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.