When I began writing police mysteries I said to myself, “Aha! This is fiction, not a documentary. I have the opportunity to make everything come out perfectly.”
I thought it would be cool to chronicle my old cases and correct any mistakes or ask the questions that never came to mind or make the clever comments I only thought of the day after. It looked like an “if only” moment, a chance for perfection.
Then it rained on my parade. The precipitation came in the form of a middle-aged man with lots of experience in publishing and some pretty good ideas. The retired editor turned book-doctor who I hired to assist me during the formative stages of A NEW PROSPECT said, “Your protagonist is perfect. He never makes a mistake. Are you nuts?”
“Huh?” I said.
“Perfect is boring,” he said. “Readers like tension. They like uncertainty. Put the character in jeopardy. Screw that perfection thing.”
“Hmm,” I replied.
I thought about the concept and remembered reading other mysteries. How many times had I said, “Jeez, a good cop would never do that?” I’d grit my teeth and wait for the ax to fall.
One of my favorite fictional cops, James Lee Burke’s Cajun detective, Dave Robicheaux, ALWAYS did something I knew a guy with his experience would NEVER do.
I’d tremble and say, “Oh, Dave, you know better.”
Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe knew he should never enter a spooky building alone. He never used back-up. He never told anyone where he was going. He created the perfect opportunity for a hood to catch him snooping and hit him over the head.
It was a commonality throughout fiction. Writers knew perfect characters were boring. Characters who took risks (sometimes stupid risks) created tension. They invited conflict. And tension and conflict sold books.
I’ve experienced enough tension in my life to have had a liquor bill equal to the gross national product of a small banana republic. So, I’d rather read about a slick detective who does everything right. I’d look at that story as a description of an art form.
But that little voice inside my head would say, “Too bad,
, you’re one of a VERY small minority of readers.” Wayne
Readers like tension. They love to grimace when their favorite characters foul up and put themselves into a situation which requires fancy footwork to get out from under the catastrophe.
Remember James Bond when Ian Fleming’s books were more famous than the movies? International thugs captured Bond so many times he qualified for frequent hostage points.
How about TV’s Jim Rockford? He never worked with a partner who watched his back. And Stephen J. Cannell arranged for him to be hit on the head so many times, his skull could have been called Land of a Thousand Concussions.
But we loved it . . . and them.
So, what’s the moral of my story? It’s simple. When we create a protagonist, we must build in a few flaws. Does he or she drink a little too much when they shouldn’t? Does getting buzzed at the wrong time make them miss a crucial clue or forget to duck when the bad guy swings a tire iron? Do they have an uncontrollable big mouth and always say the wrong thing to people with serious political clout? Do they trust the wrong person at the wrong time?
There are oodles of possibilities. All we have to do is dream up one or more to fit our protagonist’s personality and stick with it in numerous variations. Create that tension. Make your readers squeeze their eyes shut in anticipation. And always give your heroes a way to slither out from under the problem they created. You’ll have the makings of a good series of books or stories.
Excellent, spend ages placing my little characters into problem situations that they take ages to escape from. :0)
When I first started writing I was scared of writing a character with too many flaws for fear readers wouldn't like the character.
Over time that fear has gone away. Sure there are a lot of annoying characters in stories, but if they were perfect then they'd have no room to grow.
Absolutely perfect, Wayne! Oops, I don't really mean that. What I mean is that you got it exactly right! No, no I don't mean that either. Not a mistake in the entire blog. No, no, no! Uh, uh. Well, it couldn't have been perfect but I do agree with you.
Hello from a new follower! I love the title of your blog and the quote of Walt Disney's. It is one of my favorites! Your blog is awesome and it was so good to hear from Wayne!
Frequent Hostage Points = hilarious. Great post and wonderful reminder that art should imitate life (or maybe the other way around). Either way, perfect really is boring.
I loved this. And it was very instructive. I remember many of these characters, like Rockford. I also remember Magnum who had his flaws. And what about Monk--even as good as he is, he has a huge flaw, and a lot of times, the flaw helps him discover the culprit!
Very good suggestions on how to not make your lead character too perfect!
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