Unrealistically boring characters
I think sometimes we over-fictionalise fiction.
I am not talking about our tendency to write wholly outlandish or unrealistic stories. I am not bashing high fantasy, or science-fiction, or Roald Dahl. In fact, I am not talking about ways in which we try to make our stories too interesting by forsaking reality, rather I’m talking about the ways in which we let our stories become boring by failing to capitalise on the amazing things that happen in real life.
Specifically, today I want to talk about this in relation to characters. I’ll tell you straight up: I write terrible characters. Nearly all of my characters seem, to me, to be flat, boring personas who walk around saying obvious or irrelevant things and who can’t so much as crack a joke. I have never succeeded in writing a Dustfinger or a Boromir or a Neville Longbottom — not even a Fred or George Weasley.
Why is this? I expect there are many reasons, but I think a major reason is that I have failed to appreciate and to capture the wonderfully wide variety of characters I have encountered in real life.
You may feel like you have had a relatively dull, uninteresting life. But when you think about it, you will probably find that you can tell far more interesting stories, far more fascinating pieces of information about your life, than you thought you could. They may not be stories which will change your listener’s life, but if you tell them right, they will certainly keep people interested. What about the fascinating people you have met? How many interesting people are there in your life?
What about the man you’ve met who knows at least thirty languages, possibly closer to fifty? What about your friend who was deposited out of the window of his car when it flipped over several times, but was unhurt? What about the pastor of your church who came third in a beer brewing competition?
You could get even more basic — rather than thinking of the fantastic accomplishments or fascinating stories, think of personalities.
What about the lady who always seems to be talking? If you tell her a story, she’ll always have a similar story or experience to tell straight back to you. Or what about your grandmother who feeds you nonstop every time you go to visit her? Every time she sees something she thinks you’ll like “on special”, she’ll buy it and send it to you — though you live thousands of kilometres a way. Or what about your grandmother’s friend who is equally generous? She is very old and overweight, has multiple joint issues, a weak heart, and yet continues to cook “Meals-on-Wheels” for people frequently. And, interestingly, she drives pretty fast. (contradictions are key to interesting characters)
All of these are people that I know, despite the fact that I used the second person, but I’m sure you can think of just as many fascinating people with fascinating stories that you know. Now that I’ve got started I can think of so many more.
Once you realise the rich reality that you are faced with, you may be able to better incorporate that into your fiction. As David Corbett says in his article “How to craft compelling characters”, “the best inspiration often comes from within us—and from our experiences with people in our lives”. In other words, take all those fascinating people, those wonderful idiosyncrasies, those fantastic stories, and use them to inspire your fiction. Give your imagination some material to work with — use your imagination to aid and abet and transform the rich experiences of real life into something new, but something just as authentic and exciting.
Just as we should take advantage of those wonderful real-life characters in order to inspire our fictional ones, so should we take advantage of our own real-life thought-processes and emotions in order to write realistic and powerful thought-processes and emotions for our characters. In the same article, David Corbett says “It often surprises me how frequently writers, especially young writers, fail to explore the rich veins of emotion they possess in their own lives, so they can translate that to their characterisations”. He recommends thinking about important emotional experiences we have had so that we can create them more effectively in our characters. For example, think about your “moment of greatest fear”, your “moment of deepest shame” and your “worst failure” — and think about more positive emotional experiences too (if you plan to give your character any). It seems to me that even if the low-point that the character in your novel experiences is wholly fictional, you can make it far more powerful by thinking of your own feelings during similar (if much less severe) situations.
So I think there are two applications of this post for me. Firstly, I want to take greater note of the personalities, the idiosyncrasies, and also the stories of people I know. Possibly I’ll write portraits describing them or even short stories involving them. In this way I will become keenly aware of how fascinating real-life people are, and I can build on that to make far more interesting and realistic fictional characters. Secondly, I need to think more about how I would feel in my characters’ shoes. More specifically, it would be good to think of situations that I would find very difficult — very shameful, very fear-inspiring, or whatever — and try to put my characters in those situations. Show no mercy to your characters. The day when my reader’s gut is wrenched because they actually care about my character, and the things my character suffers actually means something to them — that day I will consider myself to be a half-decent writer.
I hope that this post is as useful for you as it has been for me. For some reason I have written it predominantly in the second person, even though these are ideas for myself more than for anyone else. If you have any thoughts on this, please do comment. You may also like to read the David Corbett article, linked to both here and above, which I found quite useful even though his commonly used Blanche Dubois illustration fell flat, me never having read the book.