One of the problems I sometimes encounter is the protagonist, or secondary character—it may even be more common there—who isn’t a person so much as a laundry list of neat/cool/interesting traits. This is the clothing she wears, this is her eye and hair color (must you?), this is the trauma she suffered, this is the magic she can do. And that’s it. They float together on the surface of a sea of plot, but don’t fit together, and sometimes outright contradict each other. Sure, someone could be both arrogant and courteous, but without the explanation as to how, the character’s behavior just changes to suit the need of the plot and authorial whim.
So here are some ideas on how to make them fit.
1) Know your own motives. Your audience may never know what the authorial intent behind a certain move in the book is. You must.
Why does this character have this past experience, this nifty ability, this reaction to someone crying? No, you don’t need to outline every nuance of their background, to the point that you’re writing a biography rather than a story. What you have to know is why you put them there.
If it’s, “Because it’s cool,” or, “To make a point,” I don’t think that’s automatically a bad reason—though it can become a bad one if you don’t watch out. I think better answers are, “Because another part of the story implies that it exists,” or, “Because it doesn’t make sense to write her/him without it,” just for the record. My ideal character begins with necessity, with making sense, though she can have bells and whistles added for the hell of it, like an allergy to shellfish or a fondness for card games. And if a trait that I added for fun winds up not making sense, such as the heroine being able to solve the main riddle in ten pages because of her long training in riddle theory, then I remove the long training in riddle theory. That’s the main problem of “Because it’s cool” traits, I think. Often they make things too easy for the protagonist, and rather than admit that and reduce the advantage a bit, the author comes up with idiot plot moves, like the protagonist making spectacularly dumb mistakes, to stretch the story a bit longer.
Start from a base, the character traits you think mean most to the story, and see what springs from there, rather than just slapping a bunch of traits together, or you’ll often wind up with a thighbone, an ulna, and a skull, but no spinal column, no hand, no pelvis.
2) Know the implications. I referred to this briefly above. Time to go into more detail.
For example, take something that can show up in the initial stages of character creation: a phobia. “She’s deathly afraid of the dark.” All right. But that trait doesn’t exist in isolation. Nor do its implications stop with the incident that inspired the fear, often connected with abuse (being trapped in a mine collapse seems to be an insufficiently dramatic origin).
What else does it imply? It could say:
-That she’s going to be pretty damn useless during any sequence that takes place underground, unless they’re traveling where it’s light.
-That she could freeze when necessity requires her to escape through a dark space.
-That she could lose her mind in darkness and start screaming if the phobia’s strong enough (says someone who has that happen when needles are around).
-That, if an enemy correctly guessed she was afraid of that and used it to torture her, she might betray her friends.
-That she likes light—always sleeps with a lamp or a candle burning, and starts having minor panic attacks when she can’t see where she’s going.
Are any of those inevitable? No. But it is very noticeable if the phobia is only played for sympathy points and never causes her any trouble, discomfort, or inconvenience in a true dark space.
Watch out for the shadows cast by your character’s major strengths and weaknesses. They’ll often give you a good story if you let them—by imposing restrictions as well as offering ways to escape tight spots.
3) Show different combinations of traits working together in different circumstances. It’s also noticeable when the author has apparently decided that just one quirk of the protagonist’s defines her. She’s “spunky girl with a quick temper,” for example. So the only emotion we see from her is anger, and more anger, and anger some more. It’s as wearying as a protagonist who whines all the time. Also, it increases the sensation that this is a make-believe person. No one is angry all the time, particularly if they’re being dragged into completely new situations. They might call on that emotion to mask others they consider weaknesses, but I can’t see that being their only and absolute response. Fiction characters can be made with strategic exaggerations, sure. But there’s a line between exaggeration and caricature.
So show situations where the anger is operating alongside fear, where it operates alongside the desire for revenge (and no, just because someone’s angry doesn’t mean they have to desire revenge—why should it?), where it works with weariness, or hope, or depression, or defiance, or amusement. Show how she responds to friends, to relatives, to strangers, to people who walk into her life and announce they are now in charge of it. Show subtle, nuanced levels of introspection as well as times when the protagonist wears her heart on her sleeve.
This is the heart of coherence, the real tissue-spinning and connective webs. If the protagonist’s traits are laid side-by-side and made to work together, it’s much harder to make her just a list.
4) Be prepared to explain superficial contradictions. Sure, you can know someone in real life who’s arrogant and rude to everyone but still widely admired. But most of the readers of your story are not going to know that person, so saying, “Well, someone like that really exists,” is an insufficient excuse, even if you based the character on your acquaintance. Instead, sit down and think about why the admiration continues to exist despite behavior that would get everyone else’s hackles up otherwise. Does the person apologize for mistakes? Is she charming and witty? Does she show different kinds of behavior in private than in public? Is she someone who manages to engage and enchant people for a short time, but when they find out what she’s really like, or she turns her ire on them, they retreat and become bitterly disillusioned? Is she rich/their social superior, so they need to be seen as putting up with her even if they don’t like her? Those are the kinds of explanations that are good practice for cohering a heroine, because they’re the kind that people can accept. Insisting that the behavior just exists in real life and so readers have to get used to it is an act of arrogance in and of itself. Once again, even if the audience never discovers the motives behind that particular character’s creation, you should know them.
Another reason these contradictions irritate me is that they often exist side by side with the attitude that it’s okay to greatly exaggerate beauty, brains, strength, and so on in a fictional protagonist. All righty then, so you’re admitting that fictional characters are creations (even though, hopefully, they don’t look like it on the page) and don’t have to be as complicated as real people. Why, then, should behaviors and emotions and reactions that conflict with each other be excused with, “Real people are complex bags of contradictions, so I don’t have to explain my characters”? Real people don’t have to make sense. Characters, most of the time, do.
The next part of this properly goes in point 5.
5) Remember that your character does not stop at her skin. Part of her identity comes from the larger society she exists in, including her personal history, yes, but also the reactions other people have to her. You can know your character’s life backwards and forwards, and still you’ll only know the inside of her skull. Remember that a good many of the other people she meets in the story have no reason to know as much about her as you do; they’ll be coming at her with their own expectations, assumptions, beliefs, needs, rumors, gossip, sympathies, and lives.
This is why I find protagonists who are trusted for no reason, or swooned over by everyone they meet, or hated by everyone they meet, utterly unrealistic. With good treatment, the author is presuming that every character has the same kind of emotional investment in the protagonist, even when they’ve just met her or have good reason to think she’s unimportant. With bad treatment, the author is assuming that everyone is blinded by prejudice or, for that matter, interested enough in the protagonist to regard her with hatred, jealousy, or contempt instead of cool indifference. No one is allowed to exist who’s beyond her, and that drives me bugfuck.
Likewise, a protagonist who acts in ways that would get another character punished and gets away with it needs a damn convincing explanation. Why? Does she have connections? Do people expect that rash young people will go on these kinds of crazy adventures anyway? Did a friend make a moving speech to get her off the hook? Did her bad deed also have enough good consequences that the government can let it slide? Don’t just assume that everyone else thinks about the protagonist as the center of a story who can’t be hindered by punishment, or who needs to triumph. Keep in mind that she’s still part of a larger community. This will help her to cohere faster and farther.
6) Weave weaknesses and flaws in. The simplest way to do this is to take a double-edged trait that can be both strength and flaw and allow it to show its other edge. A sense of humor can easily go along with saying the wrong thing at the wrong time, self-confidence with self-involvement, “spunkiness” with a disastrous belief in one’s own immortality. The problem, as always, is not letting the flaw be an actual flaw. If the trait always benefits the character, it’s not a flaw or weakness.
Even more relevant to the point of this rant, the flaw can look like salt sprinkled on top of a salad. “Oh, but look, she gets impatient easily! That means she’s not perfect!” Except that the impatience doesn’t actually affect her behavior, she only yells at people who deserve it, or the author says that she’s impatient but doesn’t demonstrate it. Once again, disjointed; the flaws are cosmetic, floating on the outside instead of part of a coherent lump of a character.
Embed the flaws. Show problems that the character doesn’t realize she has. Show her making mistakes because of perceptual faults rather than sheer ignorance of facts or the machinations of her enemies. Show other people getting to be right about her (this may be even rarer than the protagonist actually making mistakes). Show the weaknesses—such as a lack of stamina, a crippling disease, no ability to perform magic—actually hindering her and causing her to fail. Show her reacting badly to other characters’ actions because of those flaws and weaknesses, which in turn causes other characters (or the original ones) to act badly, and creates arguments where it’s much harder to decide who’s in the “right.” Show a mixed set of actions, part of which is good and part of which is bad, because of those same faults.
Yes, a character needs flaws to keep her from being a walking Ms. Perfect or a tragic, delicate, angel-like victim of persecution. But if the flaws are only skin deep, you have a pretty piece of skin without the complete body to wrap it in. Or they may not even make sense, like the character who supposedly despises people weaker than herself but only ever feels compassion towards them.
(I actually think it’s far more fascinating to create a character out of traits that almost anybody can have rather than “Because it’s cool,” which is probably why I’m so in favor of ordinary, limited heroes).