Sunday, July 17, 2011

Imperfection vs. Idiocy

Here's another case where something I noticed as a reader has carried over to my writing. Flawed characters are a good thing. Perfect characters are boring, not to mention severely unrealistic. If characters are perfect and always do the right thing, there's no interest and frequently no story.

Like everything else, though, flawed characters can go to an extreme that doesn't work any better. A student of mine (now graduated) probably shouldn't ever get an e-reader, because judging by our conversations, I think she may tend toward throwing books across the room. Or at least slamming them down on a desk.

The reason? Idiotic protagonists.

This is particularly prevalent in certain YA novels (or at least, that's where I notice it, since it's the world I know). Teenagers are in a stage of life that's naturally more self-centered, and maybe that leads to the idea of making dumb decisions.

Okay, we all make bad decisions. That's normal. But a character's bad decision should be something that a real person would really do under those circumstances. More particularly, the bad decision should be consistent with what's known about the character ... not just something that's convenient for the plot. (Hmm, I think that goes back to my post on front-end/back-end motivation, too.)

Here's the thing. I've only known one teen in my whole life (including when I was a teen) who seemed to be 100% self-interested in their actions. And in that case, a personality disorder was likely. I also have a hard time thinking of any teens who act outright stupid in the way some novel characters do.

A cohort of the super-self-interested character is the one with false selflessness. The one who supposedly does what she does because she loves the boy, or wants to keep her friends safe. But when you look at it, the actions don't match the supposed motivation. The character is just being stupid ... because it's convenient.

So where's the line and the balance? How do we instill our characters with realistic, interesting flaws (and appropriately get them in trouble) without our teen readers thinking we're insulting the intelligence of their species?


Riley Redgate said...

Oh, great post, RC! You hit the nail on the head (as per usual). I feel like a big part of making realistic decisions is having a character that has a biiig personality. Like, if you have a snappy, sarcastic MC, then I'll totally buy it if she mouths off and gets herself suspended. But if the MC is sort of bland and flavorless, it's hard to get her into a situation where she'd get suspended without it seeming just plain dumb.

One of my favorite ways to characterize is to ask myself, "What mistakes is this character prone to make?" I feel like our mistakes define us. So if our characters make mistakes that indicate nothing more than stupidity, I assume their chief characteristic is... well, stupidity. And that's, er, bad. I'd rather read about someone INTENSELY unlikeable who gets herself in trouble because she's a bitch than read about someone with no personality making seemingly-senseless choices.

(What I really love is when someone's intelligence gets them in trouble! [Hi, Ender's Game!] How's that for a changer-upper? :P)

Riley Redgate said...

Also, I love that there's a teen species now XD

R.C. Lewis said...

Thanks, Riley. Love your connection with personality and focus on natural mistakes. Very good things to keep in mind.

Yes, there's a teen species. Fortunately, I have a visitor's pass.

Sidenote: Is it just me, or is there a trend lately of throwaway lines about MCs being in AP [fill in the blank] and having a 3.9 GPA, yet nothing in the story supports those claims? Yes, there's a difference between book-smarts and life-smarts ... but there IS overlap most of the time.

Riley Redgate said...

Oh, if that's a trend, thank God I haven't seen it! I'd be downright pissed if my supposed intellectual equal went and did some dumb crap. XD Not, of course, that courseload and GPA say TOO much about intelligence in the extended scheme of things... but it's a pointer in the right direction, anyway. :P

Christine Murray said...

'Sidenote: Is it just me, or is there a trend lately of throwaway lines about MCs being in AP [fill in the blank] and having a 3.9 GPA, yet nothing in the story supports those claims? Yes, there's a difference between book-smarts and life-smarts ... but there IS overlap most of the time.'

Yep, I've noticed this too. It's a particular bugbear of mine, actually.

Mary Kate Leahy said...

Stupid MCs are my pet peeve. I don't mind miscalculations or poorly motivated choices, but when they don't know to come in out of the rain then I get extremely irritated. There is a difference between making mistakes, even in a teen who may be doing it intentionally and acting out, and being an idiot. Great post.

R.C. Lewis said...

Christine, glad it's not just me, but not glad that it's actually happening repeatedly. :-\

Mary Kate, I'm with you. Though I do prefer choices to have *some* kind of motivation I can buy into. Doesn't have to be a choice I'd make or even a smart choice, but I have to believe it.

greenwoman said...

Thank you. I hate, hate, hate it when YA characters are Too Stupid to Live. Well, any characters, really, but it seems more common in YA.

I once read a novel where the protagonist SNUCK OUT OF THE HOUSE to go work on a school project.

Um . . . what????