Imagine yourself as a reader who has just spent $10 or so on a new book. You open it and read it through, excited to see what twists and turns the author has laid out for you. The plot is intricate and engaging, the setting dynamic and full of beautiful detail and imagery, and at first things seem to be going perfect. There’s just one tiny little problem: you aren’t really crazy about the protagonist.
The main character is this perfect guy or gal who lives this fairly comfortable life. Or, perhaps he is a complete underdog who is consistently dealing with the deck being stacked against him. Either way, they happen to always make the right choice. They are incredibly attractive, successful, and talented, even if the world hasn’t figured it out yet. Perhaps even the villains fall a bit flat, portraying an image of evil for the sake of pure evil. Though the book had potential to be one of your favorites, you walk away feeling pretty….let down.
Shout it from the rooftops, one of the most important things you can remember when writing fiction is that people are not flat and one-dimensional. They seldom do things for only one motivation or are driven by only one force. Black-and-white answers to problems are almost as rare as miracles. Humans are messy, complicated creatures. That’s what makes them so interesting to read and write about. The fact is, no one wants to read about a hero’s journey where the hero doesn’t change or learn anything. Maybe the hero has a massive fear of public speaking he has to face to get his message across to the world. Maybe she’s a wee bit forgetful and happens to miss an important engagement and hurt someone’s feelings. Maybe he just lies, often, and can’t seem to figure out why. When it comes to crafting characters, I like to think back to people I know in the “real world.” What makes them so interesting to be around? What are some of their weird quirks and habits? What massive contradictions exist within their personality? Is she a hardcore feminist with a secret nostalgia for the 1950s? Maybe he’s a bit of a misogynist because he secretly believes women are smarter. The possibilities are endless when it comes to creating depth within your characters.
For me personally, I find the same to be true of antagonists and villains. Being evil for the sake of evil is a bit overrated, and doesn’t honestly make a whole lot of sense in the real world. Why is this person so hell-bent on stopping our hero from reaching their goals? Is it self-preservation? Was there a defining moment that upset our antagonist enough to turn towards the dark side? Maybe, in a different lighting, the “bad guy’s” motives are even understandable. Maybe he believes he’s saving society, or doing what he must because no one else is willing. While it might seem counter-intuitive to create sympathy for your antagonist, it makes for a much more interesting story for the reader. Off the top of my head, a great example of this is the Divergent series by Veronica Roth. Without giving too much away (spoiler alert!), there are several different antagonists introduced throughout the series. All have their own motives for their not-so-ethical behavior, despite their opposition to the MC’s goals. The problem is, even though you can see where all of them are coming from, they are all still pretty bad guys. You’re left with watching the MC attempt to choose between the lesser of all of the evils. It’s unsettling, sure…but so is life, which is what made it a great story.
As I write this, I am staring at the manuscript open in another document, wondering if there is enough depth to some of my background characters. While I am often mindful of the detail I add into my protagonist, the supporting characters have a habit of falling a bit flat at times. Thankfully, I have the rest of this summer to focus on NANOWRIMO and edits. For now, I think I’ll brew a pot of coffee and return to my book. After all, the best writing often comes from intensive reading.