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Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

Kristen Lamb — Photo

Posts Tagged: flawed characters

Kristen Lamb, writing tips, creating dimensional characters, fiction, flawed characters, too dumb to live, writing, the wound, the flaw, plotting, characters and plot, how to sell more books

Which is more important? Plot or character? Anyone currently doing NaNoWriMo is all, “WORDS! ONLY WORDS MATTER NOW! Get off my case, Blogger Chick. I’ll figure out plot and character later.”

*awkward silence*

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. 

Kristen Lamb, writing tips, creating dimensional characters, fiction, flawed characters, too dumb to live, writing, the wound, the flaw, plotting, characters and plot, how to sell more books

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.

Kristen Lamb, writing tips, creating dimensional characters, fiction, flawed characters, too dumb to live, writing, the wound, the flaw, plotting, characters and plot, how to sell more booksOf course, the other side of that is what I call The Gilligan Effect. Yes, I am dating myself here and I apologize if I upset any 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 shifted asphalt to a plasma state.

Yay, Texas summers!

Yet, I’ve read books with characters that make Gilligan look like a rocket scientist…then been compelled to hurl the book across the room.

Kristen Lamb, writing tips, creating dimensional characters, fiction, flawed characters, too dumb to live, writing, the wound, the flaw, plotting, characters and plot, how to sell more books
This is me after reading certain books *stabbing self*

Flawed vs. Too Dumb to Live

Today we are going to talk about how we can make characters flawed without crossing over into TDTL (Too Dumb To Live) Territory. This commercial never gets old *giggles*

Let’s hide behind the CHAINSAWS!!!! *clutches sides*. Or this one about gals tripping too many times in horror movies. BWA HA HA HA HA HA!

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.

Plot as Crucible

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 EdgeAnthony 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?

Kristen Lamb, writing tips, creating dimensional characters, fiction, flawed characters, too dumb to live, writing, the wound, the flaw, plotting, characters and plot, how to sell more books

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.

Bright (Bad) Idea Fairy

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 as a result. 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 blood-soaked 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 a newly opened All You Can Eat Buffet.

Soon, the men are being hunted by an apex predator with the munchies for humans.

***Side note here. Look at the genius in the choice of character names. Morse, a cryptic person who must unravel the “code” of his situation and realize the bear is actually the (MUCH) lesser threat. Green, the man who envies to such a degree it drives him to plot a murder. Stephen is the first to die. “Stephen” was also the first Christian martyr, the first innocent to die for the greater cause—salvation.

#DeepThoughts

Back to FLAWS

Kristen Lamb, writing tips, creating dimensional characters, fiction, flawed characters, too dumb to live, writing, the wound, the flaw, plotting, characters and plot, how to sell more booksBut 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).

As a billionaire, Morse has never been required to explain himself before. He doesn’t understand that this might be a good time to START.

Additionally, the two photographers are city people who don’t have the training/understanding to know 1) NOT to drag a knife toward the body and 2) that the smallest scent of blood will draw predators. BIG ONES.

These men are used to the “civilized world.”  When thrust into the wild, they make a critical error. They fail to properly appreciate that their position at the top of the food chain has drastically shifted.

Only ONE member of our stranded coterie gets that they’ve suddenly gone from ordering OFF menus to being ON the menu #DailySpecial #MarketPrice #JokesInPoorTaste…

Where was I? Oh, yes…

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. The Hobbits don’t have the experiential base to grasp that fire is a “Come and Kill Me” beacon.

Bad Decisions & The Wound

Kristen Lamb, writing tips, creating dimensional characters, fiction, flawed characters, too dumb to live, writing, the wound, the flaw, plotting, characters and plot, how to sell more books

We’ve talked about The Wound in other posts. 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 has been a victim (shamed and alone) 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 empathize with “bad” decisions. Why? Because there’s context (their world).

Making “Stupid” Forgivable

Kristen Lamb, writing tips, creating dimensional characters, fiction, flawed characters, too dumb to live, writing, the wound, the flaw, plotting, characters and plot, how to sell more books

Great writing is a sort of alchemy that transforms the raw material of “stupid” into the literary gold we recognize as “damaged,” “broken,” and/or “naive”—which we have ALL been at one time or another.

This hits us in the feels. We relate, connect, and BOND with the characters because we’ve been there, done that, and have the scars to prove it.

In The Edge, “bad” decisions are forgivable because most of us are not wilderness experts. Readers can empathize with maybe doing something seriously stupid if stranded in a similar fashion.

In The Lord of the Rings we, the audience, have “been” to the Shire—and know what world created the childlike Merry and Pippin. Thus, we appreciate these characters 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.

Plot Puppets

Kristen Lamb, writing tips, creating dimensional characters, fiction, flawed characters, too dumb to live, writing, the wound, the flaw, plotting, characters and plot, how to sell more books

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?

What are your thoughts? I love hearing from you!

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? What are some great examples of characters who you should hate, but you forgive? Why? Can you think of what activated empathy instead of disdain?

I would love to hear your thoughts on this.

FYI: I’m AM loading new classes. They’ll be up next post. I know I said that last time, but whatever. I lied 😛 .

What are some classes y’all need? Topics you’d like me to talk about here on the blog. I dig suggestions!

BTW: October’s winner for the comment contest is Bjørn Larssen!

Please email your 5000 word WORD document to kristen at wana intl dot com. One-inch margins, double-spaced, Times New Roman font, please. Or you are also welcome to choose to send me a query or synopsis instead. Query shouldn’t exceed 500 words and synopsis 2,500 MAX. Congratulations!

What do you WIN? For the month of NOVEMBER, for 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).

 

Image via Flickr Creative Commons courtesy of adohnes

Years ago when I got the idea to write a novel, I did what a lot of new writers do and created the uber perfect protagonist. In fact, when I came up with the original plot idea for The Devil’s Dance, I cast a Sarah Conner badass…and she was dull as dirt and utterly unlikable.

Yay me.

Bizarrely, when those critiquing didn’t like my protagonist, I made her more perfect thinking that would fix it. Um, no. Made it worse. They went from disliking her to kinda wanting to stab her in the face.

Why did I do this? Why did I default to super perfect?

Fear.

Fear of being authentic. I had no concept of what it was like to be perfect. My family resembled Season Two of the Jerry Springer Show. After my parents divorced, my dad disappeared for years only to resurface and take a job as a cashier at Stop-N-Go so he could get out of paying the originally allotted child support. I was never #1 at anything (unless one counts truancy). Terrible at sports, last to be picked and the first to get nailed in the face in a game of dodge ball. I dropped out of high school…TWICE.

When it came time to write a story, I wrote the version of me that never was and likely never would be. She was…perfect.

And again, dull as dirt.

For a long time I was tremendously embarrassed about all the best material for a great story (stuff I knew, had experienced in MY life). In short, I was afraid to be authentic. So, after countless versions of my perfect character, I relegated her to the recycle bin and started again with a new character…Romi.

I discovered that I was far better at writing messed up people with imperfect lives, lots of baggage who were working through pain in imperfect ways.

Thus, today, I have a guest who is one of my closest friends and has been critique partner of mine for years, Lanette Kauten. She loves literary fiction almost as much as I love tormenting her for loving literary fiction. But Lanette is excellent at creating very flawed and interesting characters with lots of layers, so who better to ask to guest post about writing authentically?

Take it away, Lanette!

****

Image via Flickr Creative Commons courtesy of Gerald Gabernig

Writing is a great adventure because we get to explore worlds and characters, diving into the psychology of humanity. And we long to share these wonderful stories we’ve created with the world!

In doing so, it’s natural to put a piece of ourselves, our worldview, into the stories. We want to share things—a belief or a bit of wisdom—but the question is how to do it without sounding didactic. Religious writers have a reputation of moralizing their stories and not coming across as authentic.

Is that a fair criticism? Maybe for some, but it’s not a brush that can be applied liberally.

Look at Dean Koontz. He’s a Catholic, and his books are amazing! Sometimes his readers can detect his overall worldview in his stories, but not always. He simply churns out good stories. Though he did write the most kick-ass salvation scene in his “Prodigal Son” series. Let’s also not forget about the works of two other great writers who happen to be Christians—Tolkien and Flannery O’Connor.

But what about books with other religious elements?

Image via Flickr Creative Commons courtesy of Sukanto Debnath

I’m glad you asked because now we’re getting to the crux of this post. Life of Pi is not a Hindu novel. The Kite Runner is not a Muslim novel.

Both of those books portray beautiful stories, and are simply novels told from the worldviews of their respective authors. Yes, the main characters have religious beliefs. It’s part of who they are, and to deny it on the one hand or to make the stories all about that on the other wouldn’t have been authentic. And readers would’ve tossed the books aside without ever thinking about them again rather than gush about how great those two books are.

Image via Flickr Creative Commons courtesy of Navaneeth Kishor

My novels are written from my worldview, but anyone would be crazy to call them “Christian fiction.” My characters are a part of the world they live in and act accordingly.

I don’t attempt to hide from real life or shove my characters into a derivative little box. In one of my books, the main character is a confused atheist who escaped from her upbringing in a weird, Charismatic church. Even though she wants nothing to do with her parents’ religion, one of her closest friends is a Jesus freak guru who owns a club in an art district, and one of his employees is a pothead who believes just as strongly in aliens as he believes in Jesus.

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of erokism

The book isn’t about her struggle with religion, but it’s a part of who she is. To cut all that out wouldn’t be true to her or to the story. However, to make the story about religion wouldn’t be honest either. Here I am as a Christian with a book about an atheist in a lesbian relationship, struggling to figure out where she belongs in this world. I don’t shy away from realistic people and situations.

For me, authenticity is key.

Readers are smart and can detect a false note as easily as hearing a wrong note played in their favorite song. It doesn’t matter what worldview you bring to your story (we all bring our beliefs and experiences into our stories); whether we’re Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Pagan, Atheist, or whatever, we are wise to be authentic. We must strive to be honest in order to show the world as it really is.

Great. That sounds wonderful. How do we do it?

Be Vulnerable

Share your pain, your loss, your doubts. To be human is to feel. Dump your emotions on that page. Open up your vein and bleed. (Not literally. Please don’t bleed on your computer. It’s sticky.) Don’t shy away from the difficult questions because many of your readers will pick up on that and will feel cheated, and don’t edit your emotions as you write. Editing comes later.

Personalize It

This is similar to vulnerability, but here is where you get to shine. Share your worldview as something personal to you. Beliefs have broad implications, but they also have personal elements. Open up the beauty of that world to us in a way that feels real by focusing on the minute details. So often the smallest things have the biggest impact.

Know Your Characters

Your characters are key to showing their own authenticity. Let’s say you’re writing a Christian book, and your character is in a difficult position. Maybe she learned that a friend stole some money and that friend knows a secret about her. If she reports her friend, she knows her secret will be out.

What would your character do? Don’t think about the moral lesson you want to impart, but think about her personality, beliefs, what drives her, and how big the secret is (the bigger, the better) and have her act as she naturally would.

I write literary and some women’s fiction, so my novels are grounded in real life, yet when I say you have to show the world as it really is, I don’t just mean contemporary or literary fiction. You can write fantasies or sci-fi with amazing new worlds, but what is that secret ingredient that elevates the forgettable story to the unforgettable one? Writing our characters and stories with honesty.

***

Thank you, Lanette! I hope y’all will check out her books and befriend her on Facebook. Also Lanette will be at Jamie Lynn Boothe’s launch party on Facebook tonight so I hope y’all will come by.

What are your thoughts? What resonates with you? What do you try to impart onto your characters to make them “real”? Are you like I was and terrified to be imperfect? It’s cool. We all do it. And, frankly, perfect characters also serve a role in other types of fiction (I.e. James Bond), so I don’t want to pick on them too much. Do you enjoy authenticity or prefer the escape of perfection? No wrong answers, btw.

I LOVE hearing from you and comments for guests count double in my contest.

****Just FYI, in an effort to combat spammers your comment won’t appear until I approve it, so don’t fret if it doesn’t appear right away.

Talk to me! And MAKE SURE to check out the classes below and sign up! Summer school! YAY!

And to prove it and show my love, for the month of JUNE, 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).

NEW CLASSES!

Obviously, I have my areas of expertise, but I’ve wanted for a long time to fill in some gaps on classes I could offer.

Cait Reynolds was my answer.

She is an unbelievable editor, mentor and teacher and a serious expert in these areas. She consults numerous very successful USA Today and NYTBS authors and I highly, highly recommend her classes.

OMG, Like How to Write Fleek YA July 7th $40 with Cait Reynolds

How to Dominate Your Sex Scenes (No Safe Words Here) July 14th $40 w/ Cait Reynolds

Gaskets and Gaiters: How to Create a Compelling Steampunk World July 21st $35 w/ Cait Reynolds 

Lasers & Dragons & Swords, Oh MY! World Building for Fantasy & Science Fiction 

July 28th w/ Cait Reynolds $35/ GOLD $75/ PLATINUM $125

Classes with MOI!

Plotting for Dummies July 13th $35 ($250 for GOLD)

Blogging for Authors July 20th $50 ($150 for GOLD)

Branding for Authors  July 27th $35

OTHER Classes with Cait Reynolds

Research for Historical Romance Writing – Or, How NOT to Lose Six Hours on Pinterest July 8th $35 for Basic/ $75 for GOLD / $125 for PLATINUM

Shift Your Shifter Romance into High Gear July 15th $35 Basic/ $75 GOLD/ $125 PLATINUM

Classes with Lisa Hall-Wilson

Growing An Organic Platform On Facebook July 22nd $40