Does your protagonist have any imperfections?
I am not a perfect human being. I have a flattened spot at the back of my skull, no nose cartilage, and both my little fingers are a weird shape. If I was to start listing my personality flaws, we’d be here all day. And yet, I’m an attractive woman with a pleasant personality. My flaws just make me … me. There a millions of pleasant, attractive people on the planet, but my imperfections assist in creating my individuality.
The same should apply to your protagonists and antagonists and every other character in your narratives. A truly perfect protagonist lacks realism, and your audience will find it difficult to relate to them. A too perfect protagonist runs the risk of becoming a Mary Sue or a Marty Stu. Or worse, boring.
Don’t fall into the misconception of making their virtues seem like faults, because your audience are too intelligent to fall for that. It’s a bit like being in a job interview, when they ask you ‘What’s your greatest problem’ and you say something like ‘I can get too obsessed with getting everything right.’ Everyone around the table knows that you are not going to admit to having homocidal thoughts about any workmate who interrupts you while you are on lunch. But your readers should know that kind of detail about your characters!
I am currently updating my character profiles for my train book, now that I am nearly half way through the narrative. My characters have evolved and I want to keep their folders relevant. I just noticed that I haven’t really described how my main character looks in the text. Time to polish those flaws.
As I may have mentioned, I really enjoy watching a good villain. Villains always seem to have the most fun. The perfect example is Tamatoa from Disney’s Moana, who has the all the best lines and steals every scene he is in, while also having the best bad boy song ever. My only problem … as a zoologist, I looked at Tatatoa and immediately thought to myself “But most crabs moult. Wouldn’t that mean he would lose that love shiny shell every year?”
Nope. Juvenile coconut crabs do moult, and like hermit crabs, the little crabs wear scavenged shells for protection. However, as adults, they grow a tough outer integument. The coconut crab reaches sexual maturity around five years after hatching. but they reach their maximum size only after 40 to 60 years. They are fully terrestrial once they mature, and can drown if held under water for too long (hence Tamatoa living in an air bubble).
So Tamatoa could have grown to be huge, and he could be wearing a shell covered in treasure from one year to the next; even if has moulted, he could be wearing his old shell over the new one. These little details are important to me, even though giant singing crabs don’t exist. They certainly don’t have teeth!
So, why do I have to try and make sense of an animated character? Well, Tamatoa wasn’t the original form of the villain. It is obvious that the animators had done quite a bit of research of their own to come up with our glam crab. By knowing how they came up with such a charismatic antagonist might help me add a bit of that glamour to my own villains.
Table by Javier Zarracina for Vox
I read an article about Competent Sidekicks on Vox, and saw this table. I don’t completely agree with it, as Luke did blow up the Death Star, but Leia certainly gave him access to the Death Star plans and his torpedo-firing spaceship. But I do think this table makes a valid point; why do these competent women not get their share of the credit at the end of the day?
This cliche is as old as television. Look at 99 and Maxwell Smart. Smart was extremely lucky to be teamed up with Agent 99, as she did most of the thinking and the hard work while he got most of the credit. What made him survive was luck – not to be underrated, but it can’t be depended upon. Even in the modern reboot, Agent 99 has all the training and skills. Max and 99 are the extreme example of the trope, with Starlord and Gamora from Guardians of the Galaxy coming a close second.
This occurs quite a bit in literature too. So,how do I avoid this happening in my Steampunk novel.
Well, for starters, my protagonist is a competent woman. And – at the end of the story – she will be getting her credit and her reward. Yep. I finally figured out the reward that would make her happy … a free pass into Kew Gardens. For life. No restrictions. For a woman academic of the 1870s, that is like winning Olympic Gold.
So much more satisfying that marrying her off into a faux ‘happily ever after’.
Jonny Harris as George Crabtree
Two of my favourite television characters have a lot in common, even though they exist in two very different universes. Constable George Crabtree, played by Jonny Harris, is a science-loving gentleman with literary ambitions. Special Agent Timothy McGee, played by Seam Murray, is science geek & computer nerd who has literary ambitions. At one point, the literary ambitions played a major role in the plot lines of their respective shows. However, both seem to have abandoned the writing life.
Sean Murray as Tim McGee
Now, I was thrilled when these young men wrote their books and saw them published. Sure, they were given a hazing by their friends and colleagues, but they were successful authors! In both television series, their new status as authors played a part in the plots of several episodes. However, all that has fizzled out. If their books or writing careers are mentioned, it is only in passing.
Crabtree teaching a writing class containing L. M. Montgomery, the author of ‘Anne of Green Gables.
I think it is a shame that this aspect of their lives ended up put on the back-burners (so to speak). I know they are both characters in predominantly crime-fighting shows, but these shows have had decade long runs with plenty of time to build up the background and personalities of their characters. George and Tim just aren’t about their jobs. No character should be defined by just one aspect of a life.
From writer to action man?
Both characters were light comic relief at the start of the run of their shows. But these are characters that have shown immense growth and added maturity. I hope that ‘growing up’ didn’t mean that they had to give up their writing careers. Writing isn’t a kiddies’ game.
I’m hoping that they both still write, but have developed the sense to keep it from their workmates.
I am a short woman. Being short doesn’t stop a woman from being a protagonist nor does it stop her from playing a romantic lead. However, not the same can be said for male characters. You might be intelligent, strong, handsome, but if you are four foot – 1.2m here in Australia – you are unlikely to be the hero. You will be the comic relief, nine times out of ten.
The only protagonist I can think of whose short height wasn’t too much of issue was Stile from Piers Anthony’s Apprentice Adept series. It was recognised, but it didn’t stop him from being the protagonist and winning status and the love of the girl. I’m not counting hobbits or dwarves in this category, because they are:
- not human, and generally stick to romance with their own species;
- both males and females are of equivalent height;
- even when they are protagonists, they tend to be part of a group.
However, I will make special mention of Emperor Porridge (Emperor Ludens Nimrod Kendrick Cord Longstaff XLI), from Doctor Who, a human being, and defender of humanity and the imperator of known space. His lack of height was a pertinent point in the plot of the episode he was in (Nightmare in Silver), and yet Clara seriously considered his marriage proposal without any humorous asides. Let’s face it, he was attractive, and not because he was emperor … he had a sense of humour and was a sensitive, lonely soul.
Emperor Porridge from Doctor Who
This still doesn’t overcome the pervasive idea that a hero needs to be tall. You never hear anyone being told they are going to meet a ‘short, dark stranger’. Tall people get taken more seriously. I know for a fact that people tend to think my anger is ‘cute’ rather than ‘scary’, though I am just as angry as my taller female friends.
Being considered ‘short’ affects your overall viewpoint.
Art by Kate Beaton from Hark, a vagrant
My main character of my Steampunk novel is a seventeen year old girl called Alice. She is a polymath, and finds it difficult to gain respect and recognition for her inventions and education in the male-dominated field of science in Britain, in the 1870s. How you build a character should link back to your setting and plot. I am going to run though how Professor Alice was developed.
When I first had my idea for the novel, I knew it was going to be about a woman fighting against the established patriarchal restrictions built into the scientific society of Victorian England. So the fact she was female was a given. And she had to be tough and resilient.
She also needed to be rich. Alas, but only the daughters of the wealthy usually had access to a proper scientific education. A poor girl would be lucky to scrape enough education to read, write, and do figures. I made both her parents well educated, so that it was more likely that Alice would receive a better education than watercolours and piano playing. By making them minor nobility, it also gave me the opportunity to explore the class system of the Victorian era.
Now to pile on the negatives and increase her struggle. Red hair was NOT a fashionable colour in the 1870s, and was associated with prostitution and the lower classes. I didn’t want Alice to be a conventionally pretty woman. As well, I made her tall, in an era when small women were favoured over tall women (and I suffer from height envy – if I can’t be tall, I can at least write about tall women). In this way, she is visually striking without being considered beautiful, so that her looks would create uncertainty in social occasions. No hiding away like a wallflower for my Alice.
She was going to be having a lot of adventures, so she had to be fit and active. As well, she doesn’t wear corsets or skirts on a daily basis, because they restrict her movements and bustle skirts are simply dangerous in a laboratory. This would also add to the perception of her unnaturalness or Otherness in society.
When you look at characters in books, don’t assume that their appearance was just a random choice by the author. A small, brown-haired Alice with no money or education would not have been able to function within my plot.
Sometimes … the best characterisation is all about conflict and paradox.