Who is my favorite character? Luke Skywalker from Star Wars comes to mind. However, as I ponder this larger-than-life individual, it occurs to me he is actually an arrogant teenager. How about Andy Dufresne from the movie Shawshank Redemption? He is a stuck-up, distant, and know-it-all. Michael Westen from the TV show Burn Notice? See Andy Dufresne.
How about female leads? Joan Wilder from the movie Romancing the Stone? I would classify her as intelligent, strong, and a tad gullible. Lucy from the movie Lucy? See Joan Wilder. Princess Leia from Star Wars? See…
How about written characters like the John Wells? See Andy Dufresne. How about Jack Ryan from Tom Clancy’s novels? See…
I do not have a high opinion of my favorite characters, and yet I enjoy watching or reading about them. Where is the disconnect? In real life, people are deemed good by their positive qualities. Characters on the other hand are judged by their flaws.
For example, my father has always been a powerful figure in my life. He is smart, honorable and charismatic. Because of his endless patience, I have become a man with positive qualities. (Of course, my mother and sister are equally responsible, but we are discussing characters.) While my father and I had our differences, I would only describe him in a positive light. What if he was in a movie? Despite my high opinion, he would be an awful character. A good guy that does good. There is no imagination, drama or intrigue.
There have been many less than perfect people in my life. Let’s examine my former boss. He was a bright individual, but arrogant, and I left the company because of this flaw. (Side note. Within two years, three coworkers did the same.) However, I learned from his wisdom and use this knowledge often. I suppose I would not classify him as a truly bad person, but in a story, he would be the villain. His flaws too pounced and his victories were too mild.
In creating this blog, I took a step back to analyze my former boss. I think he could be a prominent character. There is a fine line between doing bad for good and simply being a jerk. He could have been a decent character in a movie with some tweaks.
The art of creating an excellent character is spinning the negatives into positives. In this same line of thinking, I had another boss, Steve. He was arrogant, overbearing, intolerant, and a protectionist. Yet, I would move mountains for that person. He indeed was “The Luke Skywalkers of Engineering.” The difference between my bosses was how they applied their negative traits.
So, how does an author create a well-remembered character? First, we have to set up boundaries. For example, the movie Star Wars. The two dominant factions were the Empire and Rebels. Naturally, the audience liked when the Rebel forces won battles. (Keep in mind that Empire soldiers needed to die to have a rebel victory. Thus, the Revels were not necessarily honorable.) However, in a typical company, the workers do not battle good and evil with lightsabers. Instead, the conflicts are one-on-one in meetings and emails.
Am I suggesting that directors cannot set a movie in an office? No, but there is a staggering difference between a character and a real person. Characters are larger than life, and so are their flaws. They need to shine when they succeed and tug at our hearts when they fail. The difference is the connection, which allows us to overlook the flaws. So, it is alright when Luke Skywalker acts like an arrogant teenager.
Let’s create a character like Luke Skywalker. My approach is to first look at the main plot from a high-level perspective. A leads to B leads to… When I have the basic outline, I mentally throw the characters in. The key is to think about how they are going to fail. Let’s first create an optical. The best types of obstacles are those which the character unintentionally makes. A well-thought-out poor decision is a perfect example. The readers see the thought process, the execution, and the failure. Then the resulting drama and effort to correct. Perhaps their arrogance silenced a friend's good idea and made the wrong decision? Nice.
As I fully develop the outline, the characters fall into place, and their flaws build the drama. Then their positive traits pull the hero’s through to the next scene. For the villains, it is the opposite. Their undesirable traits solve the problems, and their good qualities make the lead characters look bad.
In summary, positive characters need the perfect amount of space to let their flaws shine. As they overcome or recover from failures, their efforts cause them to stand above their peers. A touch of arrogance goes a long way, but it causes a horrible character if not applied correctly. I also prefer intelligence over luck and strength.
Should I end this blog with an arrogant message to “keep things real?” I am going to stand above that.
You’re the best -Bill
December 15, 2021
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