Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Losing My Religion, Part 2: Misconceptions About Character

A massive post to get you through the holidays (Loosen a belt loop before reading...) The most important skill for a writer to have is character creation.  Unfortunately, this is also the area that is most misunderstood…

What I Used to Think: Any sort of character can be the hero of your story.
  • What I Now Realize: “Heroes” can be good or evil, smart or dumb, triumphant or tragic, but every hero must have two essential qualities: They must be active and they must be resourceful. Active doesn’t mean running, jumping and shooting, it just meant that they pursue their goals.  Likewise, resourceful just means that heroes must figure out novel ways to solve their problems. Even fools can be resourceful, which is why it’s impossible to invent anything that’s foolproof.
What I Used to Think: The audience wants to like your hero.
  • What I Now Realize: Audiences must make themselves emotionally vulnerable in order to truly care about your hero. This is why your audience will look for any excuse to reject your hero, for fear of getting their feelings hurt if your hero turns out to be passive and uninteresting.  You must win the audience over against their will.
What I Used to Think: It’s easy and boring to create a likable character, but it’s much harder and more ambitious to create an ambiguous character.
  • What I Now Realize: The opposite is true.  It’s relatively easy to create an ambiguous character.  Any conglomeration of likable and unlikeable traits, chosen at random, will result in an ambiguous character.  Getting an audience to deeply identify with a character, on the other hand, is one of the hardest things in the world to do
What I Used to Think: In order to be likable, a hero has to do sympathetic things, like saving cats.
What I Used to Think: There have been several recent examples of successful stories about morally dubious anti-heroes, so that proves that a main character does not have to be likable.
  • What I Now Realize: It proves just the opposite, that a great writer can make a character likeable even though that character is morally dubious. In fact, the audience loves Tony Soprano, Don Draper, Michael Scott, et al., and we do so despite their unsympathetic behavior. The writers have used hundreds of clever little tricks to force us to fall in love with them, despite our initial revulsion.   
What I Used to Think: Some heroes are defined by the strengths, and other heroes by their flaws.
  • What I Now Realize: Some heroes seem more bad-ass or loser-ish than others, but they all must have a mixture of strengths and flaws, and of confidence and insecurity.  Only a careful balance of these traits will cause a dubious audience to identify with your hero. 
What I Used to Think: All flaws are good flaws
  • What I Now Realize: All heroes need flaws, but some flaws are less alienating than others. If you want the audience to root for your heroes, it’s better to give them the kinds of flaws that you would admit to in a job interview, and those flaws should be the flip side of their strengths.
What I Used to Think: The hero will be interesting because of an interesting backstory. 
What I Used to Think: A hero is someone who would be heroic in any situation.
  • What I Now Realize: More often than not, the hero just happens to be the right person to solve this problem because his/her unique qualities are sorely lacking in this place at this time. The hero is the person who has the quality that everyone else lacks in this situation, even if it’s a quality that would make the hero seem villainous in other situations.  Vin Diesel’s character in Pitch Black would be the villain in any other place or time, but on that planet, on that day, he’s the ideal hero.  
What I Used to Think: A hero should be an “everyman” who reacts the way that anybody would. 

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