Monday, December 08, 2008

Addiction, Danger and Flaws, Oh My!

Continuing Rowena’s theme from yesterday, I’m going to yammer on today about the flaws in characters in SFR, not just because I think it’s a worthy subject, but because I think it’s a fun one.

Rowena’s right: we do tend to load our alpha (and other) characters with problems. There are a couple of reasons for that (and many of you probably already know them if you study the craft of writing fiction).

One has to do with the Mary Sue Complex (or Marty Sam, if you will). The Mary Sue/Marty Sam is the character that is too perfect—not only to be believable—but to be likeable. Remember the girl in high school who was not only the best cheerleader but she was the prom queen and class president? Her clothes never wrinkled, her hair never frizzed and she never once had a zit. Remember how much you hated her?

That’s why we don’t write Mary Sues/Marty Sams. Readers can’t identify with them (neither can authors—my hair frizzes and my clothes and my skin both wrinkle). Instead we create characters with flaws, quirks, foibles, follies, addictions and annoying habits.

You know. Like us.

The second reason we love flawed characters is that we want to see a character succeed and grow. If the character is already perfect, there’s no growth. It was either Jack Bickham or Dwight Swain (both are writing gurus and I’m not going to drag out their tomes to figure out who said it) who said that readers have a need to pass judgment on someone (ie: character). Part of that “passing judgment” means judging whether the character DESERVES to win the book’s stated goal. If that character already has everything, is perfect, then it’s likely the reader will find some other character in some other book more deserving.

The third reason is that—according to Dwight Swain—a character “must start a fire he can’t put out” in the opening part of the book. Perfect characters don’t start fires and if they do, they can put them out, perfectly. So the “can’t put out” is lost with a perfect character.

We want the warts and all with our characters.

Only one of my characters to date had a stated addiction to a physical substance—and that’s Sully (Gabriel Ross Sullivan) in Gabriel’s Ghost and Shades of Dark. His addiction was to a substance known as honeylace—a drug of sorts, illegal except when used in religious ceremonies. Sully’s addiction to honeylace was his means of coping with the pain of what he was: a mutant human-Ragkiril, a telepathic shape shifter whose powers were feared and hated by everyone around him. Including himself. It was a combination of self-loathing and self-preservation that made him indulge in honeylace. Honeylace kept his talents muted. He needed that to survive in a world that would otherwise deem him the lowest of outcasts.

But addictions aren’t only to substances. Rhis in Finders Keepers was, quite honestly, a power addict. He was the one no one dared say “no” to. Except, of course, Trilby. She became the fire he couldn’t put out.

Branden Kel-Paten had a number of addictions, not the least of which was his obsession with Tasha Sebastian. I mean, he had her followed—for years. He hacked into her transmits. He dictated long missives to her (that he never sent). He had a secret stash of photos and holos of her. We’re talking serious addiction. (And it has been rightly pointed out that many characters in present day novels would, if real people, likely be arrested and/or committed to psych wards. But that’s because fiction is larger than real life. And—as Jacqueline Lichtenberg has wisely noted, fiction is drama.)

Kel-Paten was also obsessive with his privacy, his ship and his fleet. He was a rigid individual in many ways (his cybernetics notwithstanding) because he found solace and protection in that rigidity.

Both Admiral Mack (An Accidental Goddess) and Detective Theo Petrakos (The Down Home Zombie Blues) were work-a-holics. A benign flaw in some ways and also in some ways an addiction. Both defined themselves by their jobs. And interestingly, in Zombie Blues, so did my female protagonist, Commander Jorie Mikkalah, zombie-hunter extraordinaire. Conversely in Goddess, the last thing Gillie wanted was to be defined by her job. She didn’t want her job at all (and she clearly stated that several times in the book. She wanted to be “just Gillie.” Not a goddess. Not a sorceress. Not someone to be worshipped.) So while I paired Gillie and Mack as opposites, I paired Theo and Jorie as two sides of the same coin.

Did I do this deliberately? Yes. Why? Because of something on conflict I read on Jacqueline’s site:

"What is keeping them apart" is the CONFLICT. Misunderstanding and distrust are minor and trivial complications. The CONFLICT has to be real, about something substantive. And it has to be both INTERNAL and EXTERNAL at the same time - reflected one in the other. And each of them has to have the OBVERSE of the other's conflict if you're going to do dual-pov. Take her internal conflict,
twist it 180 degrees, and that's HIS internal conflict. (You can get a more complex novel by twisting her inner conflict into his external conflict).

I had to read that over about a dozen times before I “got it” and I’m still not sure I totally have it. But it’s something I use to work flaws and addictions and obsessions and danger into my characters and my stories.

In Hope’s Folly, one of Rya Bennton’s inner conflicts is her overwhelming sense of being unworthy. Of not being good enough, pretty enough, thin enough, experienced enough. So I took that and slapped it onto Philip Guthrie’s external issues. I put him in a situation where his previously acknowledged (and in some cases, lauded) experience, expertise and reputation were shattered. His external authority was challenged while her internal self-authority caused her pain.

Rya saw herself as flawed. Philip was born with the proverbial and clich├ęd silver spoon in his mouth. But because of that, his personal expectations were also very high. And the higher you are, the more painful the landing when you fall.

They both fell…and fell in love.

Flaws and all.



  1. Thanks Linnea.

    Characterization is such a biggie, and the knowing why you are doing something is the hardest of all.

  2. Linnea, I fixed my review of "Shades of Dark" on my blog.