While talking with a friend recently about writing, I realized that my characters haven’t been taking their stories into their own hands and running off with them as much as they have in the past. On the one hand, this does make it easier to get them to do things. On the other, some of my favorite scenes have been completely unplanned and entirely outside of what I would have written had I stuck with what I thought needed to happen, and in angstier moments, I catch myself wondering if I’m structuring my writing into predictable scenes and stilted conflict.
It’s not so bad as that, fortunately.
In fact, the more I’m thinking about it, it’s not so much that my characters aren’t flying off to do their own at all, and more that the whole story will twist on itself and zip off somewhere I didn’t expect. Is it still possible that my characters aren’t as fully rounded as I want them to be, and/or that I just don’t know them well enough to have my subconscious take the reins? Oh, absolutely. And that’s something I’ll have to work on, I have no doubt. But fortunately, I don’t think it’s evidence that I’ve regressed in my writing ability. Despite what I try to tell myself on a bad writing day.
Anyone in the business of storytelling will tell you that conflict is what makes a story a story. It drives the action. It moves the characters and makes them fight for what they want. It makes them grow as (fictional) people. It’s what gives us the compelling stories that capture our imaginations.
And while it’s not a perfect correlation, a lot of us could also tell you that when those bumps appear in our own lives, they’re opportunities for us just like they are for our characters. Trouble is, knowing that doesn’t always make it any easier emotionally to handle those disappointments. Not when something takes you in a different direction than you expected to be going. Not when it feels like your slow, steady climb towards your goal has taken a sudden turn to the left. Not when you start questioning whether you made some mistake along the way that will delay you terribly if not prevent you entirely from reaching where you thought you were going.
Is this melodramatic? At least a little. (I write fiction for fun; what were you expecting?) Do I have a marginally unhealthy expectation that my life will follow a roughly sensible character arc, with obvious steps forwards and backwards, all moving towards a single concrete goal? Possibly. Oops. But can I still take advice from my favorite characters? Absolutely. Especially when all of them keep pushing through when there’s no easy way to get where they want to be.
Way back in my formative years of writing, I spent an inordinate amount of time on several Redwall fan-sites that had vibrant roleplaying communities, which basically meant that we wrote up various characters and spent hours upon hours writing stories together, featuring all our characters. Naturally there was much discussion regarding what constituted a “good” character, and cliches in particular were frowned upon. In fact, saying someone’s character was a Mary Sue (or, for male characters, a Gary Stu) was one of the worst insults anyone could give.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the term, it is generally used to describe a fictional character* who is “portrayed as unrealistically free of weakness”. Understandably, these sorts of characters could be particularly annoying to encounter when writing with others– if Agent John B. Awesome is single-handedly destroying any and all opponents and completing all mission objectives, it doesn’t leave a lot of other room for anyone writing more balanced characters to develop their writing or explore the bits of story that can only come about when the characters encounter things they can’t handle. As a young kid who desperately wanted to be accepted, this meant that I tended to avoid that ditch so hard that I ran straight into the other one: truly boring characters. You know. The ones who aren’t exceptional in any way. The ones who aren’t special or amazing or fun. The ones that no one wants to read about. Or write about. Dun-dun-dun-dun…
Fortunately, it’s really difficult to write boring characters for any great length of time. You’ll either give up writing completely, or you’ll wise up and start writing more interesting characters. The key word there being “more”. It’s not a switch you flip and overnight you suddenly have it figured out. Rather, it’s a skill that needs practice. Lots. And. Lots. Of. Practice.
For me, this often means that I’ll start writing a character who is more interesting (to me, at the very least), only to run up against a whole brick wall of “but wait! They can’t be too cool or they’ll be a bad character.” Which, rationally, I realize is just plain false. Luke Skywalker is pretty darn cool. So is Aragorn. And Edmund Dantes. And Darrow (Red Rising). And Vin (Mistborn). And the list goes on. These characters are known and loved precisely because of how “cool” they are**, and all they manage to accomplish despite terrible odds and their own personal demons. And it’s that last bit that’s the most important– these characters have to strive and fight and scratch and claw to get where they want to go, and that’s what makes them so compelling.
In short, the answer to avoiding cliched and over-powerful characters isn’t found so much in making them smaller, but rather in making their obstacles bigger.
* Specifically, the term is often used to describe a female character, hence the variations listed above, but certainly it can be a valid complaint for any poorly written character.
** Obviously, a huge oversimplification. But the point stands.