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Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

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Posts Tagged: dimensional characters

bad people, Kristen Lamb, unlikable characters, storytelling, writing a novel, characters

Bad people make better stories. Why? Because I cannot say this enough, ‘Fiction is about one thing and one thing only—PROBLEMS.’

Who better to create a lot of problems than damaged, broken, unlikable, foolish and possibly even unredeemable human beings?

***I use the term ‘human beings’ for all characters because aliens, otherworldly beings, and any ‘thinking’ creature will possess anthropomorphic (human-like) qualities.

So why do ‘bad people’ make better stories?

Perfect people, first of all, are unicorns and don’t exist. Secondly, they are boring.¬†Thirdly, we can’t relate to them because we aren’t unicorns (just deluded we are ūüėõ ).

What’s the story killer with perfect people? To be blunt, these characters have nowhere to grow. Since ‘perfect people’ handle every crisis with a level head and can be trusted to always do the right thing, the reader won’t ever worry.

If the reader never worries, guess what kiddies?¬† You don’t have a story, you have a lot of words.

Villains are a whole other post. So is the Big Boss Troublemaker (our core antagonist responsible for creating the overall story PROBLEM).

Today, what I want to address is HOW to roughen up our MC and supporting cast in ways that will ratchet tension and drive the character arcs of everyone around.

We need a change agent who will turn pages, without turning off readers.

***Please keep in mind, it is impossible to write a story everyone will love. Knowing this, get in and get dirty.

Bad for the Sake of Bad

One of the most common mistakes newbie authors make is that they lack the confidence to make any character (who isn’t the villain) flawed at all. From the perfect hair to the perfect outfit, these literary paper dolls do all the right things.

After enough rejection or feedback from critique partners, the emerging writer might start realizing that perfect equals dull.

What then happens is they can go to the other extreme and overcompensate. They create a character so abrasive and awful, readers can’t root for them. Always remember, that artists don’t craft a bad character solely to be bad.

Every character—even a ‘bad’ one—serves a purpose.

There are going to be some possible spoilers in this post, but I’ll work hard to maneuver around that. Usually I strive for older movies and series, but after almost two thousand blogs, I need fresher examples.

‘Bad People’ Make Great Mirrors

Kristen Lamb, broken people, Netflix, Bird Box, unlikable characters
John Malkovich in the Netflix original movie, ‘Bird Box.’

I read Josh Malerman’s novel ‘Bird Box’ and also watched the Netflix original movie. Both versions are excellent. The movie did a fabulous job (which is pretty remarkable in and of itself).

Even though the movie is very different from the book, it did a great job of maintaining the core idea.

***In this post, I’ll refer mostly to the movie version for simplicity.

I mention Bird Box because Douglas was one of my favorite characters. When chaos is unleashed and the world is very literally ending, our MC Malorie has no choice but to take shelter with a group of strangers or die.

Douglas is one of the founding members of this group, and he is not happy to add the very pregnant Malorie to their numbers.

Douglas is rude, selfish, acerbic, and blunt and one of my favorite characters because he is precisely what Malorie needs if she has any hope to survive and evolve. He’s a mirror.

What do mirrors do?

Mirrors show us what IS, not what we want.

When I look in a mirror, I’d love to see a hot babe with six-pack abs, the legs of a dancer, hair that rivals and an anime character…and flawless, wrinkle-free skin. But this is delusion, not reality.

A mirror shows me what IS. It shows me what’s good—that outfit is BANGIN’! But, it also shows me what I need to work on—maybe lay off the carbs. Ultimately, it shows me what I need to learn to accept and embrace—smile lines are a privilege denied to many.

Douglas minces no words. He doesn’t pretend to be anything other than what he is…a mean bastard who expects the worst and is usually right. Though it isn’t nice to say, Malorie IS soft (in more ways than being pregnant).

She’s been coddled by a modern world she took for granted. Malorie expected her sister to always be there, for her to simply have a doctor and hospital to give birth to a baby she doesn’t want. She’s transitioning into a world where a two-mile trip to get groceries costs lives.

Douglas shows her a new reality she must see if she has any hopes of living longer than a week.

To paraphrase Douglas, there are two kinds of people—@$$holes and the dead. The reason we ‘like’ him is he isn’t wrong. Civility is of zero value when civilization has collapsed.

Douglas also demonstrates a really painful truth.

Not everyone who smiles at you is your friend.

Stephen King’s “The Shining.”

While Douglas is ‘mean,’ he’s so much more than that. He’s a pragmatist, a survivor. According to Douglas it makes no sense to take in every person who begs for shelter, not in a world with limited resources.

It also makes sense to be extremely wary of WHO is allowed into their inner circle. Sometimes you have to make the hard choices for the greater good even if that means leaving a stranger outside to possibly die.

***Time will prove out how right he is.

If the goal is to survive when all hell breaks loose, then choose the party wisely. They no longer have the luxury of making bad choices, and not everyone is who they claim to be.

Douglas is very forthright and honest about who and what he is. He makes no pretense that he’s a miserable S.O.B. Yet, this is a quality that I found endearing.

When lives are at stake, truth is the most precious currency, even if it stinks.

‘Bad People’ Drive Change

Douglas minces no words about how he feels about Malorie. She is blind long before the blindfolds. She’s weak, soft and a liability. Mirrors show us what’s wrong, what we need to fix. Is our fly down? Do we have the back of our skirt tucked in our underwear?

Is there a giant glob of spinach between our teeth? Has a pigeon pooped in our hair and no one has told us because they ‘didn’t want to embarrass us’?

The mirror might show a lot of what we don’t LIKE, but it offers us the clearest vision of what must change. The same goes for our MC (and all characters if we do our job properly).

In¬†Bird Box, Malorie has to toughen up emotionally and physically to make it through. Yet, at the same time, one of the reasons she doesn’t like Douglas is because he reminds her of her father.

She doesn’t want to be like her father so she’s dismissed any quality her father possessed as ‘bad’ and ‘unwanted.’ The story will show her that the qualities she hated in her father (and in Douglas) are the very attributes that will ensure her survival.

Ah, but what she will ALSO learn (arc) is there is a time and a place for these ‘negative’ qualities.

Before the end of the world, Malorie’s dad irreparably damaged his marriage, family, and his two daughters. Even Douglas admits his personality flaws and his drinking cost him two marriages and any meaningful friendships.

What Malorie learns is to not summarily dismiss these attributes as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ because these qualities have a time and a place.

When she’s fighting for survival, she can’t afford to be soft. Paranoia, ‘cruelty,’ emotional distance and a sociopathic level of compartmentalization keep her and those she cares about alive. But, once the storm has passed, the need for these ‘bad’ attributes fades away.

There’s a time to trade the plow for the sword and vice versa.

Should Malorie make it to safety with those in her care and FAIL to put away her father and Douglas’s attitudes and approaches? She’ll be alive, but won’t have a life.

Crafting ‘Bad People’¬†

Sometimes, as we just discussed, a character might be ‘bad’ to force change in our MC. What makes Douglas such a fantastic example is that, as awful as he can be? He makes sense. We (readers) can see that he makes very good points.

If they take in too many people, they will starve or increase odds of dying because they’ll have to venture out to resupply more frequently, etc.

When it comes to your story, how can we use ‘bad people’ to strengthen the MC?

What is your MC’s greatest fear? Her greatest shame? What does your MC believe is true, which is, in fact, a lie? A lie that is holding that character back from actualization?

For this, we’ll look to the Netflix series¬†Stranger Things.

¬†If you haven’t seen the series, I strongly recommend it because it’s one of the best examples of superlative storytelling and complex characters I’ve ever seen. I will work diligently not to spoil anything.

In¬†Stranger Things the focus isn’t solely on the lead MC. The party is the protagonist (much like¬†Joy Luck Club, Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, Lord of the Rings,¬†etc.) and if the party fails, then so will the ‘MC’ Eleven, a.k.a. ‘El.’

What gives SO much depth and texture to this series is the complexity, the interlocking of all the supporting players. In the first season, one of the most interesting characters isn’t even (yet) part of the group of heroes.

Steve Harrington is the ‘popular kid’ trope from every 80s ‘Coming of Age’ movie. He has the great hair, the designer clothes, and drives a Mercedes. He’s a top jock from an upper middle class family surrounded by the standard superficial cronies we’ve seen in countless movies.

Steve is the CLASSIC rich @$$hole.

He’s self-centered, shallow and, ironically…he became one of my favorite characters.

It’s the story problem in Season One that makes him realize he’s shallow and that he’s surrounded himself with counterfeit friends (who are also miserable people). He has to choose between the keeping old him (popular Steve) or let go of that life and pursue Nancy.

Nancy isn’t vapid arm candy like all the other girls he’s dated. When facing the enemy, Steve finally realizes he wants more. The struggle offers clarity about who he’s willing to fight for, and he also learns what true friendship really is.

The transformation in Steve Harrington is nothing short of miraculous.

In Season Two, there was a different challenge.

Steve had changed…but not enough. He HAD to grow even more if the group had any hope of surviving Round Two with the enemy.

Steve’s greatest fear is being a nobody and his shame is that deep down, he really believes he has nothing of substance to offer. In Season One, the story problem forced him to see how he used his popularity, money and status as armor.

But what happens when all THAT is stripped away, too? When he can’t rely on being Mr. Cool to keep Nancy? How does he respond to being treated the way he treated others in Season One?

What does Steve DO when HE is the object of ridicule?

Steve can’t ‘level up’ unless he willingly lets go of the ‘old self.’ But, like most of us, Steve isn’t aware of the ‘old self’ and even if he is, it’s comfortable so he’s unlikely to give it up easily.

It will have to be STRIPPED away.

No better way to do this than to bring in a replacement. When the explosive Billy Hargrove screams into the school parking lot in his new Camaro—easily stepping in as the high school’s new Alpha male—Steve undergoes a personal extinction.

Billy Hargrove ‘Stranger Things’ Season Two.

Not only does he see who he used to be—and have to make peace with that shame—but he also sees what he is not. He’s no longer the strongest, the best, the baddest. This forces him to make hard choices.

‘Bad People’ Force the HARD Choices

Will Steve dedicate himself to fighting to regain the old, or will he evolve to something better? When he’s kicked in the confidence, can he find a better source of courage than great hair and status?

Without the almost sociopathic Billy Hargrove’s influence, it is fairly obvious Steve wouldn’t have a hard enough push required for meaningful change. Steve cannot hope to survive the story problem—the REAL PROBLEM—if he continues to care about that which doesn’t matter.

Billy is a VILE human being (though not without his own baggage and dimension I’m sure we’ll see in Season 3). He’s over the top in everything—his car, hair, clothes, sexuality, and especially his temper (RAGE).

But, Billy HAD to be virtually irredeemable for Steve to even see the message let alone ‘get’ it. Billy strips away Steve’s armor and this means Steve has to become stronger in who he is. If his insides are iron, he won’t need the external protection that can be so easily taken away.

In the End

‘Bad people’ make for amazing stories, and this goes for the MC too. If our characters don’t have flaws, weakness, blind spots, and shame, then they’re not ‘real.’ Readers connect with weakness, not strength.

We know pride, envy, fear, estrangement, insecurity, vulnerability, and anger. We’ve all been poseurs, pretenders, and done and said things we wish we hadn’t.

In your story, just make sure these ‘negative’ attributes serve a purpose.

Nothing lives in a great story rent-free.

‘Bad people’ don’t have to arc if they’re not the MC (or part of the protagonist party). Billy is a character that they ‘could’ kill off in Episode One of Season Three. It would be okay because he did his job in Season Two—he forced Steve’s character arc.

I hope they don’t do this because he’s too good of a character to waste. Also, there’s no better story than a redemption story. But, truth be told, it won’t harm the overall story if Billy isn’t in this narrative for the long haul.

It didn’t hurt in the movie¬†Bird Box. Douglas didn’t evolve because he wasn’t supposed to. His¬†purpose was solely to change Malorie.

On the other hand if your ‘bad person’ IS your MC or a major player (part of the group protagonist), then there will have to be something sympathetic/redeemable among all the grit.

We spend most of Season Two loathing Billy Hargrove, but there’s ONE scene that maybe could change some minds about why he’s the way he is and possibly who he could become (good or bad) in the future.

BUT, we’ll have to wait and see.

Suffice to say, all people are ‘bad people.’ Unless we’re a psychopath, we are all very well aware of where we fall short. Most of us struggle with habits, weaknesses and have a laundry list of what we’d like to change, remove or improve.

As authors, when we roughen up our characters, these flaws generate resonance. Personality collisions create the tension that drives the story and forces change in all the players.

Shiny and perfect is all right, but people pay fortunes for items with wear, that are ‘distressed.’ The dings, nicks, and stains show they’ve been through some stuff, have some stories to tell.

Their’ damage’ and ‘wear’ makes them all the more interesting…and valuable. So be bold and go do some damage! Bad people make better stories. If you need some more instruction on HOW to do this…

REMEMBER ON DEMAND CLASSES ON SALE FOR ‘MOTHER’S DAY’!

I have some fabulous classes for sale ON DEMAND ($15 off until midnight MONDAY May 13th). Delivered right to you to enjoy over and over on your computer (pants not required).

To celebrate Mother’s Day, use the code MOM15 for $15 off all ON DEMAND CLASSES. So if you are a mother or have a mother or just appreciate that writing can be a real mother *&^%$ use the code.

These classes won’t be offered again and I’m putting them on sale before deleting them from the hard drive to make room for the new. One of the reasons is these classes started running closer to three hours instead of two because there is so much new material. This means I need to split into two classes or charge more for the extra long class, so this is an EXTRA bargain.

Treat yourself!

ON DEMAND CLASSES

***NOTE: Classes are designed to play on computers (laptops or desktop) and our technology plays nicest with Chrome or Firefox. Many times the recordings are compatible with other devices like tablets or smartphones, but those devices aren’t always able to access the class because of the changes with HTML5. Use mobile devices at your own risk.

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I grew up in a nightmare. Yes, we were that family. Drama, fights, threats, suicide attempts, break ups, make ups, then wash, rinse, repeat. I’m not that person anymore and we are no longer that family. We’re healthy. We love, laugh and there’s never a raised voice. We value peace, and peace is wonderful in life.

In fiction, it’s death.

As an artist, sometimes my domestication scares me.

I listen to all kinds of music. I have everything from Pavarotti to Coltrane to Ozzy to Eminem on my iPod. I think that’s because real music, great music is easy to recognize whether its in the form of an aria, a riff or a rap. When I was on Whitbey Island someone mentioned how poetry has really suffered in modern years, but I disagree. I think its changed forms if we are willing to be open-minded. I believe rap is a modern reinvention of poetry and no, it isn’t flowery and enlightened. It’s ugly, dark, and often offensive.

But so is life.

Art isn’t always supposed to be pretty. It’s to challenge us, make us think, shove us out of our comfort zones and challenge what we believe.

Now I’ll be blunt. There is a lot of rap music that’s junk (but that isn’t exclusive to rap). But, beneath a lot of the profanity-laden misogynistic drivel we see some amazing pieces of urban artistry, and I believe they have a lot to teach us if we’ll be open enough to listen. To me,¬†Eminem’s songs strike at the heart of the urban plight, and whether we love him or hate him, his music is powerful.

I only like a handful of Eminem’s songs, but the few I like? I can never listen to enough. They make me emotional every time. Perhaps it’s a tether back to that old life. I don’t know. It permits me to remember what it felt like to be out of control and have no real answers. It puts me back in tune with the craziness that births the best stories.

It would be madness to live my current life this way, but as an artist I DO need to remember the crushing weight of a string of bad choices. The fear it ignites. The panic. The dread that makes you chew off your own leg to escape instead of looking for a key. I have to feel that again for my voice and my characters to be authentic.

So here’s a list of what Eminem has taught me (and I will use some lyrics from my favorite songs Love the Way You Lie and Lose Yourself):

Life is Messy

Good fiction involves a push and pull of a lot of agendas. There are no clean answers, no choices that don’t have consequences. Sometimes there isn’t a right answer, and a protagonist has to merely look for the rightest answer and be brave enough to face what follows (which is what transforms him into a hero).

I can’t tell you what it really is, I can only tell you what it feels like

and right now there’s a steel knife in my windpipe

I can’t breathe but I still fight while I can fight

As long as the wrong feels right it’s like I’m in flight.

High off of love, drunk from my hate

It’s like I’m huffin’ paint and I love it the more I suffer

I suffocate and right before I’m about to drown, she resuscitates me

She *&^%$ hates me, and I love it

Wait, where you going? I’m leaving you. No you ain’t.

Come back, we’re running right back, here we go again.

It’s so insane, ’cause when it’s good it’s goin’ great

I’m Superman with the wind at his back, she’s Lois Lane.

But when it’s bad it’s awful.

I feel so ashamed. (Love the Way You Lie)

In these lyrics we see the push and pull, the tug of feelings of wanting to do what’s right yet always seeming to choose the wrong path. Our characters need to do the same thing. Don’t get me wrong, we don’t need characters that are too dumb to live, but at the same time, if they always say the right things and make the right choices, we can’t relate. We can’t root for them to do better.

Great characters are deeply flawed, but they become heroes because, in spite of the odds, they rise above those flaws and finally DO change. Great characters need (forgivable) flaws.

In Joy Luck Club each of the women suffer from fear; fear of standing up to abuse, fear of wanting, fear of disapproval and this fear generates the story tension.

In¬†The Divine secrets of the¬†Ya Ya Sisterhood¬†¬†Vivi (the antagonist)’s childhood is filled with abuse from her crazy Catholic mother who’s jealous of the attention her husband gives Vivi. Vivi also loses her true love in war when she’s only a teen. This fear of being vulnerable later divides her relationship with her daughter, Sidda(protagonist), and it fuels her abusive behavior. She tries to be a good mom and wife, the opposite of her nutso mother, but her fear of being hurt just propels her into another bad choice and another. Can this be repaired?

Great Fiction is Birthed from Poor Choices

Now I know we said things, did things that we didn’t mean

And we fall back into the same patterns, the same routine

But your temper’s just as bad as mine is, you’re same as me

But when it comes to love you’re just as blinded.

Baby please come back, it wasn’t you, Baby it was me

Maybe our relationship isn’t as crazy as it seems.

Maybe that’s what happens when a tornado meets a volcano

All I know is I love you too much to walk away (Love the Way You Lie).

This is the heart of the story, realizing love is there, it’s worth staying, but can it survive before the couple destructs? They have to grow, they must grow or they’re trapped. The conflict arises because no one is making good, sane or healthy choices and that is the beating heart of strong fiction.

Look at your characters. Are they too self-actualized? Too sane? Too level-headed? A lot of the page-turning conflict will be generated by personal agendas and baggage. Dig in to that place that scares you, and that’s where the great stories hide.

What are your character’s secrets? How do those secrets prevent good choices? How does pain from the past make decisions in the present so hard?

In Sworn to Silence the protagonist committed a horrible crime when she was young. Years later, she is the Chief of Police. Her secret keeps her from being able to be forthright in the investigation of a possible serial killer. Her failure to disclose only stalls the investigation as the body count rises, but if she confesses what she did, she could go to jail. The secret tinges her perception and leads her away from the actual killer. Guilt is driving her, not strong investigative instincts.

Great Stories Require High Stakes

Another of my favorite Eminem songs is Lose Yourself. This song is so rich because we feel the pressure to succeed because we know the price of failure.

Mom I love but this trailer’s got to go

I cannot grow old in Salem’s Lot, so here I go, it’s my shot

Feet fail me not, this might be the only opportunity I got.

We know that he feels trapped. He can’t pay the bills and provide for the family. He’s in a trailer and on food stamps and all he knows is there is ONE way of this hell, out of this generational curse. One ticket for him and his family or it’s death, prison or minimum wage slavery. The stakes rise and so does the pressure.

What happens if your protagonist fails? What are the stakes? In Winter’s Bone¬†Ree Dolly’s father cooks meth. When he fails to show up for his court date, the family stands to lose their home and land and be forced out on the street. Ree must find her father, alive or dead to save her mentally ill mother and two young siblings.

Remember, the higher the stakes, the better the story.

Here is the video to Love the Way You Lie (caution: adult situations and language)

What are your thoughts? What songs do you use to remind you of emotions you need for your art? Do you feel song is a powerful tool for writing? I never listen to music while writing. I like quiet. But I DO listen to music as preparation. What about you? Do you also have a weird variety of songs in your collection? What music inspires you?

I love hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of February, 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. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. 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).

And also, winners have a limited time to claim the prize, because what’s happening is there are actually quite a few people who never claim the critique, so I never know if the spam folder ate it or to look for it and then people miss out. I will also give my corporate e-mail to insure we connect and I will only have a week to return the 20 page edit.

At the end of February I will pick a winner for the monthly prize. Good luck!

January’s WINNER is Yesenia Vargas. Please send your 5000 word Word document to kristen @ wana intl dot com or your query letter or synopsis (limit 750 words). Congratulations!

I also¬†hope you pick up copies of my best-selling books¬†We Are Not Alone‚ÄďThe Writer‚Äôs Guide to Social Media¬†and¬†Are You There, Blog? It‚Äôs Me, Writer¬†.¬†And both are recommended by the hottest agents and biggest authors in the biz. My methods teach you how to make building your author platform FUN. Build a platform and still have time left to write great books.

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