Friday, July 29, 2011

Please Ignore Common Wisdom

by Robin Allen

Living a right life is fine for you, but awful for your characters. They need to make bad decisions. They need to do the wrong thing. They need to suffer and be insufferable. There has to be conflict, tension, mayhem. If you're not sure how to make that happen, start with common wisdom and have them do the opposite.

"Great people talk about ideas. Average people talk about things. Small people talk about other people." –Eleanor Roosevelt

Feel free to talk about ideas and things yourself, but make your character petty and mean. Have her gossip about everyone and everything, including herself. She feels put upon by the world and gets even by starting rumors about her handicapped co-worker, the twelve-year old boy who cuts her grass, the neighborhood Schwann's delivery guy, a fellow volunteer at the shelter. How would she handle a religious conversion?

"Be the change you want to see in the world." –Ghandi

That never works, does it? Perhaps your character is trying to be the change, all zippity do-da, courteous to everyone he meets, kissing babies and serving meals at a soup kitchen that feeds the homeless and their rescued dogs. Life is Good with a capital G. How would he react to finding out that one of the weekend-only volunteers has been telling everyone that his doctor put him on anti-psychotic meds?

"Eat right and exercise." –Mom

For you? Yes. For your character? Yawn. Pump him full of sugar and processed foods, then put him in his car to drive two blocks to the convenience store for a twelve-pack of Monster Mayhem, the 100% caffeine thirst quencher, for the party he's throwing for his friends to watch two weeks worth of Tivo-ed Ultimate Fighting matches. What happens when his grandma comes over with his favorite strudel?

"Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise." –Ben Franklin

No, no, and no. Sick, poor, and stupid is much more interesting. Keep your character out clubbing into the wee hours (but please don't make her a vampire), then send her out at four o'clock in the afternoon to spend her last $3.00 on breakfast. What would she do with the puppy she agreed to take care of while her sister is on her honeymoon?

"A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty." –Winston Churchill

The only way an optimist would make for interesting reading is if he keeps getting sideswiped by life. Make things easy on yourself and make your character glum and suspicious and with a serious case of malaise. He won't bend down to pick up a dollar bill because he might get a paper cut. He wouldn't cross the street to avoid his worst enemy because he might get hit by a car. He won't accept a promotion at work because the pay raise will put him into a higher tax bracket. What does he do when his newly engaged brother asks him to be best man at his wedding?

"Eighty percent of success is showing up." –Woody Allen (no relation)

Reliability is a great trait for automobiles and overnight delivery services, but not for characters. Not interesting ones, anyway. Never let your character show up for anything—jobs, dates, classes, hair appointments. What happens when her parents force her to sign up to be a camp counselor?

Stories are about character change and growth, so the guys and gals who people your stories should be somehow different at the end. When you ignore common wisdom, you have a path for change. How you get there is what makes the story.

As writers, what methods do you use to define your characters? As readers, what are some of your favorite well-drawn characters?

Robin Allen
Author of the Poppy Markham: Culinary Cop Mystery Series
If You Can't Stand the Heat
Now available on Kindle, Nook, and eBook
See my poem "A Friday Afternoon" in the 2012 Texas Poetry Calendar


Beth Groundwater said...

Great post, Robin! I try to give my series sleuths character flaws, then give them problems that stress those flaws, so the conflict is upped, and eventually the characters learn things and grow and change. However, invariably I get some feedback from readers that they hate the flaws in my protagonists and want them to grow up, do the right thing, see the light, and by God, stop sticking their nose where it doesn't belong. But those characteristics are precisely what makes for good story-telling! Other readers, thank God, understand and enjoy seeing my protagonists stumble along.

Robin Allen said...

We can do so much more with series characters because, like real people, they have to learn the same lessons over and over and over.

Darrell James said...

Nice post, Robin! Here's my quote of the day:

"Avoid the ordinary and what's left is extraordinary."

Vicki Doudera said...

Robin, interesting ideas! I've been thinking my protagonist, Darby Farr, is too much of a loner and that I should give her at least one friend, but perhaps I'll look at this in another light! So she's not a sunny extrovert like her creator... maybe that's a good thing!

Keith Raffel said...

Very disappointed to learn you are no relative of Woody Allen's. I agree with your post but worry about making a character TSTL (to stupid to live.) Keith

Robin Allen said...

Darrell - Good quote. So much of life is ordinary, but fiction shouldn't be.

Vicki - My Poppy Markham is a bit of a loner, too, which makes her a lot like me.

Keith - I, too, was disappointed to learn that I wasn't related to Woody Allen.

Jessie Chandler said...

Good post, Robin! One of my writing friends always says, "Make sure your characters are alwats getting into terrible troubles. Just when they've extracted themselves from one mess, throw them into another." I think you can have a great character who might be messed up, but can be likable and funny... so long as you include some yuckalicious bad guys for seasoning :-)

Robin Allen said...


Terri Bischoff said...

Robin - William Kent Krueger once said this (or something close to it!) at a signing:
The series is called the Cork O'Connor series, so the reader knows that Cork is going to be ok (alive) in the end. So in order to create and maintain suspense, all other series characters can be placed in jeopardy - including Cork's kids. Seems to work for him!!

Robin Allen said...

That's a good strategy from Mr. Krueger!

Sebastian Stuart said...

Great post! Happy, well-adjusted people are boring.

Robin Allen said...

I prefer them in life, Sebastian, but give me a good DSM-IV crackpot in fiction.