Friday, March 1, 2013

Smart Characters, Stupid Mistakes


Take a moment to read this little chunk of back story I pulled together for you. Excuse the lack of character names; I haven't really settled on them yet. Also, I know the language is a bit... heavy-handed. Let's call this a flashback painted over with nostalgia until it resembles something like a fairy tale for my character. She likes to tell me stories about herself from a certain degree of distance. It makes them less painful.

There once was a young girl, though she would glare at you if you called her that, being at that age where she considered herself neither young nor a girl any longer. The young girl was clever, cleverer than most people she knew, and also lovely, though she would glare at you if you called her that as well and assume you were patronizing her. (Like most girls her age, she was afflicted with a deep and unshakable belief in her own faults and a stubborn inability to accept compliments.) She had a sharp enough wit when she felt comfortable enough to let it show, which was rare indeed, and a bitter, sarcastic snap when she was nervous or intimidated, which was most of the rest of the time.

One afternoon, only a month or so into her freshman year of high school, the young girl was passed a note as she got off the school bus. This was an odd enough occurrence in and of itself as to be noteworthy; the young girl did not have many friends and was almost never passed notes. But this note was especially odd as it was passed to her by a boy. He was older and also quiet and without many friends and sarcastic when he was nervous. And he'd spend several of the preceding weeks tormenting the young girl, as boys of that age are wont to do when girls catch their eye.

The note, as you can surely guess, though she would never in a million years have anticipated it, was an invitation for a date. And not just any date either. He'd asked her to Homecoming.

The young girl was flabbergasted. She'd never been asked on a date of any kind before and she'd certainly never entertained the notion of having a date for a formal dance. She was a Smart Girl, not a Pretty Girl or a Funny Girl or an Athletic Girl. Everyone with even the slightest clue about the social dynamics of the average high school knows that Smart Girls did not get asked to Homecoming. Or, if they did, they got asked by Smart Boys, not by sophomores who didn't seem to have much use for classes beyond the legal requirement to attend.

And, besides, the young man had just the day before grabbed hold of the end of her water bottle while she was taking a drink, forcing her to slop water all down the front of her shirt so she could take a breath, and then he'd laughed at her.

Surely this was another prank.

How many of you have read this story, or one very like it at any rate, before? And don't you just want to smack the young girl upside the head? The young girl is a totally unbelievable character and this seems like a ridiculously contrived situation. If this was in a book, you'd probably have thrown it across the room by now. (I don't recommend doing that this time since you're probably reading this blog post on your computer or your smartphone or something and electronics don't respond well to smashing into walls.)

She's smart and pretty and sometimes funny and, obviously, the young man has been flirting with her for weeks. How could she possibly be so stupid as to think the note was a prank? Teenage girls may not always be 100% knowledgeable about the ways of the world, but they're savvier than that. Clearly I was not writing at the top of my game when I went through this particular character-building exercise, because there's no way a real person would be that stupid, right?

Well, all I can say in her defense it that she had issues with self-esteem. She'd convinced herself that she wasn't pretty enough to catch anyone's eye, that her sense of humor was warped and not at all humorous, and that her brains were actually a turnoff. And yes, she was awfully naïve not to realize the reason the young man might have had for wanting to see her in a wet t-shirt, but no one had ever expressed any interest in her breasts before and so they didn't really occur to her most of the time. It will take almost fifteen years before the true purpose of that particular prank finally occurs to her one day in a random flash of clarity.

Why am I telling you this story about a character's awkward adolescence? Because it was an incredibly foolish reaction. And she is a self-proclaimed Smart Girl. She has a pretty impressive talent when it comes to logic and reason and critical thinking, it still took three people reassuring her that afternoon all those years ago to work up the nerve to call him and it will take years, and, you know, the events of a novel, for her to truly banish the sneaking fear that he wasn't just taking pity on her for some inexplicable reason she never found out about.

Your characters will do the same thing. Sure, they might not be oblivious to the bumbling flirtations of a sixteen-year-old boy, but if they are realistic characters at all I can guarantee you that they will be oblivious to something. They will make decisions based on dubious information and faulty logic. They will let deeply-rooted fears and ingrained prejudices influence their opinions. They will, in short, make stupid mistakes.

If your characters aren't making stupid mistakes, you're doing something wrong.

At the same time, you can't just have your character fumbling around in the dark while the reader is banging their head on the desk begging for them to get smacked with a clue on a stick. The little story above isn't really intended to go into a novel. If it were, I would have to take a good hard look at the type of information I gave over to the reader. There's both too much information and too little. I've told you too much about what's really going on without telling you enough about how she's perceiving it.

For example, if she's going to react based on a belief that she's not pretty enough for the young man to be interested in her, even though we know she is, then I need to give some reason for that notion. I could write it off as just your basic teenage angst, but that's not very interesting and it's not enough to engage the average reader or push a plot forward. Or I could just ignore the discrepancy, as I've seen in so many romance novels it's practically a requirement of the genre, but I hate reading about those gorgeous-but-thinks-she's-hideous heroines and I definitely don't want to write about.

I'm not going to tell you why she thinks the way she does, but maybe her older sister an internationally famous super model, thus setting an impossibly high bar by which she has always measured herself and come up wanting. Or she could be under some curse that makes her appear to be a crone whenever she looks in the mirror and thus she is literally unaware of how she appears to others. It could also be possible that she has one of those mothers who's always telling her things like "you'd be so pretty if you just gave a little more effort to your hair and makeup" and "if you lost another ten pounds or so you'd be a total stunner".

Why doesn't she think she's funny? Did someone tell her once that her sarcasm was too harsh and she took that offhand comment far too seriously because the source was someone she admired? Why are her brains a turnoff? Because someone called her a nerd and refused to let her sit at their lunch table? We don't need to know the whole history of her life, but we at least need some part of a reason to see the world the way she does.

As a writer, I need to give you some way to reconcile this smart character that I want you to identify with and root for with this random lapse in judgment. Otherwise you're not going to care where the story goes next. You're going to be so busy throwing the book across the room that you're not going find out about what happens when she runs into young man fifteen years later. You won't understand how hard it is for her to trust him, and vice versa, and you won't really care about whatever guilt she feels about publicly denouncing him as an asshole after their fragile little relationship fell apart and refusing to speak to him for the rest of their time in high school together.

Characters have flaws. They make mistakes. Pretty much everyone knows this. That's where the plot comes from and how the drama develops. If your characters are prefect, I can tell you without even looking at it that your story isn't very interesting. Similarly, truly stupid characters aren't very interesting either. There's a name for those characters: TSTL. Too Stupid To Live. They have a tendency to die early on by falling down an open elevator shaft with the words "hey, y'all, watch this" engraved on their tombstones. The trick is to make their mistakes believable. To make their flaws acceptable, or at least understandable. To write them in such a way that they can do something stupid without being something stupid.

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