Tag Archives: characters

Nobody’s Perfect

We all want to be liked. Yet we all have flaws. The best we can hope for, perhaps, is that our strengths outweigh our weaknesses.

If you think about it, our notion of character flaws and positive attributes depends on the context and on the person who is making the judgement. Quiet humility, for example, may be considered a positive attribute by many, but in the context of a sales department, it might be considered a drawback.

To you, a man may seem to be full of himself, but in the eyes of someone else who is full of him or herself, he is simply self confident and this is a good thing.

These considerations make it all the more challenging to create believable fictional characters. It’s a tricky balancing act. I’ve been known to put away a novel, albeit very well written, because I’ve not found a single character that I like. On the other hand, if characters have no flaws at all, they seem flat. Two-dimensional.

11532830.jpgThis line of thinking came to me while reading Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, because virtually every major character (if they weren’t a villain) was flawed yet likeable. David himself, hopelessly naive, quick to trust, and quick to fall in love. Arguably much too quick to fall in love, and him not understanding his wife as well as those around him who’d spent far less time with her. Sometimes we want to slap him for being an idiot, yet we also cheer for him as he becomes a mature, successful adult.

Dora Spenlow, a lovely butterfly of a woman, dainty and airy, exceedingly pretty, but truly a child in a woman’s body. Yet, she understood this about herself, and this helps endear her to us.

Mr. Micawber… well, really, the list of flaws is too long. Bombastic, long-winded in the extreme, self-destructive, to name a few. And yet, every time I read this book I nearly cheer out loud when he steps onto the stage because he truly has a good heart. He loves his family, is a loyal friend to David, and in the end sacrifices his good fortunes to bring down Uriah Heep.

Betsy Trotwood, eccentric in the extreme, having walked out of her sister-in-law’s life because of her temerity in giving birth to a boy rather than a girl. She also has an aversion to donkeys. And yet, she gives shelter to Mr. Dick and gives David the first loving home he has known.

Clara Copperfield, David’s mother, too much aware of her good looks, too inexperienced in the world, too ready to give herself to a flattering suitor. But she loves David dearly and he retains happy memories of her all his life.

Interestingly, Dickens’ villains had few or no redeeming features, and so were by definition two-dimensional. And yet in the context of his stories they work brilliantly. Dickens’ villains were like the black-hatted, black cloaked, mustache twirling villains of the silent movies that everyone loved to boo as they tied the damsel to the railway tracks. Of all of his memorable villains, Uriah Heep is perhaps the best known, with his fawning manner, fake humility, cold clammy hands, writhing posture, and his propensity for delving into and exploiting the vulnerabilities of those around him.

As many great characters as Dickens gave us, he had one blind spot: his heroines. They were as pure as snow, as soft as the morning dew on the roses, as good as, well, nobody really. Nobody is as good and without flaw as a Dickens heroine. Much as I love Dickens overall, his heroines were his kryptonite. In this book, that would be Agnes Wickfield. She’s just so… good. So understanding. So calm. So patient. Such a loving daughter. Such a loyal friend to David. And I could go on but you get the idea.

Out of all these considerations I can draw few hard and fast lessons, except to provide your main characters with flaws, especially flaws that move the plot forward and ratchet up the conflicts to be resolved. Sounds easy. And it sounds like something that those of us who are aspiring writers will need to practice before getting it right, or at least, getting it better.

After all, nobody’s perfect.

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Why the Force is With Us

When Star Wars burst onto the scene in 1977, no one had seen the like. It reminded me of an old Errol Flynn movie, but with special effects that blew past the bar set by 2001: A Space Odyssey nearly a decade earlier.

There was the princess who’d been captured by an evil sorcerer; the young hero whose destiny lies beyond the farm on which he’s been raised; the wise old wizard; and there was the rogue, the mercenary, who, beneath the crusty exterior, was deeply human.

This is all fundamental stuff, elements as old as stories themselves. And yet the movie seemed breathtakingly fresh. Star Wars was all anyone talked about that summer. Then came The Empire Strikes Back in 1980 and Return of the Jedi in 1983, and we breathed a sigh of contentment. It was over, and it was brilliant. But along with contentment we felt regret that it was all over.

falconTime passes. Thirty plus years. And now we have two teaser trailers for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. In the first, we see some people we don’t know, some X-wings, a cloaked figure who is presumably a Sith lord, and then, there it is: the Millenium Falcon, looking as if it’s just burst from its cage, reveling in its freedom as it twists and turns in the air, only to level off to face incoming TIE fighters. Was there anyone not at least a little misty-eyed at the sight of the Falcon?

The second teaser ups its game. There’s the awesome shot of the Star Destroyer, crashed in the desert, then Luke Skywalker’s voice-over. People are starting to get excited. Then we have more action shots, and finally, there they are, Han Solo and Chewbacca. Commence total freak out.

But why did the trailers have this effect on us? What makes Star Wars so good? Why do we care?

To answer that question, it helps to look at The Phantom Menace, painful as that might be. In particular, it’s well worth looking at the series of seven YouTube videos in which RedLetterMedia deconstructs that movie. It does so while making you alternately laugh out loud and cringe with horror, as a LucasFilm employee seemingly did at an early screening of the movie. The most telling part, and it’s been a while so I’ll try to get this right, was while interviewing Star Wars fans about the original series characters. They were able to describe Han Solo etc. and ascribe to each a unique personality. They were then asked to describe Qui-Gon Jinn. The interviewer was met with a blank face. Upon being reminded that he was Obi-Wan’s mentor there was an “Oh”. And they were stuck. They couldn’t say a thing about him. “Stoic” said one.

The reason we love Star Wars is that we love the characters. We know who they are and we care about what happens to them. What does happen to them is on one hand a simple adventure, but on the other a multi-level story of good versus evil, the capacity for both within us, and in the end, the possibility of redemption and forgiveness even if you have fallen to the dark side.

And let’s not forget one of the most beloved characters of the series: the Millenium Falcon, the flawed and faltering ship (“Would it help if I got out and pushed?” Leia asked. “It might,” said Han.) that nonetheless digs deep and always brings our heroes home. The Falcon has a most definite personality, and we rooted for her as much as for Han, Leia and Luke.

In another blog, while reviewing the rebooted Star Trek, I reported that it was like seeing an old friend you thought you’d never see again. After early showings of Trek, people were reportedly weeping as they left the theatre. They were tears of joy. Watching the Star Wars trailers had a similar effect, because honestly, most of us thought we’d never see these characters again. Now we can see them and hear their voices, and suddenly the world seems a brighter place. We walk around with smiles on our faces. And in this world where darkness seems to creep closer to us every day, something, even a movie trailer, that casts a warm ray of light is most welcome.

Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow

Have you heard it said that it’s all about character? Stories, that is. If your readers don’t care about the characters, then all the plot twists, surprise endings and literary gymnastics in the world won’t amount to a hill of beans, sweetheart.

paul_pipchinI know I’ve loved a book when I can’t bear to say goodbye to the characters. The first time this happened was when I read Charles Dickens’ Dombey and Son. Not his best or best known, but a sentimental favourite because it was my first. Dickens that is. And as I put the book down at the end, I did so slowly. I didn’t want it to be over. I wanted more time with those characters with whom I had fallen in love.

It happened again this morning (at the time of writing) as I put down Stephen King’s It. (Was there ever a more simply named book? Could there be?) Even though the book was over a thousand pages, it wasn’t enough. Mind you, after what those poor characters had been through, they deserved some time off. Still, for a time they had become part of my life and I know I’m going to miss them.

As I start to write more original fiction, that’s what I’m going to shoot for. I know that in genre fiction in particular it seems to be all about the Really Neat Idea, but for me, regardless of the genre, it’s all about character, and I’ll know I’ve done it right when someone tells me they didn’t want to say goodbye.