We writers can get really, really attached to our characters. They become almost like family members. We want the best for them. Sometimes it can be difficult to see them make mistakes, to see their flaws, and to let the bad qualities shine through from time to time.
We can be way too nice to them.
But if you’re too easy to your characters, your novel might suffer. You might be missing opportunities to show the full range of their personality. Here are some tips for making sure your esteem for your characters doesn’t sink your novel.
Don’t let your characters be perfect
George R.R. Martin’s novel A Game of Thrones, and the Song of Ice and Fire series as a whole, is known for many things, including for serving as the basis of an HBO series and for being the gold standard for gritty modern fantasy. But above all, as a Better Book Titles blog parody joked, A Game of Thrones may as well be titled “Don’t Get Too Attached.”
When people warn you not to get too attached to Martin’s characters, they are usually referring to how the people who die in Martin’s novels aren’t the people you expect to die. He has a remarkable capacity for killing off characters. Anyone can die at any moment, and Martin uses this unpredictable atmosphere to terrific effect.
However, I’d argue that Martin’s lack of sentimentality goes even further, and there’s a lesson here for all writers: Martin lets his characters have flaws.
Every character in A Game of Thrones has a set of positive and negative qualities and shows a full range of humanity. Martin is not afraid to go dark. Even Ned Stark, arguably the noblest character in the book, has a somewhat inglorious past. He suffers from hubris. He can be sanctimonious. He is on the whole a good person, but he’s flawed.
Make your characters sweat
Sometimes we don’t think enough about how to test characters through their weaknesses. When you’re placing obstacles in your character’s way, don’t just think about how they can overcome these obstacles with their best qualities, think about situations that will challenge them and in which their bad qualities could lead to their possible defeat or downfall.
Let your characters fail sometimes. Let the reader see their bad side, their cranky side, or their hubristic side.
Better yet, construct the entire novel around the idea that you need to find a way to show the entire spectrum of your character. Sometimes they rise to the occasion and sometimes they are brought down a notch or three by their flaws. We should see all of their positive and negative qualities over the course of a novel.
Showing a few warts won’t make your readers dislike your characters. If anything, the characters will seem more human. Martin, for one, has no compunctions about showing his characters’ warts, or even reveling in them, as he trusts that the readers will still feel affection for the characters.
Strengths are very often the flip-side of weaknesses. If you’re only showing your characters’ good qualities, use this list of character strengths and weaknesses to brainstorm how even good qualities can sometimes trip up your characters.
Victories should feel “earned”
It’s not interesting to watch a character breeze through a novel and have all their problems effortlessly and magically disappear. It doesn’t feel believable when conflicts are instantly patched over and when characters are perfectly understanding of each other.
Always look for ways to ratchet up the tension and make your character work as hard as possible for their victories. Don’t constantly paper over conflict.
The effect of making your characters work hard is twofold: it shows more of their character when they have to summon the big guns of their personality and determination, and it feels more hard-won and satisfying to see them prevail they had to work extremely hard to get the things they want.
The harder the work, the sweeter the spoils.
Especially if you’re conflict-averse in real life, you might feel squeamish delving into gritty conflict and letting tension linger.
Push past it. Let things get uncomfortable. Learn to revel in awkward and painful conflicts between characters. Don’t be afraid to let people be jerks sometimes.
Above all, characters feel more human when we see the full spectrum of their personality and we feel more satisfied on their behalf when they have to really work to get the things they want. Don’t be too nice to them.
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Art: Detail of Der übermütige Bergsteigerbub by Hugo Engl