Realistic Characters: Expectation vs. Reality

I’ve been planning this post since last week, upon responses from betas that my characters are not “happy” enough, or have too much self-doubt. There seems to be a generational divide between capable, carefree “vicarious” heroes like Indiana Jones, and realistic, human characters like Walter White. Still, how does Walter White become a character we love, with how vicious and unsympathetic he could be seen?

First off, I agree with my betas. Out of my five leads, one of them is a complete spaz every time something goes wrong, one of them is pathetically self-conscious and grumpy, one is afraid of what he’s capable of, and the other is deathly afraid of trusting others. Only Aphrodite seems to have a solid foundation. I recognize this and intend to fix it.

It is important to keep my characters well-rounded, though. I can’t slice all these negative emotions and struggles out of the story, because I wouldn’t have a story! Stories are conflict – internal and external! If all the conflict was external, I’d have a bunch of overpowered superheroes being shoved around with a plot broom.

This past weekend, I read a lot of books on writing, and it’s helped nail down my opinion on this immensely. Particularly, I read On Becoming A Novelist, by John Gardner, and Writing The Breakout Novel by Donald Maass (both snagged at a used book store on Friday. I know, I’m woefully overdue on reading both. Most beginning novelists start with these, but I’ve already got a 10-year-old collection of writing books on my shelf).

Both men agree that characters need to be larger-than-life in order to be adored. A larger-than-life character is one who reflects the hopes and aspirations of humanity and doessomething about them. You may have always wanted to climb Mt. Everest, but you don’t have the money, stamina, or courage – good characters do. They do things that are difficult, but not impossible, because they have character traits of actual people who are driven.

If you’ve every worked in food service, I’m sure you’ve felt the desire to dump a bowl of chili on a mean customer’s head. Where you would show restraint -“I might get fired, I need to pay rent, I don’t want to burn bridges” – a protagonist (or an antagonist) would take the plunge. Good characters also think up their witty comebacks and burns now instead of later.

See how none of these are completely unbelievable? Certainly there are witty, daring, strong people in the world. It is not unrealistic to write such people. But they’re larger and more grand than the average reader. That’s what makes us want to follow their adventures.

However, balance is key. Internal struggle and moral dilemmas are both necessary for a relatable, sympathetic character. Donald Maass pointed out – and I did a fist pump when I read this, because it’s identical to what I’ve said all week – that the world does not look for heroes like James Bond anymore. No one wants to read about flawless self-insert playboys. This is the age of the reluctant hero, like Harry Potter. Harry Potter is extraordinary in his own world, let alone in ours. But he’s reluctant. He’s unsure. He’s untrained. He has to grow into being a competent wizard. And he shows fear in the face of death; he shows concern and loyalty towards his friends. Harry Potter faces things that you and I would cower at, making him a larger-than-life character, but his emotional responses make him believable.

So where does that leave me? Well, I’ve been advised that my pathetic grump Hephaestus could be fixed if I tell a bit more of his backstory. My girl Clara needs to have *one* moment of self-doubt (instead of three) before steeling herself for the rest of the story. My self-fearful angel Raphael will probably remain unchanged, as readers seemed to enjoy the humanity of his wariness. As for my hero Connor…well, it’s a long haul of editing, I suppose. At least now, I feel more prepared to figure him out, and I know the correct path between expectation and reality.

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3 thoughts on “Realistic Characters: Expectation vs. Reality

  1. That Donald Maass book has been helpful for me as well, particularly in creating “at stake” scenes where your inhibited or self-conscious characters are thrust into a situation beyond their control and subsequently become better people because of it. I always look for that elusive black hole to throw my characters into, just to make things a little more complicated (dumping a bowl of chilli on a customer’s head would do it). I would say some qualities, such as Harry Potter’s choice to persevere and be fearless, are innate. And because he has to work at it, he’s all the more believable for it.

    • I liked the book. It was a bit similar to Plot And Structure, by James Scott Bell, but I think Donald Maass has slightly better taste than Bell. And he had some unique things to say. But both agree that the higher the stakes and the tougher the choices, the more engaging your story will be. In my next edit, I plan to focus more on each individual scene and say “how could this be worse? How could this be more intense?” Tension on every page!

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