Monday, July 22, 2013

Resisting Perfection

Katy began our discussion last week talking about the hazards of reading our old manuscripts. We all pretty much agree, even the most successful writers we can name, it's not necessarily a pleasant stroll down memory lane. Patti asked the question, "Can we see our own writing for what it is? I'm beginning to have my doubts." I'm right there with her. As I'm writing a novel I like to think it's pretty darn good, but golly. But by the time I'm finished with it I'm usually so saturated with the project that I can't begin to be objective. It seems completely flat to me. I often ask myself, "Who in their right mind is going to want to read this?" Or worse, publish it? That's when it helps to have a critique partner, someone to talk you down off the ledge, another writer who can objectively evaluate the writing, the plot, the character development, etc. Someone who will also give praise where praise is due, but is not afraid to point out the weaknesses as well. I am beyond blessed to have had Katy as that critique partner with my last three books, and now I have my other Novel Matters pals to lend their wisdom, knowledge and expertise to my writing.

So reading our previous work can cause us some anxiety, but in a way that's a good thing, because it helps us recognize growth. It lets us see where we've strengthened our writing and where we still fall short. Because, sorry to say, we'll never arrive.

One of my favorite books on writing is Elizabeth George's Write Away. I have so many tabs on the pages I can't see the edge of the book. The tabs are even color coded. Alas, I can't remember what the colors mean. No matter. This is a resource book I go back to time and time again, and one I highly recommend.

In Chapter 1, "Story is Character," she touches on our subject in regards to character development, citing a problem that new writers in particular tend to fall into. She says:
I try to keep some basic guidelines in mind when I'm creating my characters. First, I try to remember that real people have flaws. We're all works in progress ... and not one of us possesses physical, emotional, spiritual, and psychological perfection. This should be true of our characters as well ... As individuals we're all riddled with issues of self-doubt in one area or another. This is the great commonality of mankind. So in literature, we want to see characters who make mistakes, who have lapses in judgment, who experience weakness from time to time.
If I had my first manuscript to look back on -- the one I discarded in a recent move -- I know I'd see just how badly I fell victim to that error early on. It wasn't quite the "silent movie" depiction of good characters and bad characters, where the heroine is all perfection and the villain is a cigar-smoking jerk who spends most of his time twirling his black handlebar mustache, but it was close. My protagonist was an angelic creature, bearing her many trials and tribulations with quiet dignity, while the antagonist was cruel and rigid in her opposition to the heroine.

To quote Megan: B-O-R-I-N-G.

Well, I tend not to do that with my characters now, which hopefully shows some growth in my writing. I actually had fun creating the character of Aria Winters in Unraveled, a young woman flawed in so many interesting ways. A character who was relatable. And it was the flaws that gave me the story. Elizabeth George confirms this when she says:
... characters are interesting in their conflict, their misery, their unhappiness, and their confusion. They are not, alas, interesting in their joy and security. The first gives them a pit out of which to climb during the course of a novel. The second robs them of story.
She gives an entertaining example of this from the writing of one of her students, who was creating a private investigator in the story she was writing:
[In the first 10 pages] ... we met the PI, his sister, their mother, and their stepfather. the PI was from a large Irish family. His sister worked for him. He and his sister got along well; they were practically best friends, and they loved each other to pieces. On the night in question ... the PI and his sister -- loving each other to pieces -- are going over to their mother's house for St. Patrick's Day dinner. They adore their mother and wouldn't miss a St. Patrick's Day dinner for all the corned beef and cabbage in County Clare. Plus, their mother is a superb cook, the best cook ever, in fact ... So they go over to their mom's house, and the first person they see is their stepfather. He's a wonderful man. They worship him. He made their childhood bliss.
At this point in the chapter, one was praying for someone to come along and put all of these characters out of the reader's misery. Why? Because there was no conflict. There was nothing but happiness, joy and familial bliss. Alas. There was no story
No kidding.

Ms. George goes on to talk about the importance of giving your characters flaws. And she's absolutely right. There's no dimension to a perfect character, nothing the reader can connect to. And nothing on which to hang a plot.

Have you ever found yourself writing flawless characters? Been hesitant to show your characters' imperfections? And conversely, not allowed your antagonists to have any good qualities? Have you seen growth in your writing when it comes to character development -- or any aspect of creating story? What helped you see the importance of letting your characters' humanity show through?


Jennifer Major said...

I wrote my hero to be almost flawless, pure and godly, way too gorgeous (or as we spell it in Canada, 'hawt') wise, monk-like and above reproach.
UNTIL the most beautiful, and very broken, woman he's seen in 30 years shows up on his doorstep.
The implosion is subtle at first, then I ratchet it up and tear them both apart from the inside out.
An early reader vehemently said of his behaviour "But this isn't like him!"

Umm, that is the point.

They both go through the wringer and come out more whole and more human.
It was hard to destroy them, but fun to put them back together.

Patti Hill said...

My first attempts at creating a protagonist are embarrassing. She was everything I'm not. She never made it through revisions, for which I am grateful. Another good reason to have a critique group.

Megan Sayer said...

I always had a deep sense of my own flaws, and I think that came out all the time in my protagonists without me even thinking about them (I'm thinking particularly about those very VERY early novels I wrote, the ones where I have an extremely good sense of perspective on...they are bad). My protagonists did stupid things and stuffed up because I did stupid things and stuffed up, and I wrote what I knew. However, looking back now, I can see that my antagonists were truly despotic, or psychotic, or both. They were baaaaaad, evil people. I had no idea at all how antagonists could be good people who simply had a different/opposing goal to the protagonist.
I don't know what helped with that. Time, I guess. Growing up. Wisdom. Understanding how things worked in the real world, and that sometimes good people did bad things out of anger or fear.

Wendy Paine Miller said...

Write Away is one of my favorite writing books.

Henrietta Frankensee said...

The premise of my story is the protagonist trying to save the antagonist. Why would she want to do that? He had to have something she valued. Therefore from the second or third draft I tried to obscure who the real bad guy is. Each of the possibilities gets an honest run at oblivion. They all succeed.

Sharon K. Souza said...

Oh, Jennifer, painful but necessary.

Patti, ditto.

Megan, that's the truth about antagonists. They're not completely bad any more than protagonists are completely good.

Wendy, yes, it's excellent.

Henrietta, I love that ... they all succeed.

cherryodelberg said...

Yes, I am just as hesitant to show my characters' flaws as I am to show mine. There just never seems to be a right time and a right way to get over it.
It is hard to let the antagonist show good qualities. Good qualities make you want to rescue them instead of killing them off. Good qualities make me - I mean the protagonist - feel guilty.