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  • Writer's pictureLauren

Your Characters Need to Suck

When was the last time that you remembered that some people don’t like you?


I’ll go first. Last August, I was doing a tour for freshmen orientation around my campus. These typically stretched over the course of three days, with batches of people and facilitators moving their groups between stations. I had about nine or so freshmen with me— I say ‘or so’ because somehow, between the very clear and straightforward path between the School of Law and the School of Accounting, there were eight.


I stood there, counting and recounting when a girl came over to tell me that the missing freshman had ditched my group for another batch. It didn’t really occur to me to care about this. Ditching and joining your friends’ groups happened often, and honestly? That guy kind of sucked. Getting sidetracked, interrupting conversations between other people, constantly asking for twenty minute breaks. Everyone was glad he left. He was ruining the group’s vibe.


Cut to the survey, where freshmen were asked to rate and give their opinion on their facilitators. All of them were the usual— that is, vaguely and perfunctorily positive— except for one.


Two out of five. He was brutal.


He was talking, of course, about my insistence to stay on schedule and on task. When I read that, I sat back. Huh. That made total sense. The freshman had been subtly hinting that I should’ve ‘chilled out’ the entire day, and I bulldozed over him, partially because I like staying on task and mostly out of spite.


The whole day, I’d been thinking about how much he sucked, and it turned out that he was thinking the exact same about me.


Real people suck. Real people look sh***y under specific circumstances, depending on the day and group that surrounds them. So, bottom line: if you want to write characters that feel like real people, they need to suck.


Calm down, I’m not saying that you all need to write murderous, conniving assholes who drink too much and are a little too quick to throw other people under the bus— that would put me out of business. But think about you. You (I assume) would consider yourself to be a generally good person. And while I’m in no position to judge you, confirming or denying this, the truth is that even if you are a good person, you still have flaws. You suck. Just a little, maybe, but a little all the same.


Protagonists tend to suffer from a lack of flaws, and it’s not hard to understand why; if the entire story is filtered through a single character’s eyes, and you (the author) wants the story to go as far as possible, you want the protagonist to be broadly likable.


Amateurs will confuse likable with flawless. Flawless characters will fester into Mary and Gary Sues, who are infamously good at everything and therefore good for nothing. They are cardboard cutouts in the shape of people, and are little more than convenient tools to further the plot and carve out the ending.


Worse still is when the author tries desperately to convince you that Mary/Gary Sue is flawed. The Young Adult (YA) market of the 2010s was especially guilty of this. Their protagonists would be ‘plain’ and ‘average’, thin enough to have killer cheekbones and get bullied but not thin enough to die while on the run from (hot) zombie hoards. In the end, their primary flaw is being flawless to the point of boredom.


And no, clumsiness is not a character flaw. I will break your clumsy nose in half if you try to convince me it is. (I can be slightly aggressive. That is, sometimes, a flaw. See the difference?)


Why? Why do writers continuously fall into this trap? I think it’s because most writers want to think of their characters as inherently good people. Even in the recent trends of writing a story in the villain’s perspective, there will always be justification. Much like how, if you asked, most people would think of themselves as generally ‘good’, consciously or subconsciously scrubbing out their flaws and highlighting their strengths, the same process will be applied to their characters. The pages will present a perfectly competent and perfectly capable protagonist, saying to the reader, trust me. They’re good. You like them.


The problem is that goodness needs to be earned. You could tell me that Voldemort’s greatest strength is his consistent positivity (I haven’t read Harry Potter), but if I don’t see the evidence, I’m not going to believe it.


This works both ways. Most writers know that flaws are a basic ingredient to character building. Many of them will pluck something cool and vibey from a character generator, drop it explicitly into the dialogue, and call it a day. This is cheating, and readers will know that you’re cheating.


Sure, he’s the leader of the gang that brutally murdered your mother and kidnapped your brother for ransom, but he calls you ‘princess’ and has a sexy laugh, so swoon, right? Or maybe the big bad has been hyped up as a plague to the kingdom for centuries, thinking several steps ahead, and somehow gets thwarted because the answer to the riddle was—gasp— love.


You want to write a hero? Earn it. You want a villain to keep your readers up at night? Earn it. You want to write a character that should be in any way compelling and fascinating? Earn. It.


Readers, at the end of the day, aren’t stupid. They’re masochists. They want an Ikea couch of a character. They want a map of characteristics to draw conclusions from. They want to notice patterns and sew scenes together to form a quilt of a character, coherently whole but carefully pieced together. They want to know a character, and they want to work for it.


Bravery can turn into recklessness. Ambition can be interpreted as greed. Personable people have trouble discerning real friends from fake ones. Outcasts can get too attached to their isolation and develop a superiority complex. Each strength and corresponding flaw is a patch of quilt, and the author’s job is to not to hide half of the pattern but arrange it in a way that, when you look at the whole thing, you see a person.


Why matters. Why will save you from reducing your protagonist to ‘unlikeable’ and instead make them understandable.


Stories aren’t handbooks. They aren’t instruction manuals. Imparting a theme or a question is always a good motivation to have while storytelling, but your priority is to entertain. To grab and maintain readers’ focus.


Your protagonist is a good guy? Cool. Great. If I don’t understand why he can’t kill Evil Minion #205 after it killed the love of his life, I’m going to be rooting for the villain with witty one-liners and the unapologetic ability to kick our protagonist’s ass. Your protagonist is morally grey? Killing someone in self-defence and regretting it for the rest of your life to the point of changing your aesthetic to goth or emo doesn’t cut it, buddy.


Most of the time, writers have a harder time ‘dirtying’ their characters’ image than shining it up. Kill your darlings, and all that. Bottom line: your characters should feel like real people, and real people (kinda?) suck.


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