Sunday, September 2, 2012

Life isn't black and white, neither should your characters be

I was watching the latest episode of Hell on Wheels this morning - which was excellent, by the way, as always - and I was struck by something. The characters are so very well written, and so well rounded that it isn't just a matter of black and white, good and evil. They are fleshed out in such a way that you can't always be sure how to feel about them. As I noticed from the beginning of the season, although I've never liked the Swede, and he's a complete and total ass, I've come to admire his strength of character. After his fall from grace, having been tarred and feathered and ridden out of town on a rail at the end of the first season, his status in the town dropped as low as it possibly could. Mr. Durant, out of the "kindness" of his heart, kept him on, but he's been reduced to collecting the town's slops. But the thing is, he does it to the best of his ability and with a certain diligence and integrity, because he has this work ethic. No, I still don't like him, but I respect him more. Even the hero of the series, Cullen Bohannon, is not a cut and dried good guy. He's very complex, and he does what he needs to do. He's still incredibly hot, though, that hasn't changed.

My point is that characters are not static, nor are they completely one way or another - neither wholly good nor wholly evil. Even the bad ones have redeeming qualities. Depends on the writer whether you can see that or not. It's too easy to set up a cartoonish world of right and wrong, where the hero - dressed in white - always wins, and the villain - forever in black - comes out on the losing side in the end. Life is not like that, as we know. Evil can and does win, and nothing is guaranteed. Good, because frankly, that gets damn boring time after time after time. Good needs a challenge to keep it on its toes, and temptation to show its human.

Take for example one of the books I'm currently reading - Paradise Lost, by John Milton. The undoubted hero of this piece if Lucifer, the fallen angel, who comes off as far more heroic, brave, and virtuous than the man who tossed him and his compadres from Heaven. This is one hell of a book - no pun intended - and I've gotten a lot out of it, and I'm only half way done. But it's no easy task to take a character that historically viewed as the epitome of everything that is dark and evil in this world and make him appear in a more sympathetic light. As I said, not everyone is all good or all bad. Not even God and the devil. By the way, did you know that Satan means adversary? It's taken on whole new meanings, and is instantly identifiable with the bad side, with devils and demons, etc, but that is the original meaning.

It's such a temptation to write our heroes as perfect, unblemished, wonderful, beautiful, etc - because that's how we want to see them. But oh how boring that would be if true. Perfection is just boring, to the max. There's a reason that women love their bad boys. Seriously. Differences and imperfections are what makes the world go round. Different strokes for different folks and all that. From what I've been reading of Paradise, it was boring. I would have to take umbrage with so many things, not least of which is being under Adam's control (he comes across to me as a bit of a mindless oaf). Also, there are no books! What's a world without reading? B-o-r-i-n-g, that's what. All they did was tend the trees in the garden (except for the forbidden one, of course. Hey, I'm not gardener, that just sounds damn boring. And singing hosannas and praises all the time? Really?  Okay, I guess there was sex. Had to be. They were naked, they were human, and they were intended to procreate. Had I been Eve, I would have gone for the serpent/Lucifer too. By the way, Eve was supposed to populate the world? What, alone? That's a vagina, not a clown car! Get real! And then think about it, if everyone born (let's say she cranked out twenty kids, which is a lot, but let's go with it), then these twenty people only have themselves to procreate with... well, you get the gist, right? WTH? According to that line of reasoning (and for those who take the Bible literally, which doesn't include me), then we're all the long term products of incest. Well, I can see it with some...

Okay, back to the subject.

Make your characters believable and make them human. Even the villain has something about him or her that isn't wholly bad or wrong. Also, put them on a somewhat equal footing. What does it prove if the hero defeats a villain he far outclasses? What test of his worthiness is that?

Change up the problems too. If you write m/m, don't always use the nobody likes gays trope, that gets old. Don't make your characters' sexuality their sole problem in life. You won't garner a mainstream audience by constantly throwing sexuality in the reader's faces. No, it has to be more subtle than that. Create characters that people can sympathize with, get to know and like for who they are, and let sexuality be a part of who they are, but not the whole enchilada. Change doesn't come easily and it doesn't come quickly. Sometimes you have to be subtle and come in the backdoor. Then before you know it, you've affected the mindset of a whole lot of people, and they in turn will pass it on to future generations, and suddenly it will just be, and people will wonder at the ignorance of people, as we make fun of those who thought the world is flat and that man can never fly.

Make your reader care even a little bit for your villain, even if he or she will never truly like him. Same with the hero. Give him a flaw, something to overcome, something to strive toward. It makes for richer and better reading, and characters that will live in readers' minds long after the last page has been turned.

Until next time, take care! I'm off to see Lawless, and no doubt I'll review it and give you my impressions!

♥ Julie

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