Which is more important? Plot or character? Though an interesting discussion—sort of like, Could Ronda Rousey take a Klingon with only her bare hands?—it isn’t really a useful discussion for anything other than fun. To write great fiction, we need both. Plot and characters work together. One arc drives the other much like one cog serves to turn another, thus generating momentum in the overall engine we call “STORY”.
If we goof up plot? Readers/Audiences get confused or call FOUL. Watch the movie Ouija for what I am talking about *shakes head*.
Goof up characters? No one cares about the plot.
New writers are particularly vulnerable to messing up characters. We drift too far to one end of the spectrum or the other—Super-Duper-Perfect versus Too Dumb to Live—and this can make a story fizzle because there is no way to create true dramatic tension. This leaves us (the frustrated author) to manufacture conflict and what we end up with is drama’s inbred cousin melodrama.
If characters are too perfect, too goody-goody and too well-adjusted? If they always make noble, good and professional decisions? Snooze fest.
Again. Bad decisions make great fiction.
Of course, the other side of that is what I call The Gilligan Effect. Yes, I am dating myself here and don’t want to upset ant DIE-HARD Gilligan’s Island fans, but I remember being a kid and this show nearly giving me an aneurism (being the highly logical child I was).
After the third time Gilligan botched up the escape off the island? Kristen would have gone Lord of the Flies and
Piggy Gilligan would have mysteriously gone “missing.”
I also recall how the stranded party could make everything out of coconuts except a freaking BOAT, and the only reason I kept watching was because it was better than being locked outside to play in heat that returned asphalt back to a plasma state (Yay, Texas summers!).
Today we are going to talk about how we can make characters flawed without crossing over into TDTL (Too Dumb To Live) Territory. That and I SO had to blog about something that let me share THIS! *giggles*
Let’s hide behind the CHAINSAWS!!!! *clutches sides*
Okay, I’m back *giggles*.
Great stories are filled with characters making bad decisions, and when this is done well, we often don’t really notice it beyond the winding tension in our stomach, the clenching that can only be remedied by pressing forward and seeing if it works out okay. When characters are properly flawed, the audience remains captured in the fictive dream.
When we (the writer) goof up? The fictive dream is shattered. The audience is no longer part of the world because they’re too busy fuming that anyone could be that stupid. They also now cease to care about the character because, like Gilligan? They kind of want said TDTL character to die.
If this is our protagonist? Extra bad. Our protagonist should make mistakes, just not ones so egregious the reader stops rooting for him/her.
Bad Decisions Birthed from The Flaw
When we create a protagonist, we should remember that all strengths have a complimentary weakness. If a character has never been tested by fire, the protagonist is blind to the weakness.
For instance, great leaders can be control freaks. Loyal people can be overly naive. Compassionate people can be unrealistic. Y’all get the idea.
This dual nature of human strength paired with fallibility is why plot is just as critical.
The plot is the crucible that tests the mettle and reveals and fires out the flaw. The strength ultimately will have to be stronger than the weakness because this is how the protagonist will grow to become a hero by story’s end.
A great example of this is one of my favorite movies, The Edge. Anthony Hopkins plays billionaire Charles Morse. Charles is extremely successful and very much in his own head. Though he’s a genius, he lives the sheltered existence of the uber-wealthy.
What happens when all that “head-knowledge” is what he needs to survive a plane crash in the unforgiving wilderness?
When the plane crashes and he and the other two survivors make it to shore, Morse does the right thing. He knows they need to get dry before they all die from hypothermia. He also realizes Stephen, the photographer, is in full panic. What is the intelligent thing to do? Put the photographer to work doing something fruitful to take his mind off his fear.
The problem, however, is Morse assumes the photographer has the same knowledge-base and doesn’t take time to show Stephen how to use a knife properly and the man is badly injured. Now we’ve already had a problem (plane crash) and now we have a complication (bad injury) and then it gets worse.
Morse, again, being an in-his-own-head-guy and unaccustomed to having to communicate WHY he wants certain things done, tells Robert Green to bury the bloody fabric. Green is jealous of Morse and rebellious and instead of following instructions and burying the material? He hangs the blood-soaked rags from a tree where an incoming storm whips up the scent of an newly opened All You Can Eat Buffet.
Soon, the men are being hunted by an apex predator with the munchies for humans.
But all of this was birthed from a myriad of flaws. Morse failing to communicate and assuming his comrades are operating with the same head knowledge (because he’s never HAD to use this type of information in a real-world way) and also the two photographers who are City People and don’t have the sense to know 1) NOT to drag a knife towards the body and 2) that the smallest scent of blood will draw predators.
These men are used to the “civilized world” and at the beginning, have failed to properly appreciate that their position at the top of the food chain is NOT static.
Bad Decisions Depend on Circumstances
Sometimes characters will make bad decisions simply because this is a completely new world or a set of circumstances they’ve never faced, thus have no way to fully appreciate. The “bad” decision was not a “bad decision” before the adventure.
A good example? Merry and Pippin in The Lord of the Rings. In the Shire, people talk and are sociable. These naive characters haven’t yet felt the consequences of this new and dangerous world. To them? Chatting away and freely sharing information at The Prancing Pony is NOT a bad decision in their minds. Neither is frying bacon on top of a mountain.
They’ve always lived a life that if they were in a pub? They drank and made friends. If they wanted bacon? They just made bacon. They’ve never had to think beyond their mood or stomachs and don’t have the experience base to realize that fire is a “Come and Kill Me” beacon to the enemy.
Bad Decisions Can Be Birthed From The Wound
We have talked about The Wound before. In Thelma & Louise what is the wound? A lifetime of male oppression. In Thelma’s case, her husband controls every aspect of her life. Thus, when she finally does get on her own, she has poor judgement and is naive and that’s how she nearly ends up raped in a honky-tonk parking lot.
Louise was raped and no one was there for her. She’s been a victim and doesn’t trust men or the law. Thus, her baggage is what leads her to shoot Thelma’s attacker, but then also dovetails into the really, really bad decision to run.
But if we look at all these examples from an analytical distance, these characters are just DUMB. But why aren’t they TDTL? Context. Because of plot we (the audience) are not staring down at them like specimens through a microscope. We are immersed in their worlds and thus empathize with the bad decisions.
The bad decisions are forgivable because unless we live in the Alaskan wilderness? We can empathize with maybe doing something seriously stupid if we were stranded, too. We (the audience) have “been” to the Shire and know what world created the childlike Merry and Pippin. We appreciate they are grossly out of their depth and give them a pass.
In Thelma & Louise we can understand how damaged people make poor decisions because, unless we’ve been living under a rock, we’ve made similar choices, and suffered consequences created from fear not reason.
What this means is that, while ALL of these characters made really wrong decisions, they are necessary and pardonable decisions that serve to drive the character arc and thus the plot’s momentum.
That is the final note on characters making bad decisions. Do we have a character making a mistake, withholding vital information, acting irrationally because it is coming from a deeper place of flaws, circumstance or wounds?
Or, do we have a character playing marionette? Characters are making a mistakes because we NEED them to. The tension has fizzled, so let’s just let them do something epically stupid (and random)?
Audiences can tell the difference between mistakes that are organic and flow from deeper emotional waters versus something contrived. And we can ALL be guilty of forcing characters to make bad choices simply because we sense tension is missing. Even I have to go back and ask the tough question…WHY is this character doing this?
For more help on how to use characters to ratchet anxiety to the nerve-shreding level, I am finally back teaching and offering my Understanding the Antagonist Class on April 18th and YES, it is recorded in case you miss or need to listen again because this class is jammed with information.
I LOVE teaching this simply because our antagonists are pivotal for writing a story readers can’t put down. Yet, too often we fail to harness characters for max effect. I look forward to seeing you there! I also offer the Gold level for one-on-one. Maybe you’ve hit a dead end. Your story is so confusing you need a GPS and a team of sherpas to find the original idea. Instead of wasting time with misguided revisions, I can help you triage your WIP and WHIP it into fighting form 😀 .
What are your thoughts regarding characters making poor decisions? What are some of your favorite examples? Ever quit a book, movie, or show because you wanted everyone to DIE? Did you hate Gilligan, too? Do you think Ronda Rousey could take on a Klingon with her bare hands?
I love hearing from you!
To prove it and show my love, for the month of MARCH, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).
For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE, pick up a copy of my latest social media/branding book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World on AMAZON, iBooks, or Nook.
Reblogged this on West Coast Review and commented:
Yes! Say it out loud. Thank you.
If you must write then you must read this article.
Reblogged this on Author Unpublished and commented:
This is a spectacularly well-written and thorough article on character flaws vs. character stupidity–I’d suggest everyone give it a read.
Soft tacos of the bear world… ?
Yeah … I’m sharing this with my writer’s group 🙂
“drama’s inbred cousin melodrama” Hahaha, Kristen. Good one.
Reblogged this on Reading, Drinking and Dancing with a Chaser of Snark and commented:
Kristen’s post highlights one of my pet peeves. I have read many an inexperienced author who wants to write “trendy” stories, rather than what she/he KNOWS. Not only does the plot suffer, but ultimately, so do the characters. Just because particular types of characters are popular today, does not mean that an author should write about them. Nor does that mean they should follow the herd – off a cliff – by creating plot lines that become a caricature of themselves.
Having a reader silently ask “She’s so smart … how could she DO that?” and then answering the question … that is the spice of life.
Dating myself here…I was very little when Gilligan was on. Our summers weren’t nearly as hot. I DIDN’T watch Giligan because strangulation fantasies were bad. I watched Star Trek instead. 🙂
If I had to choose between goofed up plot or goofed up characters, I’d take plot. As a reader, I try to identify or connect with the characters because what’s happening to them should touch me in some way. I need to care about them. If I can’t do that, then the plot won’t save them. As for flawed versus TSTL, flawed to me means making mistakes and learning from them, they go through an arc, if you will. TSTL means to me that they simply have zero common sense and do (stupid) things to prove a point or get attention.
My biggest pet peeve with TSTL characters appear mostly in romantic suspense where the hero is Spec Ops, Agent, Cop or whatever he was trained to be to serve and protect, and when someone who is a subject matter expert on terrorist, serial killers or weapons tells a heroine to stay put, or emphasizes not to do something for her safety, but she goes off in a huff of “I can take care of myself, thank you very much” and gets herself caught and needing to be rescued, well, I just throw the book across the room.
Good post. This is a line I’m currently walking with my Hungarian series. Originally, it was an 80K word novel, but my publisher wants it broken down into a series of novellas, which means adding more subplots. That’s seriously cool, BUT the problem it presents is exactly the topic of this blog. I took a charming, free-spirited American girl and put her in Hungary with her stoic Hungarian cousin and a family of Gypsies. This is a great situation for making a butt load of mistakes and showing the character arc as my sweet, naive American learns how to adapt in a foreign environment with a family of loud yet secretive and slightly nutty people (and I haven’t even touched on the antagonist in this post). The problem now is extending the story without falling into melodrama. I can’t have my American repeat the same mistakes, and new ones might seem like I’m trying too hard.
Best. Article. Ever. 🙂 Hopefuuly it’ll help me a lot…if I ever actually write anything. 😛
(Don’t bother putting my name in a hat though. I have nothing in a form where I could send it if I did win.)
Your character has a problem. You put on their shoes, and get inside their skin, and then let them work it out, Their misjudgements and mistakes create the momentum (plot), the consequences of their actions in relation to other characters creates more complications and more momentum. But somewhere in the melee will be the seeds of resolution. Character and plot should really be indivisible.
I believe that plot and characters have to have an air of believability to them for the readers to be absorbed in the flow of the story. Some of the most outlandish things that people do make for the most unbelievable real life situations. The trick or rule of thumb I use is to give a great reason why not too smart characters is knowingly or unknowlingly embarking on the ride of their life. Give a great and believable reason why and the readers will thank you for the journey your book takes them on. Or take a character whom by one action has every right to be vilified; know give the readers the reason why said character did such a horrible thing and you’ll have your readers not forgiving them, but definitely understanding them. So go head paint your characters goofy, clueless with a plot filled with clues to save them and they just don’t get it… just make sure you give the readers the WHY so they are not clueless too.
I just published the final post to my blog series today that analyzes the major characters in my book, The Stone of Kings. One thing I made sure to include in all the posts were the character’s strengths AND weaknesses because everyone has them – even the villains.
One thing I learned I’m either not very good at, or just need to work harder at, is the romantic aspect in characters. I had two critical reviews who, while they enjoyed my book, they didn’t “get” the romantic interest between two of my characters. Even going through what you describe here, I’m not quite sure what I did wrong. Oh well, I had more fun writing the adventure parts anyway. Maybe adventure is where I need to apply more effort. 😉
Really great points and something I’m struggling with in my current WIP. I need the characters to make naive mistakes, but I also need them to not be unrelatable idiots. It can be a fine line!
Friday the 13th movies are the most annoying example of this I can think of. People were so into them because of the scare. I found the characters so dumb it took me right out of the tension. I’ve never finished watching a single movie in the franchise.
Going to find strengths and weaknesses in my characters and see if that is what leads them to their big adventure against everything their parents have advised.
Reblogged this on Laissez Faire and commented:
One of my favorite books “Clan of the Cave Bear” fell into the too perfect trap and by the fifth book I was done, so it’s not advice just for the newbies!
This was so needed! It reminded me of a book I read (don’t remember the name or author) where the main character was perfect. Every time a situation came up, she had a skill set for it. Not only a skill set, but she was the best of the best. That got so boring! I think this will cause me to go back to my final drafts and do some fixing. Thank you so much!
What a good, helpful blog. I was in stitches as I read your comments about Gilligan! I remember that show well.
I don’t have a novel at the moment so you don’t have to put my name in for your comments on my novel. I have written in the past, but right now, I am doing more poetry and some short stories in a blog-event. I just wanted to let you know that I find this info helpful if I get back into writing a novel.
Reblogged this on Mandy White.
thanks…helped with current WIP sorting out strength and weakness!
Reblogged this on Allie Potts Recommends.
This is FANTASTIC!!! As always, you are chock full of wisdom and humor. Loved it 🙂
Have a great evening!
Reblogged this on Kentucky Mountain Girl News and commented:
KMGN: This had me giggling so simply had to share!
Reblogged this on Writing and other stuff and commented:
The “too dumb to live” made me giggle. I love your style.
Great post. I saw two of my major characters in those examples you were giving about all good traits can have flaws. Control-freak leader and Loyal to a Fault. XD Love those traits.
Gilligan’s Island makes perfect sense when you think about it from the right perspective. You’re a young, fit but nerdy professor. You’re stranded on a tropical island with two beautiful women. Your only competition is an old married man, a chunky old sailor, and an idiot. Wouldn’t you sabotage every rescue attempt and frame the idiot?
I love it when you go into story-telling mode with spot-on instructions for the craft project. In my first novel I have a Thelma & Louise on a boat with another Louise. Second novel also peopled with ladies making “bad decisions birthed from the wound.” Best part is reminding myself that we’ve all made similar choices. Affirms the authenticity of my flawed characters (not to mention my flawed self). Thanks!
Gilligan was never meant to be more than fluff and laughs – but far too many thought it was a road map for writing? Characters need to be real and make believable decisions…but having said that, so many real people don’t?
Seriously, well thought out post
@donaldkennethwalker – well said, sir! I agree wholeheartedly. I have, on more than one occasion, put up with bad writing (static sentences, poor grammar, etc.—how did that get past an editor?) for the sake of good characterization and good plot. But nothing will save a story that is lacking one or the other.
@busylady – ah, yes—the ubiquitous Mary Sue!
Kristen: seriously, an excellent article. I especially loved the part about strengths and their weaknesses. My female protagonist is a very good person, with noble ideals, but has a hair-trigger temper and runaway mouth when dealing with my antagonist. My male protagonist is loyal to a fault, even when that loyalty is not warranted. He gets in with a bad crowd, and can’t see his way out when he realizes he’s made yet another bad decision. Like #laissezfaire, I’m going back to review my characters for their strengths and weaknesses, with an eye to making sure that these are what forward my plot when that’s what’s needed. I’m mostly done with my first draft except for some scenes to stitch a few sequences together, so this will be the perfect time to do this review. I’ve already discovered a few plot holes, and am busy shoveling in gravel and laying on new paving to fix them!
Reblogged and commented at http://www.GraceBrannigan.wordpress.com. Great article!
Reblogged this on my personal thing.
Great article! Definitely food for thought on some of my past projects that came to a sad and pathetic end in the trunk…I can think of two of my projects off the top of my head, one where the main character was just a dumbass, and the other where the characters were a little TOO perfect. Here’s to hoping that I learned my lesson for the new projects! 😉
Clever and funny! I think if you can express the humanity of your characters and create an informed and cohesive plot you are doing pretty well. As someone who is occasionally TDTL I have compassion for some of those characters. Building self-awareness into a character like that can help you salvage them I think. Really enjoyed your insights. Great post!
Ah, loved this! Completely agree of course…makes me want to go back and review my own characters. I think in my current WIP they’re probably fine but…well, with what you’ve said before about strengths having an accompanying weakness, this should help me with other bits of writer’s block in other works.
Of course, I’ve wanted to kill Gilligan. However, it still stands as one of the most successful sitcoms of TV history. Why? Because it’s comedy. There is a branch of comedy where the protagonist (and sometimes antagonist) is too stupid to have survived the Darwin Challenge. Yet, there still are dozens of characters in comedy who are beloved and instantly recognizable. The proof? Inspector Clouseau and Basil Towers come to mind almost immediately, and I don’t have to tell you the reader where they came from.
The only exception to your article: Fifty Shades of Grey. Anastasia is as dumb as they get, and the dialog is beyond insulting to anyone with half a brain. And yet, despite the extreme TDTL characters, the author is a millionaire! Is it just the sex? Can woman be rendered basically brain dead by a combo of kinky sex, power, and money? Because I don’t understand the success of this story. I could only make it through the first few chapters. Kristen, I’m not asking you to bash another author’s book, but what gives??
I used Gilligan to keep from insulting authors or readers of today, but there are characters in current pop culture who fall under the TDTL category. And I cannot answer the FSoG Conundrum.
Reblogged this on Blog of a College Writer.
Reblogged this on The Krystol Meth(od) and commented:
Great advice from my homegirl, Kristen!
Makes me think of the time we were watching a formulaic family flick. The dad character says, “I’ll be home before you know it.” And my 5 year old remarks, “He’s gonna die.” If you can’t surprise a 5 year old, your script is in trouble. ;>)
I have stopped reading MANY books because the characters was TDTL, I’ve also been deeply disappointed when at the end of a book the author wants a previously intelligent character in a dangerous situation and has them do something TDTL to get there. I felt betrayed and even though I have another book of hers on my kindle I’m not sure I want to read it.
Characters can also have physical flaws. In my novel, In the Game, the protagonist has been forced to retire from the police force because he has a heart condition in part due to lack of exercise, which then becomes an issue when he decides to try to solve a cold case. His condition creates conflict with his daughter who doesn’t want him to become a private detective because she’s concerned about his health. I’m sure other writers can offer similar examples.
But the physical flaw isn’t really his problem. If he ignored the case, ate egg whites and went power walking instead of chasing a case then no problem. It’s his pride and tenacity in the face of even his own personal danger and how that might adversely affect his loved ones that’s the problem. He feels responsible as a savior, even if it costs him dearly.
“And we can ALL be guilty of forcing characters to make bad choices simply because we sense tension is missing.”
I see a lot of this in TV today. It makes me cringe every single time. It’s like some writers just want to pile action on top of action thinking that’s what keeps a story going. But then everything that happens feels contrived and stupid, and the characters (who were sensible at the start) now seem utterly TDTL. They try to create motivations for that character to go bonkers, but the motivation isn’t strong enough to create the kind of behavior that the character is displaying. *sigh*
Great post, Kristen. I learned a lot here.
Reblogged this on SSpjut | Writer's Blog | Stardate and commented:
Reader’s can live with well portrayed characters making bad decisions (who wants a perfect protagonist anyway) but will they forgive a badly written plot?
I learned a lot from your post and greatly enjoy your sense of humour. Geena Davis has been showing up a lot for me lately, and for some reason when I read certain posts in my reader, her voice is narrating them. Lucky me? All the best and thanks for the great read.
Reblogged this on John R. Paterson and commented:
I’m re-blogging this very excellent post by Kirsten Lamb. It’s a great primer for character development,
Reblogged this on Mary Ann and commented:
The very Difference
I love this blog! And I loved mitchteemley’s comment about the five year old calling the plot twist. But back to characters, I like to think that if they’re real enough in our minds they won’t be either too dumb or too perfect. Jane Austen was great at this. Her characters were basically based off my family. I knew them. That’s how good she was. When characters are well written they twist the plot for us.
Great post, Kristen! You hit it on the head here. Too many people waste time on the character versus plot debate. As you said in the end it’s really both or nothing. Sharing this on Twitter! Awesome advice!
(P.S. I think a typo accidentally crept into the text. In the section “Bad Decisions Birthed from the Flaw” in the first ‘graph, the word should be “complementary” with an “e” instead of an “i”.)
Characters are the big make or break for me in a story, and you’re right, if they’re too dumb to live, the book goes into The Bin. (Other books don’t speak of The Bin, so it’s best that we don’t either.)
So…where does suspension of disbelief fit in fiction if we have become bored with TDTLs and flawed character formulas? I haven’t been pleasantly duped since The Sixth Sense and Stephen King’s book Misery.
Reblogged this on scribblings007.
I’ve always said characters that are TDTL have “english protagonist syndrome,” because so many english protagonists make poor decisions that I don’t feel are merited. It’s not a perfect classification, but there are too many examples of it to say it’s not close enough. I have nothing against the English of course!
Hi, Kristen, I tried to comment earlier from my phone, but I don’t think it was successful. I am sorry if you get this twice.
I was a huge fan of the show “Heroes” until Nathan Petrelli (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nathan_Petrelli) made a stupid and out-of-character decision that affected the story lines of all the other characters of the show. (I think it was in Season 3.) It was obvious that the move had been contrived to introduce new and more suspenseful conflict for the writers to work with, but “contrived” is definitely the keyword. I finished the show, because they went back to some better writing after that (although it did seem to die a long and cancerous death from there on out), but it still rankles.
And, although my kids ADORE Gilligan’s Island, I can barely tolerate it. After three years, the characters are all exactly the same as when they started out. The way the women are portrayed drives me up the wall (and I do not consider myself a feminist.) And for all the reasons you mentioned.
I blogged about your new book a few days ago. Just finished reading it. Thank you so much! I learned a TON, and have already started putting the new info into action. You can check out the post here:
Have a fantastic weekend, folks!
I’ve stepped back from my draft to do some plotting, and I really appreciate your invitation to dig more deeply into character flaws and motivations. When I ask myself what bad decisions my mc is apt to make, it helps me clarify two kinds of trouble/plot: the kind she needs to face in order to grow, and also the kind she’ll get herself into along the way.
I never considered character/plot as existing in a dichotomous relationship. This is highly interesting.
Going to reblog this because it’s just that good.
Good article, Kristen. I can’t tell you how many TDTL characters I’ve read. One consisted of a geologist being chased by bad guys, but she has time to stop and look at the really cool rocks as she’s running away.
thank you! I’ve been asking myself for a months if a particular act of my protagonist is just too far if I want my audience to still have patience with him or if it will damage him in their minds as someone who can be a hero later, and they’ll find his redemption unbelievable. It’s such a fine line–I don’t want to make his journey to redemption too easy, but I don’t want taking him further from redemption to frustrate my readers and have them write him off! I guess I’ll really need beta readers to help me know if it’s tolerable!