Tuesday, July 8, 2008

The Character of a Good Character

I just finished a novel that I gotta say was really inspirational. No, the plot wasn't all that uplifting or motivating. That's not what I mean. At the risk of sounding egotistical I'm going to say what I found inspiring was that I turned the last page and immediately thought ... I can do better. Heck, I believe I have done better.

Now I'm not saying the book was horrendously bad, and it wasn't from a mega-author who can get away with publishing anything either. I enjoyed the book on many levels, (I'm purposely not giving the title) but something was missing. Some ingredient that kept the words, the story, the characters, from singing to me the way really great novels tend to do.

I kept thinking about it and realized my reservations all stem from the protagonist. I liked the protagonist. He was a fine upstanding fellow who always did the right thing. ALWAYS. From start to finish. Nobody ever makes the correct decision at every turn. And where was the character growth? The arc, and for you non writers I ain't talking about Noah.

In my own stories I probably tend to start my character too low on the character arc scale. I tend to thrust their flaws to the front and center, which often makes it hard for the reader to root for them from the beginning and therefor it is hard to engage the reader to the level I need. But in this book, the guy was a fine upstanding citizen from stat to finish. Sure a lot of trouble came his way and he handled it at all marvelously. I wanted to see him screw up at least once.

Which leads to a story about one of my best friends which I think illustrates what I mean. I'll call him Joe for privacy purposes.

Joe is the most competitive person I have ever met. No matter the circumstances, he refuses to acknowledge or give into to defeat or his perception of defeat. Most would say that is an admirable quality and generally it is. But that competitive spirit and unwillingness to pull back can cause problems as well.

Once upon a time Joe was a professional bowler. He appeared on ABC's Wide World of Sports and went toe-to-toe successfully with the best bowlers in the world. He won his share of prize money, but he also got suspended from the PBA for emotional outbursts. When things didn't go his way he lashed out at others and beat himself up. Eventually his out of control behavior both at the lanes and off forced him to quit the circuit and accept a "real" job.

Things were fine for a while. He got his competitive fix via the golf course, fishing tournaments, fantasy football, softball games, and any other competition he could find. Then he discovered his wife was having an affair. Joe saw that as a losing. He gathered knowledge about his wife's lover, called the man up, and made threats.

The guy decided to take the offensive and one night, in a dark parking lot, he used a baseball bat and left Joe in a pool of blood, broken and battered.

Joe recuperated but stewed the entire time. in his mind the opposition had an even larger lead. Then Joe's wife field for divorce and to Joe the score became all the more lopsided. Joe tried to even the tally, but only found himself in trouble for his effort. Bricks through windshields, more threatening phone calls, confrontation with his ex in a variety of fronts. Each time they collided Joe lost.

People began to whisper. "Joe is crazy." "Stay away from Joe." Joe lost his job and teetered on the edge. Some asked me, "How are you still friends with Joe?"

I defended Joe, but not his actions. I tried to give him advice but Joe could only see the score and that he was behind. Joe was and is as loyal as a friend as I could ever ask for. If a bullet were headed for my head, Joe would dive in front of it for me. He is that kind of friend, but there is really no way to make anyone else believe that through mere words. I know it to be so through years of actions. Me and Joe have a history. An earned trust that goes beyond his bad decision or what is visible to those on the outside of our friendship looking in.

As writers that's what we have to do with our characters. We have earn the readers trust and then allow the reader to ride the ups and downs, the good times and the bad. That is what makes characters unique, believable and truly inspiring. Yes, we have to do that with words, but a gifted writers can paint a scene and situation to the point that a reader will truly feel involved. That's where showing rather than telling comes into play. As a writer we must convince our readers that there is the possibility our protagonist could fail, while at the same time hope that they will succeed.

Right now my buddy Joe is engaged in the toughest fight of his life. One that he would have already lost of not for his competitive spirit and refusal to quit. He has cancer, and he is my friend, and he has shaped who I am in more ways than he will ever know. But he isn't the kind of guy who would want anyone to feel sorry for him, so I'm going to leave you with a humorous tale that detail both his tendency to make bad decisions and his fun loving spirit.

Five or six months after the baseball bat incident, Joe showed up looking like he'd been drug behind a truck. His face was swollen and bruised. His lip was split and oozing blood. His eyes were black. Someone who didn't know about the prior beating, looked at him and said, "What the hell happened to you?"

Joe looked at them and said, "I ran into this old boy that I owed an ass whooping." Then Joe smiled, His tooth was chipped and his gums were bloody, but he said, "Now I owe him two."

Now that's a character.


preTzel said...

I'm sorry to hear your friend has cancer Travis. :( That just sucks. I will root for him to pull through and be healthy, in all ways, for a long time to come.

You are so right about the characters. They must have flaws and mistakes or the writer is just telling a story. The story has to draw the reader in (much like your post did me) and keep them in until the very end and then, at the very end, the reader should sigh and want more. They will want to know what happens beyond "The End". It's what writers need to do. If we don't then we fail ourselves and our audience.

Clare2e said...

Lawdy, Travis, just your run-down of Joe made him into an infuriating and fascinating character. Will he wise up before the epilogue?

Not to be too flippant, I realize that "Joe" is a flesh-and-blood person with many facets, and I wish him well in his latest scrap, but even if he were just this character, he'd be a compelling one. However, I don't think it's the rightness of action that has to be boring or lack arc. Even an upstanding hero can evolve if you write him right. The heart that beats behind the cape.

Mary said...

A confidence boost ... love it when that happens!

Wonderful to hear about Joe, but so sorry he’s now fighting cancer.

David Cranmer said...

Travis, That's one of the very best blogs I've read.And I'm pulling for your friend that he can beat the cancer.

Shauna Roberts said...

A great post. My sympathies for your friend. At least he has a true friend like you to stand beside him and keep him fighting.

Erica Orloff said...

Wow . . . what a post. Hope your friend beats it, man.

As for character, I LOVE what you said about thinking it's possible the protagonist could fail. That's suspense. That's when you're really invested. It's always that moment where you think the dice could roll either way. Too perfect a character and we don't buy the dice roll.

Jude Hardin said...

Great post, Travis!

Melissa Amateis said...

Great post, Travis. And I think you're one of the best friend's that Joe has. Good for you. :-)

WordVixen said...

Well, you can tell Joe that I don't feel sorry for him. Anyone that can come off with a line like that deserves kudos, not pity.

Omg... I'm tearing up in here trying to not laugh!

Janna Leadbetter said...

I've felt that way about books, too, on both ends of the spectrum. Really great books inspire me to keep at it, make my writing better, and other not-so-good books show me I'm capable of good stuff. Either way, it can shoot me off into motivation again!

Great post about characterization. I really agree with the points you made, and it's good to see them out there for reference.

Best of luck and blessings for your friend, Travis. Here's to "Joe."

Stephen Parrish said...

You earned your pay today, Travis. Great post.

You know, a little sculpting and "Joe" would make a captivating protagonist, one that would immortalize and honor the flesh-and-blood model.

Natasha Fondren said...

Wow, what a story! I love that story.

When I read a story where I see a ton of mistakes, I generally worry that I'm noticing my own weaknesses. (You know how the things that annoy you about others are supposedly things in yourself?)

I haven't been able to find a book I like all the way through, lately. This is making me feel really... weird. I don't know. Worried. Thinking it's me, not them, LOL.

Anndi said...

People are meant to make mistakes... it makes us human.

I hope friend can muster up another fight. At least he knows you're on his side.

Anonymous said...

Sending hugs and prayers for you and your friend. Cancer is so rough.

I wish you would tell us the title of the book that inspired you in this way.

holly said...

oh i loved hearing about joe. except the cancer bit. sorry 'bout that.

my mom has probably seen joe. she watches bowling programs RELIGIOUSLY. oh yeah. that made saturday afternoons "outdoor time" for me. ;)

Kristen Painter said...

Cancer is beatable. Oddly enough, I proved that myself today. Tell your friend to have faith and a positive attitude. Those do more good than meds, sometimes.

ssas said...

I think your last line from Joe, about "Now I owe him two" is the one thing that makes me root for him. He's competitive; he's also not a quiter. Great quality to have in his arsenal against cancer.

Joshua said...

best of luck to joe man, and great post dude

Charles Gramlich said...

I agree about characters. They need to have some flaws, and I'm probably guilty in the Taleran books of making Ruenn MacLang a bit too much of a stand up guy. I tried to follow the lead of the originators of the Sword and Planet genre but make Ruenn a bit more prone to faults.

Sorry to hear about your friend's cancer. I did love that last line from him, though. That's definitely a tough guy. I hope he whips ass on the cancer.

Bubblewench said...

Very interesting post. Have not thought of things that way when it comes to characters. Makes sense.

I am sorry to hear about your friend Joe. I wish him the best and hope he beats the cancer.

DrillerAA said...

Some of our favorite characters are our favorites because they make marvelous recoveries from bad decisions, all the way from The Hardy Boys to James Bond and Indiana Jones.
Joe will be on my prayer list.
Have a great day.

Clair D. said...

I'm not sure whether it encourages me or frustrates me when I read a book that, in my never humble opinion, is not as good as what I write.

But you did a great job showing Joe's as a compelling character. You are clearly a writer, Travis. =)

Michele said...

Excellent points about characterization. That character arc is essential to a great story.

And I'm so sorry to hear about your friend's battle with cancer. He definitely sounds like a fighter, though. He's going to win this one. :-)

pattinase (abbott) said...

God, this sucks. Not the post, your friend's illness.
As to writing characters, no matter how hard I try I write about not nice people more than I'd like. If you're patient, they might turn it around but I'm not guaranteeing.

sybil law said...

That sucks about Joe. I hope things get better for him so he can BEAT the cancer.
As far as the writing - yeah - what's more boring than perfection?! Reading about it, as if you're supposed to buy it - that's what!

angel, jr. said...

Wow!!I'm sorry to hear about your friend's illness.

I have many friends that people question. However, I believe in and back up these friends fully. You are right, when you have a history of complete trust, you don't have to defend your friendship. The relationship should speak for itself.


Im sorry he has cancer..I think I would like him..and know I like you for not giving up on him..