Writing Matters #1 – Falling in love with the lead characters
We all love our creations. We pour hours and hours into thinking, imagining, and shaping our heroes/heroines. They are the us we are not. They are smart, daring, at least a bit more attractive than us, they grow up emotionally so much faster than us!
And so, very often we also fall in love with our leads. Like dotting parents, we show off how caring they are, how bright, how funny. We tend to forget, nobody likes someone else’s bragging. We may be awed by God, but we are fascinated by the humanity of the Devil.
That “perfect” hero/heroine, which we KNOW everyone else will love as much as we do, becomes a major drawback to the enjoyment of the novel. A good editor will let you know. A smart writer will follow that advice.
Why does this happen, and why is it important?
First of all, this is a common issue. We use our imaginations to create alternative versions of reality because, at some level, we are “missing” elements in our experience. Once we have an alternative, the only limit for our creation is the one we set up. Thus, our main characters become an improved version of ourselves. We give them all that we wish we had. We want to be perfect, so perfect our alter egos will be where we fall short.
While this is acceptable in an initial draft, it should be trimmed later on. We must remember that what we write if for others to read. Others who need to identify with the heroes/heroines in order to shift realities, for a bit. So yes, we all want to be beautiful, rich, smart, successful, desired, you name it. And we can identify with a character who is superior to us in one, maybe two of its characteristics. The problem arises when the superiority is all-round. In that instance, the reader cannot identify with the hero/heroine. Instead, they will feel so different, they will either create no empathy (and with no empathy, they lose interest in their success in the story); or they will feel inferior to the point of jealousy (thus getting frustrated with their successes, perceived as lacking in merit).
Examples at work
We all know Harry Potter, don’t we? I think this is a perfect example of how a character, which could have it all, is so wonderfully lacking as to be appealing. Yes, he is a wizard, surprisingly powerful, from a very illustrious lineage, unknowingly wealthy, even. None the less, what makes the reader relate to him is his glasses, his awkwardness with girls as he grows up, his laziness to study, his wrong choices throughout the series. Harry may be an amazingly powerful magical being from a parallel reality, yet he is human because he is flawed. That’s why we can identify with him, hero and all.
A subtler example, for those of us who have read Pride and Prejudice, is the difference between Jane and Lizzy. We are much more drawn to Lizzy because she is so much more imperfect. Beautiful, loving, gentle Jane is the ideal – even Mr Darcy can only find one flaw, in that ‘she smiled too much’; whereas Lizzy is opinionated, ‘not handsome enough to satisfy [Mr Darcy]’, and nearly ruins her own life with her self-importance. That’s why she’s an effective heroine, remaining effective for centuries. That’s why her remake, as Bridget Jones, was such a resounding success.
How can you make sure your work avoids the trap, or how to fixed it?
As I mentioned above, it is fine for a first draft to have a perfect lead character. It can even be expected. However, it is best to try and avoid it from the onset. Otherwise, the perfection characteristics will embed themselves so deeply into the narrative, they might become essential to the plot later on.
To avoid/fix this pitfall you should:
- have a very detailed image in mind when you start planning/plotting the story. Look at each perfection characteristic, and decide how relevant it is to the plot as a whole. If it is not essential, you might want to delete it, or even tone down. Do they need to be millionaires in the most expensive part of town, or can you get away with just mentioning they live in a house? Do you need to mention the house at all, when they can simply get home and get something from the fridge before sitting on a sofa?
- have good betas while you write. Make sure they are honest enough to tell you when they feel disconnected from your hero/heroine, and why. You could have a questionnaire with a specific section dedicated to how they like/dislike the character, and why.
- leave enough wiggle room in the draft to accommodate the guidance from your editor. They give it for a reason, and don’t tell you to trim and change your manuscript on a whim.
Love your hero/heroine like a good parent: giving them space to grow and mess up, so you will all have stories to laugh about during holiday meetups.