Friday, August 27, 2010

Characterization: Add a Touch of Grey

I'm sure all of us at one time or another has wished for things to be simple. A or B. Yes or no. Black or white. We get caught up in the grey so often that we often seek some monochromatic stability. Well, that's all well and good for the real world, but this is fiction we're talking about, and no one wants to read about a world of absolutes.

No human on earth is perfect. In fact, let's go as far as saying no human on earth is even close to perfect. Trick is, the term "perfect" is subjective anyway. My perfect may not be someone else's perfect and vice verse. So, perhaps we might agree that we can't have an absolutely perfect character.

Ok, now that we have that established, let's apply it to your characters. Think about all the characters in your present work. Any of them perfect? No? Good. It's ok if his name is Mr. Perfect, so long as he actually isn't. Now, here's a trickier question. Any of them completely good or completely evil? Well, they shouldn't be. Nobody is an absolute. Every monster has a redeeming quality. Every hero has a flaw...some of them tragic.

Let's start with bad guys. What makes a bad guy? A bad guy is a guy who does bad thing. Well, ok...if we're in third grade. But, we all know that there are motivations behind everything people do in this world. Your characters need to have the same. The best literary characters are the ones we can empathize with...even the bad ones. And, the best stories are the ones where the line between the good guys and the bad guys is fuzzy at best. Take Moby Dick for example. Who's the bad guy here? Ahab? Who has never had an obsession they would go to the ends of the earth for (or at least thought they would)? Who hasn't ever sought revenge after being wronged (or having a leg chewed off)? The madness with which he pursues the whale leads to his (and pretty much all of his ship mates) demise. So, then, is the White Whale the real bad guy? If I'd been stabbed a couple hundred times with harpoons, I might be a little edgy as well. But, what keeps us entertained is the ebb and flow between right and wrong. We don't want to read about a character that is pure evil because we aren't familiar with that kind of thinking. What we are familiar with are the everyday feelings of fear, anxiety, jealousy, vengefulness, desire, and anger. For a great list of literary bad guys (with a bit of a UK slant), check out this Top 50. I think they went a little weak with their number 1 choice, but I guess that's just me (I mean, Satan? C'mon).

On the other end of the spectrum, no one wants a hero who is Mr. Perfect. Why? It’s hard to see ourselves in someone that is infallible. Think of it this way: A sports team or a player has a streak of wins or points scored. Everyone but the fans of that team/player is rooting for them to fail! We don’t like to think of things as perfect. It might be the same reasoning behind watching NASCAR (which, for the life of me...I will never truly understand). The perfect race for the drivers would probably be one without a single crash. For the fans, though...that would probably be the most boring race they have ever witnessed. We want to see a crash. We want to see the “perfect” fall flat on their face sometimes. It reminds us that they're human, just like you and I (I'm sorry if I'm the one breaking it to you, but you, dear reader, are not perfect). Now, I'm not a religious person, but let's use a hero most are at least familiar with: Jesus. Who doesn't take a little satisfaction when He goes postal on the money changers in the temple? Can you see it? Robes aflutter. Hair askew and plastered to his forehead in sweat. Coins and doves flying everywhere! This is the Son of God for Chri...ummm...for cryin' out loud! Even He gets angry...and justifiably so. But, the fact is...we want Him to. We want Him to go in and mess some shit up because that's how we feel sometimes. Sure, we all try to do good, but sometimes you just want to toss a table, flip a chair, punch out a window, kick a puppy (ok...that might be pushing it). Mr. Perfect could never do this. He's not allowed to get angry or frustrated. He's certainly not allowed to vent his frustrations on relative innocents...that's what bad guys do, right?

Boy, this is complicated. Or, is it? Complicated, to me, would be trying to write about a character who does nothing but think pure evil or pure good. It doesn't make sense to me, and it probably wouldn't make much sense to my readers. Or, worse, it would bore them. Nobody likes a predictable character and when you have absolutes, you have predictability. What's important to understand is that we're all proportions of good and evil (I mean, even after spending six years in Evil Medical School, even Dr. Evil had a soft spot for furry [and not so furry] kitties and eerily identical midgets). At the most extreme, the ratio might be 1:99. For instance, the bad guy who maims, kills, and steals at will, but always visits his elderly mother on Sunday afternoons. Or, the good guy who walks little old ladies across the street, but also parks in the handicapped-only spots at the grocery store. These flaws can often lead us to what truly motivates a character to do what he/she does. Sometimes it can be the chink in the armor. Sometimes, it can be the thing that makes the character persevere in the face of adversity. And, sometimes, it just means they like cats, midgets, their mother...and parking illegally, etc.

Now, sticking to the standard good vs bad (which we should really rename "positive vs not so positive" for the sake of this blog entry) is all well and good, but for a real challenge, try and turn the tables. The anti-hero has gained quite a foothold in popular media now. Vampires and werewolves saving the day. Serial killers who kill only bad guys. The outcast who saves those who cast him/her out in the first place. In these instances, the entire notion of right and wrong has been tossed on its head. Here we have characters who don't just lean in a particular direction; they live part-time on both sides. These are the ultimate grey characters; the lines of distinction are left to the consumer. And the challenge, to the writer, is to make that character someone we can believe in and sympathize with, without making them a muddled mess (muddled messes can be long as it's an author-controlled muddled mess...riiiight). Again, it comes down to finding the proper balance.

Life is an amazing, intricate, confusing, complicated journey full of wonders and horrors alike. It is anything but simple, especially when we want or need it to be. Everyone carries with them, whether overtly or otherwise, the imprint of their experiences and it fashions how they both respond to and perceive this world. Make sure that your characters show signs of having lived in this world. Give them a perceptible badge; a lasting, intangible tattoo that tells you where they've been. It will add credibility and a touch of grey to every character you create and, in turn, give you characters your readers want to follow to the ends of the Earth.

**A special note of thanks to J.C.Hutchins whose recent blog post on Writer Unboxed inspired this one.**

1 comment:

  1. absolutely. ;) Have you read Paradise Lost? I had a poetry teacher that insisted we read the whole thing and I'm so glad that she did. It was brilliant and, yes, Satan is definitely without a doubt the best villain humanity has ever created. The thing is, there is this huge debate with PL that Satan is actually the "hero" because in the form that Milton is writing, the hero must have a "tragic flaw." Of course, Jesus is perfect and so can no be the hero, technically speaking. It's scandalously brilliant!
    J.C. is great...and Writer Unboxed is such a valuable site.

    One more thing--I think one of the reasons that I do not enjoy "high fantasy" as much as other genres is because the characters are more black and white. However, I think that a lot of readers enjoy this good vs. evil type of story and it serves a purpose too.