It’s a character kind of month, I suppose. I’ve been sunk in a particularly complex and knotty revision, a series full of characters I understand but I would never want to be, or even be in the same room with.
So! Last week we went over three things to do with your characters. Today, let’s talk about things NOT to do with your imaginary head-people. This will be a short and not at all comprehensive list.
I’ve got to keep something in reserve to write about, after all.
It ain’t you, babe.
Oh, you know what I’m talking about—when you pick up a book (or a piece for critique in your local writer’s group/workshop) and notice the main character just happens to be a writer of the same gender, age, socioeconomic class, and general appearance as the author. (I’m gonna say it: Bill Denborough, even though he’s a redhead... and who could forget Ben Mears?)
Wish fulfillment and authorial self-insertion aren’t always overwhelmingly bad things. I’ve slid a minor character or two into a book or a short story, mostly to poke fun at myself. I’ve never wanted to be any of my main characters—their problems are horrendous, their coping mechanism largely unsatisfactory, and I get far more pleasure out of being the vengeful goddess of their tiny universe, anyway.
Self-insertions have even, once or twice, been the basis for truly great art—with the amount of times writers have shoved themselves into prose and agitated back and forth, I suppose the odds were in favor of a few reaching or birthing celestial heights of skill and meaning. But the vast mass are deadly boring, and give the reader the uncomfortable, squidgy sensation of paging through someone else’s masturbatory manual besides.
It’s one thing to page through your own. It’s quite another to have someone else’s (ugh) in your hands.
The odds are most definitely not in favor of your self-insertion being a fully rounded or even a baseline-interesting character. Oh, sure, there are wish-fulfillment fics which have done quite well financially— Twilight springs to mind, and Fifty Shades which started as fanfic for it—but the odds of your particular wish-fulfillment or authorial self-insertion fiction triggering a cascade of dollars are roughly analogous to winning the lottery or having an airplane part fall out of the clear blue sky onto your head.
At the same time, a lot of early works do have a lot of wish-fulfillment or authorial self-insertion, because the highly focused, critical empathy needed to build characters diametrically or even slightly opposed to one’s own personal stances and thoughts is a skill that needs practice. So if you find aspects of either in your work or your characters, don’t despair! (Remember, there’s always revision.)
But it leads us to another error new writers often make.
Paragons are boring.
So your character is the best at what they do, and is universally beloved too. They’re also kind, overwhelmingly attractive, know exactly what to say at any given moment, and have great hair! Others just can’t believe how amazing your main character is, and those who don’t fall in love with them are just jealous and evil.
In other words, this character is boring as fuck, and makes your story likewise. Paragons might do well in the specific instances of allegory and Greek tragedy, but out here writing one-dimensional tyros without blood, flesh, or bad breath should be avoided unless employing them for comic effect.
I’m not saying a character can’t be heroic. I’m saying a perfect person doesn’t exist, and if you’re going to write one, you’d better be prepared to have something else of interest to keep your reader from wandering away in disgust. Plenty of wish-fulfillment fics (but not all) center on paragons; the other name for it is a Gary Stu or Mary Sue. (Plenty of paragons are also authorial self-insertions. FUCK YOU, NATHAN FROM SCHOOL!)
There’s a Venn diagram of authorial self-insertions, paragons, and wish-fulfillment somewhere, I bet. For right now, we’ll just have to imagine it.
The big argument against paragons is not that they’re lazy writing, because they don’t have to be. You can most often use them to lampoon other characters and give the audience a grin—Ace Rimmer springs to mind—and many classical and historical writers made their patrons paragons because it was a good way to get paid. (We’ve all got to get paid—yes, even Shakespeare the Tudor Apologist.) No, the biggest reason not to use Gary Stus is that, unless they’re in the hands of a master and serving a specific purpose within the work, they’re utterly boring.
Even the most interesting story can be drained of life, love, and laughter by the appearance of a joyless, blemish-free, lecturing character whom everyone unaccountably worships or is stupidly jealous of. Give your protagonist some warts—give them coping mechanisms that don’t work, give them short tempers or a habit of assuming things about other people. Hell, give them your own worst personality features—and if you’re a writer, you should absolutely know what those are, since you’re the first, best, and cheapest object for human research available.
Know thyself is not just a Pythagorean dictum.
You’re telling stories about human beings, and there’s no such thing as a perfect one. Use this fact to your advantage—we can all see other people’s flaws much better than our own.
Don’t coddle them.
Finally, we come to my favorite piece of advice.
Of course you’re a reasonable human being and you don’t want to hurt anyone. Of course you’re a lovely person with a great deal of empathy and would never dream of hurting even a fly!
But in fiction, well… where’s the story (or the fun) in that?
Hurt your characters. Just when they think things are going well, open the pod bay doors—or refuse to. Let the villain win a battle, even though you know the war’s going to be won by your bumbling, nasty-tempered heroes. Let things work out badly for a character; let them learn a lesson the way you did in life—by hard, painful experience. Beat them up, knock them about. Let their reactions to the punishment they take show who they really are deep down.
So often I see new writers unwilling to truly hurt their characters, and as a result shying away from amazing aspects of the story and situation they’ve set up. Consider this: Neither a doctor nor a monster he’s created get what they want; both of them have to pay for what they’ve done and furthermore for the “sin” of being born into an imperfect world. That’s part of the enduring appeal of a certain novel—all of us have, at one time or another, messed up but good, whether innocently or because we thought we were doing something grand, great, or right.
Now imagine what Frankenstein would be if Mary Shelley had made Victor a paragon instead of a selfish glory-hungry cad. (She probably did base some of his less appetizing traits on Byron or even her sainted husband, a fact which just makes me love her more.) Imagine if the monster hadn’t committed the errors he did, well-meaning, instinctive, or vengeful. We can analyze the flaws in that book and its author, certainly, but a refusal to hurt the characters or look away from the choices they made certainly wasn’t among them.
Characters make choices, those choices have consequences, some of those consequences will be painful. If they aren’t, why bother writing the damn book? Where’s the story if everything works out all right for the paragon-characters, or if the writer falls in love with the monster they’ve created (Hannibal, Joe Goldberg, the list goes on…) and won’t let them suffer any adverse consequences that matter? I’ll tell you where—it’s vanished into the Land of Boredom, which is a place the writer wishes to avoid at all cost.
Part of the joy of writing—only part, mind you—comes from stepping into another person’s skin in a relatively low-risk way. A writer can try out what it means to be a small person given a task upon which the fate of the world depends (Frodo Baggins) or a sailor watching an irresistible force meeting a not-so-immovable object (Call me Ishmael…) or a child lost in a fairytale land (Dorothy Gale, Lucy Pevensie) or a collection of lives in a rotting tradition-bound castle (Steerpike, the Groans, Prunesquallor) or a self-centered doctor who shouldn’t be given the knowledge he seeks (Victor Frankenstein) or a young monk watching a tragedy play out (Adso of Melk) or Death himself (The Book Thief, or Tales of the Flat Earth) or a woman caught in Tam Lin’s ballad (Janet Carter, by way of Pamela Dean) or or or—but you get the idea, right?
With that smorgasbord available, who would want to remain their stodgy old daytime self in fiction? We have access to a shapeshifter’s paradise, never mind that corners of it are probably like Mombi’s walk-in closet full of heads. Let your characters open up all those secret inner worlds to you, let them be as gloriously messy and imperfect as your own divine authorly self.
I promise the rewards are fantastic; not least among them is avoiding the danger of boring your readers past tears and into indifference. Let your characters be different people, let them be imperfect, and don’t be afraid to hurt them. Above all, as always…
Please note: In the very near future, one writing post a month will be free and the rest, as well as an open thread on a to-be-determined weekday, will be for paid subscribers. Don't worry, I’ll let you know when this happens! It’s looking like we might start in February, so stay tuned.