Monday, March 30, 2009

Characters: The good, the bad and their motivations

Characters – love them or hate them – if they’re well-written, they’re bound to be memorable, and when you bump into someone who’s read the same story as you have, you may well have some lively disagreements about which characters were your favourite, or not.

As a writer, the danger lies in creating characters that exist purely as placeholders, as vehicles to tell a story. We don’t sit down and build a character that has quirks, faults or a definite personality. We don’t sit down to ask ourselves, “How does John react under pressure? Does John freak out or will he crack some joke while trying to pretend the walls aren’t peeling?”

Chances are good that if John’s the kind of guy who starts making flippant comments while escaping being eaten by a seven-foot-two werewolf, he’s going to make for far more interesting reading than the John who merely screams and runs.

But what if John, our protagonist, isn’t actually the good guy? As a writer of mainly urban fantasy and horror, I am sick unto death of “good” guys playing the lead roles. What if John’s actually a werewolf hunter and the wolves are peace-lovin’ hippies trying to save the planet from evil corporates intent on chopping down the rainforests?

Now I’m telling the story from John’s point of view and, although I know he’s really the bad guy, I’m subverting my readers’ loyalties by making them care about John and his goals: to rid earth of those darn pesky werewolves that are annoying John’s employers.

In my mind this is already much more interesting than the standard Hollywood fare of some self-righteous good bloke going off to hunt himself some evil slavering wolves, because, well, we all know they’re evil, right? So, they deserve to be hunted down.

The best part, for me, will be the twist at the end of my story. Instead of John meeting and skinning his arch-nemesis in a great big showdown, involving sprays of blood and liberal scatterings of blown-off limbs, what if he realises he has been the bad guy, all along? What if he shows some real remorse?

What, if instead of having an epic battle, he falls in love with his enemy, the head honcho of the werewolves being some gorgeous chick, who happens to get John to turn the tide on the big corporates. Now, John faces a dilemma. Man, he’s used to driving that snazzy SUV courtesy of AcmeCorp. He likes living in his penthouse suite with a view over Central Park. But he also wants to experience the full benefits of true romance with some hot lovin’ on the side.

Is John prepared to give up the car, the penthouse and possibly his life, for love?

See how a standard shoot-em-up has changed from a linear plot to something that does a 180º turnaround? The best part for me, as a writer, will be making my readers shift their loyalties from John-as-he-was: the ultra-cool monster hunter, to John-as-he-becomes: the ultra-cool “I’m going to take on the big corporates against overwhelming odds”. I’ll write the story so that readers’ perceptions shift and, by the end of the story, they’ll be cheering on the guys they thought of as the bad guys at the opening of the novel.

Bad or good is a matter of perspective. A clever writer will know how to manipulate the stereotypes and turn them on their heads. Remember while reading Lord of the Rings for the first time you thought the ominous ranger-type, Strider, could be bad news? Only later do we realise he’s Gondor’s king, in disguise. I’m sure you can think up a few examples similar to this, that are near and dear to your heart.

My challenge to you, as a writer, is to go back to your story, and ask yourself whether you’re following a bog-standard Hollywood cliché or whether your are creating three-dimensional characters who are a little bad, a little good but a helluva lot of interesting.

Nerine Dorman is a Cape Town-based author of mainly fantasy and horror fiction. At present she works as a sub-editor at a newspaper publisher and often has travel-related editorial printed in a leading travel publication. She lives on the borders of a national park and regularly fends off baboons armed only with a broomstick. She has recently sold her first novel to Lyrical Press, Inc. and has had her short fiction published in Something Wicked magazine, with sales to other publishers.

Facebook: Nerine Dorman


Marta Stephens said...

Great post!! As much as I like my protag, I LOVE writing the bad guys. They give me the chance (and excuse) to step outside the box and to dig into a mind that is completely off the chart from who I am. :)

Kim Smith said...

As my mind turns a new story with new people, I found this post very timely!

s.w. vaughn said...

Hear, hear! Never underestimate the power of a good bad guy ... or a bad good guy. Especially a bad good guy. Those are my favorites! LOL

Sheila Deeth said...

Timely advice as my characters have just started meeting new friends.

Joylene Nowell Butler said...

Great post, Nerine. Lively, entertaining and original characters mean everything to a good story. I love my bad guys for that very reason.

Nerine Dorman said...

Thank you for stopping by. Personally I'm very fond of the good bad guy. I should have mentioned George RR Martin as a classic case of subverting readers' loyalties when it comes to characters.

Beryl Singleton Bissell said...

Yes. The good bad guy. That's all of us I think, that's why we like him so much.

Unknown said...

Ever read the (excellent) original short story I am Legend??
Hollywood never really gets it....maybe they know what most people want.

Aaron Paul Lazar said...

Wonderful piece! I still find myself more in "opera" mode - where the good and bad guys are classically Cavaradossi and Scarpia, respectively. Must think more along these lines. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

I'm going to provoke everyone and state that it's harder to write a convincing good character than a convincing bad one. For badness you just have to look into your own heart. But how many characters can you remember from fiction who just made you cry with some heroic act of kindness or forgiveness?

s.w. vaughn said...

Oh, SNAP. I think Barton just called us all bad at heart. :-)

Honestly, characters only make me cry when they start out bad and then do something amazingly awesome. Like Harrison Ford in Regarding Henry. It's the transformation that gets you, the idea that people CAN change, even if they (and everyone else) believe they're beyond redemption.

We all want to believe we can change. That's why we empathize with the baddies-turned-goodies.

Nerine Dorman said...

I read "I am legend". As far as I remember it was a novel-length work and I found it a distressing read. I vowed never to touch it again and, although I've forgotten most of the details, I absolutely refuse to watch the film adaption.