I’ve actually been asked that before on several occasions in reader letters. Don’t get me wrong, most people loved the various characters in the books they’d read. Some people, however, just can’t stomach the “good guys (or girls)” doing stupid or bad things. Here’s how I see it:
Character development is all about having a wide range of perspectives and accepting people’s differences and seeing what makes them human. If all you have is a singular view of human morals, viewpoints or ideals, all of your characters will act and feel the same. It is important to be able to identify with many different views and even be able to see how the wrong attitude or action develops in a way that seems quite reasonable to the people doing them.
Good vs. Evil
With the rare exception of a psychopath, even the most villainous person has good points, and most importantly, sees their own actions as reasonable. At the same time, good people do stupid things and even bad things at times. If your character understands their actions and is acting in a way that is honest and true to their core beliefs and limited understanding of the world as they see it–it’s not “wrong” even when it is bad.
Trying to make people perfect is impossible and will come off stilted in writing. This is even truer if you are writing a character that is expected to be “bad” even when they are not exactly the bad guy in your story. When I
started writing Hell’s Own, I had one thought–what if there were a demon that fell in love with earth? This demon didn’t really hate where he was, it was all he knew, but he’d caught a glimpse of what was “out there” and wanted to know more, experience it, and had fallen in love with the idea of what existed on the surface of earth.
When he got to earth, he found that people were a lot more than just the pathetic, evil souls he’d seen so often in hell, now he has to learn what makes them so different and so special to both sides of the power struggle that exists between heaven and hell. You see, Alexander isn’t exactly what most people would call a “good guy” but the things he does “wrong” he does wrong because it’s all he knows and has never seen that they are wrong. To him it’s right.
Now of course, if that were the only viewpoint I could manage to understand, the people Alexander (the demon) came in contact with were the same, it wouldn’t ring true at all. Christine, for example, is a naïve young woman with a strong desire to be “good” but her youthful vision of that is a little too simplistic and she gets caught up easily in the wrong thing for all the right reasons.
Mike is a long-time cop. He couldn’t possibly be naïve and still be realistic, but of course he’s never come on anything/one like Alexander either, and his super cynical outlook won’t let him accept the unexplainable either. Not at first anyway. All of these characters have to have a unique outlook and moral fiber that rings true to their situation.
True to the Part
In the above examples the characters are all true to their beliefs. In some cases it is just as important that the characters be true to their role as well as to themselves. In Dark Side of the Moon and Married to a Rock Star, Gabriel and Izzy are both rock stars. It wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense to make them perfect, morally incorruptible. You have to take your characters where you find them, and let them show you what their life is like while they go about doing your work in your story.
It doesn’t matter what genre you read, the same has to be true of the characters in it or it would be a pretty flat book. I’ve always felt that the older a writer gets, the better their work should be. That’s because they’ve experienced more, seen more, done more, but most importantly, because they’ve had a more experience with many different types of people.
Actually choosing the characters isn’t difficult at all. The two main types of stories are those that are plot driven and those that are character driven. I don’t really think one can exist without the other, but one will be predominant. My work always starts with the storyline, but my novels are all character driven pieces. It’s the story that comes first for me. I get an idea, such as that with Hell’s Own, and then figure out who the main characters will be based on the idea. My hope is that readers will find even the most flawed characters compelling and watch them struggle through the storyline to find the place that is right for them.
Tami Parrington is a freelance writer and author of seven novels including Hell’s Own. Check out Hell’s Own on Amazon.com at http://www.amazon.com/Hells-Own-ebook/dp/B001B8QFF4 or visit her at her website http://www.tamiparrington.com.