Shadow and Character, part I: why too good doesn’t work

Shadowgraphy-Art-3One of the main things I had to learn to write fiction was how to let the characters become themselves. This meant they had to be imperfect in their own ways, not necessarily in ways that I found acceptable. The problem with making them ‘acceptable’ and then ordering them around was that I got stuck every time they came to a dead-end in the story, which they did with increasing frequency the more I tried to ‘better’ them; I suppose they were trying to tell me something.

The dead ends in the story were my other big problem. Sometimes I got the ghost of a plot; but a ghost it stubbornly remained as long as I held the characters to an ideal of behavior. As it turned out, these two issues were related.

Learning to follow the characters took me years, and probably would have been easier if I’d realized that protagonists need to be flawed, as flawed as ordinary people, even if they’re extraordinary.

When I began to allow them freedom of movement, the characters stretched, grew wings and spread them – and then they flew, or crashed and burned, but at least they got to act on their own – and I finally saw that it is how the character develops that drives the story, and that their development is related to the character’s flaws and peculiarities as well as their sterling qualities. A character without any shadows, without any darkness or flaws, is flat. It’s like what happens with party talk – hard to know someone if you only see their party face. Which is exactly what happened with my own early stories. Since my own life was out of control and messy, I wanted to create an ideal self and her wonderful, orderly life on the page. (She would have amazing bone structure, a flat stomach, and she would never eat a whole bag of molasses cookies in one sitting. She would be so artistically talented and inspired that she would spend her days making art and selling it — through a gallery! — instead of feeling like a wannabe and doing secretarial shit-work to survive. Plus she would live in a top floor ‘flat’ with a bird’s eye view of rooftops and a body of water, in some fine city that was rainy and interesting, like London. Plus, if she liked a guy, he would like her too. He would think, as I did, that she was stellar.) But despite all the words I lavished on this character and her fulfilling, productive, important life…she had no story. All I could see was her perfect, frozen image, and no matter what kind of plot I dreamed up for her to perform in, she never danced. That’s the trouble with perfection; there’s no need for dancing, there’s no need for a story at all.

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