices force action to occur, and then the character must react to that, driving the plot along. So remember, as trees don’t appear on the landscape fully grown, neither do your characters. Ask yourself, what formed him or her? That backstory may never make it into your final story, but knowing it will make all the difference.


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