Too cool for school? Five ways to real up your characters.

imageYou’ve all read the book whose protagonist moves ever so calmly from crisis to crisis. Maybe they experience the occasional pang of angst, but they never really need to do anything more dramatic about their problems than whip out the bastard sword (or the monster gun or ye holy guitar of rock godness or even their wand) and, y’know, lay waste. They’re together in a way that most of us aren’t.

From a reader’s point of view and the longer a novel goes on, this can be deeply alienating. No, we don’t always pick up fiction to read about someone as flawed and messily chaotic as the person falling apart, one cubicle over, from our desk at work. Most of us prefer to have a little bit of space from slow-motion drama explosions, real or fictional. But coolness, while it’s superficially attractive, is also distancing. It breeds remoteness. If someone is too cool, they become untouchable.

How do you find the balance between admirable and accessible? Here are five things you can check within your own writing:

We feel what they feel. Maybe Tyrion Lannister’s problems aren’t our problems (and for that, hooray!) But when his big sister’s carrying on about how she hates him for taking their mother’s love away, and why can’t he just die… well, what younger sibling hasn’t felt a shade or two of that? Tyrion’s an unlikely character, living in a shockingly hard-to-navigate world, but his sibling problems unlock a path into relating to him.

They snap when we’d snap. Behaving badly is part of character and there’s an art to choosing the moments when your mostly-nice characters devolve into rampant asshole behavior. (And, on the other side of things, the points where your evil ones experience those humanizing instances of benevolence.) Push them hard. Give them the emotional resources to put up with a certain amount of adversity, because few of us like a shrinking violet. Let them play it cool for awhile if that’s their thing… but at the point when any sane human being would break down, lash out or overreact, make it epic.

They have crimson or raven tresses, just like yours! Also: flashing violet eyes, adamantium manicures, bracing personal hygeine and an apostrophe in their N’Ame. No. I’m lying. That was a trick. The reason we like Harry Potter, if we do, probably isn’t that lightning scar. It’s the bravery, loyalty to friends and–for me, anyway–the fact that he hauls his ass in to work every day. Sure, work in this case means surviving and prevailing over he who can barely be spelled, but I dig perseverance.

Here’s one that’s crucial: they give a demonstrable shit about other people. I’m reading Fran Wilde’s Updraft right now, and there’s a crucial turn where her heroine believes she’s succeeded at something her best friend has failed at. And she’s happy for herself, and even takes time to celebrate, but she also spends a significant amount of time and energy thinking about ways to help that friend pick himself up off the not-ground and get back to his life.

They take risks. Sure, there are whole books about scaredy-cat wimptastic emotional basket-cases, guys who are so busy worrying about doing their job perfectly that they never ever extend themselves to make contact with another human being, but they are written by Kazuo Ishiguro, and the rest of us are probably better off not trying to emulate him.

Part of putting yourself in a fictional character’s shoes is believing you can fill them, and that is vastly more possible if they experience the range of human behavior, the noble and the petty, the humorous and the pathetic, the mundane and the glorious. No matter how awesome your characters are, let them break pattern now and then; give them a chance to be just like us. We’ll love them all the more for it.

Exquisite Words

Here is the lovely chapter one opener of Louise Marley’s The Brahms Deception. (The book has a short prologue, too.)

Roses spilled over the garden wall surrounding Casa Agosto, blooms of scarlet and pink and white blazing against the pale stone under impossibly bright Italian sunshine. Below the village of Castagno, forests and fields glittered faintly, as if washed in gold. Here and there, grapevines stretched and twisted in long, straight columns. In the valley beyond, a brown ribbon of road meandered along the blue line of a narrow stream. The Italian hills looked like bolts of dark green velvet, rolling gently from the ancient hilltop where twelve houses, each named for a month of the year, clustered along cramped streets. The houses were tall and narrow, trimmed with window boxes and surrounded by small gardens. Saints’ niches pierced the outer walls, their tiny statues nestled amid offerings of tiny nosegays or bunches of herbs. In the garden of Casa Agosto, the branches of an ancient olive tree drooped to the grass, heavy with unripe fruit. A wooden bench, painted with a rustic scene of wooly lambs in a green field, nestled in its shade.

It was all real, Frederica reminded herself. Everything was real. Except for her.

What I like in this is that it’s classic scene-setting. We get an abundance of imagery, an opportunity to really see Casa Agosto, and to get a feel for what it–and by extension–the tone of the novel are going to be like. We get color and romance, we get two separate mentions of Italy, in case the first one goes past too quickly, and the way the first paragraph is structured also tells us that Casa Agosto itself is important. It’s not some random house the characters are going to pass through and abandon.

And then we get a Question, in the form of Frederica and her musings about her unreality. If the setting itself isn’t enough to engage us, we now get something to be curious about. It’s as though she’s let us look around before taking our hand and leading us into the scene.