|Image by C12|
So far, so good. But few writers are able to achieve this balance the first time they release their bucking bronc of a story out of the chute. Too often, we accidentally pile too much weight on one side or the other of the scale—and end up giving readers a skewed perception of our characters.
Let’s say your character is an average Joe, a cop who’s devoted to the badge, but who struggles to balance the tough realities of his job—particularly one failed assignment that got him shot and his partner killed—with the demands of his wife and kids. Now, you, as the author, know Joe is a very realistic, likable guy. He’s occasionally heroic, but also occasionally scared. For every day he’s sad about his partner’s death, he’s also hopeful about his son’s future. He’s sometimes angry with his wife’s inability to understand his job’s stress, but he’s also aware it’s his responsibility to be there for his family.
Too Good to Be True
There are many ways you might write Joe. At one extreme, in your attempt to show his heroic, devoted public servant side, you might leave out some of the weaker, less likable details of his personality and end up with a less than relatable, possibly even laughable version:
Joe put the good of the city ahead of everything else—always. He was just that kind of guy. He never complained, because he knew he had nothing to complain about. He’d capture the bad guys, save the world, and be home in time to tuck in the kids.
Too Bad to Be Bearable
On the other hand, you might be worried about Joe coming across as too good to be true, so you decide to focus on his problems, in order to make him more relatable to readers. This is an excellent plan. But you have to be careful not to turn him from relatable to pitiable. We want to present our character’s faults, but if we dwell on them too much, we end up with a character who screams “oh please, oh please, everyone throw a pity party for poor little ol’ me!” For example, if we were going to don our party hats and throw confetti in Joe’s honor, we might end up with a celebration that looks something like this:
Joe nursed the day’s fifth round of coffee and donuts. It was tough being a cop in NYC—and didn’t he know it? Or maybe it was just that he didn’t measure up. Why didn’t the commissioner just fire him and get it over with? He was a pathetic excuse for a cop. Pa-thet-tic. Hadn’t he already admitted to everyone that he was responsible for his partner’s death? While he was at it, he should probably admit he was also a pathetic excuse for a father. Of course, he didn’t have to tell his wife that. She already knew.Now if you’re using this paragraph to introduce a severely depressed character, this internal whingeing might not be such a bad thing. But what this paragraph does not do is give us a balanced character. This isn’t an average Joe struggling onward to be the best man he can be in spite of his circumstances. This is a man who’s blubbering hot, salty tears into his coffee.
When you write your story, but particularly as you revise, be on the watch for the balance that emerges about your character from the details you present—particularly his internal narrative. Balance means you present just as much good about the character as bad. Readers like characters with problems (yes, even the occasional blubbering cop), but they also like characters who climb to their feet after being knocked down instead of lying on the mat with their eyes rolled back in their sockets.
This is the eleventh post in the Most Common Mistakes Series, inspired by the prevalent slip-ups I run across in editing other people’s work. Don’t worry: I don’t use any names or specific examples from my clients’ stories. I hope the series will prove helpful to you in nabbing these mistakes in your own work—before an agent or editor nabs them for you.
Tell me your opinion: Have you ever gotten feedback that indicated a reader thought your character was more pathetic than you wanted him to be?
Related Posts: Keep Unlikable Characters From Alienating Readers
Are You Sabotaging Your Own Character?
Love Your Characters - Or Else!
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Story by K.M. Weiland