Wednesday, July 22, 2009

When Good Characters Go Bad

Revisions for my middle grade novel are finished. Queries are out to targeted agents. I regularly check e-mail and stalk my mailman. And I am diving back in to my WIP. Right back in to the murky middle.

When I last left my beloved MC, he had just discovered a shocking truth—information that should serve as a catalyst for change. And that’s good, right? Every good character needs monkey wrenches thrown their way. It’s what makes readers keep reading.

So why am I having such a hard time with these changes? Why is it so difficult for me to let my MC make some really bad mistakes? He does, after all, exist only in my head. He’s not real. Yet I feel for him. Instinctually, I want him to do the right thing. But sometimes, good characters need to be bad.

But I’ll push forward. I’ll let my MC hurt people he cares about and be hurt in return. I know my MC will grow and change from the events I write about, but until I actually write them, I won’t know all the twists and turns his emotions will take.

I know how his story will end, but that is the physical plot. The emotional arc of the story is something entirely different. And I hope I can fight my instincts to protect my MC and let his actions lead to truthful conclusions.

So is it just me and my Catholic school upbringing? Or does anyone else fight the urge to make characters do the right thing?


  1. We have to let our characters, like our children, go out into the world and make their own decisions and their own mistakes. If the writer imprints her desires on the character because she doesn't want him to be "bad" or "hurt" she will not write a character who reads true.

    You are right, JA, to let your MC go where he needs to go.

  2. I agree. My characters are like my kids, and they better behave! It's really hard to write something you disapprove of, unless it's the bad guy.

    I am just starting my fourth book, my first three novels are in a drawer. This time, things are going to get interesting...I insist, and so do readers.

  3. I have the same problem and I think you nailed it with "Instinctually, I want him to do the right thing." I need to stop thinking of my characters as little extensions of me and let them live their own lives.

  4. Meg, you are so right -- let them make their own mistakes.

    Aimee, I know what you mean about how when it's you're own kids, they better behave. But we better not ground our characters, or we'll never get any work done!

    MG, I'm so glad I'm not alone. Here's to some bad behavior!

  5. Often, it's not the "bad" that causes trouble, it's a character's weakness. The inability to say "No, I won't do that," when presented with a dicey situation.

  6. When I was a kid, I remember finding myself irritated with characters in books who unerringly did the Right Thing and steered away from the broad, easy path. But when I write, I end up creating characters who are all nicey-nicey with each other, who are moral and kind and sympathetic. When I read it all over, it rings hollow and it's bland and yawn-inducing. And nobody learns anything either, because they know it already.

    I want my characters to learn from doing the wrong thing, but I want the realization to gradually seep in. If it's too quick, I feel I'm back in didactic mode, creating characters as moral models. And God forbid.

  7. In Vermont, Alan Cumyn gave a lecture on what makes a good story. One of his points was that characters must have a say in the outcome. We have to let them choose their own paths - even if it's one we wouldn't choose for them or ourselves.

  8. Gale, you're right. It's often those weaknesses that lead to trouble

    Mary -- Amen! Didactic is bad!

    And Meg --And as any parent will tell you -- kids don't always choose the path we'd like them to chose. Can't wait to hear more about Vermont.

  9. I think Gale is right when she mentions that often it's a character's weakness, rather than actual badness,that leads her or him down the wrong road. No one is perfect but the heroes actually care about people and values, usually regret their mistakes and learn from them, while the really corrupt characters begin without some core values, and often don't regret their choices.

    Very interesting to hear apt recommendations from your lectures in Vermont

  10. But whether we call it "weak" or "bad" it's all about letting characters make real choices based on real character flaws. Just like life.

  11. I like the way Jay Asher handled this in 13WR. The MC, who seemed like a pretty good guy, had no idea how he'd wronged Hannah, nor did I, until near the end of the book.

    His weakness was kept a mystery from everyone, characters and readers alike. We discovered what it was together, which really bonded me to the MC.