The Stars

The stars are bright and beautiful. Some are bigger than others, some a bit brighter, but in the end they're all stars. However, as much as we love them, stars aren't perfect – in the sky, in Hollywood or in a story.

Characters in a story should never be perfect. You know that saying, "Never say never"? Well, this is an exception.

"The absence of flaw in beauty is itself a flaw," Havelock Ellis. Think about that. Do you have any idea how annoying a perfect character can be? One that does everything right and says just the right thing at just the right moment and never screws up. When you meet someone like that – or rather, someone who acts like that – don't you just feel like beating that person to a pulp just in the hope that he or she will scar and thus have some sort of flaw? No? Hmm, well that might be because PERFECT PEOPLE DON'T EXIST. Ergo, you've never met one.

Actually, it's not even just perfection in itself that can be annoying. It's characters that are perfectly cliché that aggravate the most. Now, I understand that cliché, or stock, characters can be very tempting. They're easy to use, pre-developed and ready to go. However, unembellished stock characters should really just be left to short stories, children's fairy tales and badly cast teeny bopper movies. If you wish to use one in a more complex story, you need to make the character your own. Don't just say to yourself, "I need a malicious female antagonist for my heroine. She's going to be blond, slutty, rich, not very bright, etcetera, etcetera." The fact that you can say "etcetera, etcetera" is a HUGE warning sign. I'm not saying you need to plan out every facet of your character's personality before you even start writing the story – though rough outlines along the way wouldn't hurt – but just think before you make up a character. And do try to make him/her up.

Moving on to another point of characterization: you're doing more than just creating a present personality, you're making up a life. A person as detailed and complex as yourself – assuming you are detailed and complex and not just an empty-headed waste of meat. Who your character is, would be, if he/she were a real person, affected by their past and present circumstances.

Now, what I really detest when it comes to characters, is when authors simplify everything. The emo girl is the one whose abusive father left when she was three and whose mother is an unemployed slut on crack. The happy-go-lucky girl who gets along with everyone has a perfectly functional, loving family. Yeah, right. In real life, it's the other way around most of the time. The emo girl is a spoilt brat who has everything she could ever want, so when puberty hits and her hormones start acting up, making her cranky and moody, she can't find an explanation for it, so she just breaks down and screams, "No one gets me!" The happy-go-lucky girl's abusive father left when she was three, and the reason she's nice to everyone is because she knows what it's like to be hurt by another human being and doesn't want to inflict that sort of pain on anyone else. See how the characters already seem more complex? The more complicated the cause and effect, the more interesting and diverse the character becomes.

There's one character in particular that pops up in various stories. I call her Princess Sweetheart. Her age can vary, but she's rarely older than seventeen. People describe her in different ways, but she has big eyes – from the perpetual widening, you know – and she usually has long hair, and of course she's always very lovely. She's extremely naïve and doesn't seem aware that the people around her are pure evil. She's the sort of girl who you always find weaving daisy chains, or spending her entire adolescence caring for her younger siblings without complaint, or giving her father/mother a great big hug after a trying separation of two whole hours. At the age of seven, she read the entire unabridged version of Jane Eyre and understood every word of it, while sitting picturesquely next to the fireplace at the foot of her father's overstuffed wing chair. And she skips. Everywhere. I have the most delightful daydreams in which I stick out my foot while she's skipping down a hill. There really is no point to this paragraph; I just thought I'd introduce you to Princess Sweetheart, in case you haven't met her already.

Getting back to the point of developing characters: as with everything in writing, show, don't tell. I realize this might be confusing to some people, since we're talking about written stories and not charades. To clarify, what this means is allowing the audience to infer information about a character through the actions and words of that character and other characters around him/her. Don't just comment in the narration, 'He had a bad attitude, and everyone kept out of his way.' Describe it. The best writing is the kind that creates a high definition 3D picture in the reader's head. Describe how this guy makes his way down the road, glaring at everyone and everything in his sight, how his eyebrows are always drawn down in a frown, how everyone passing the other way looks down at the sidewalk and crosses the road just to avoid passing him. It's not wrong to just tell, and not show. This is known as direct or explicit characterization, and there's no rule saying that one can't use it, but truthfully, it's the easy way out and not as interesting to read much of the time.

So, bottom line, keep your characters real and believable. If you're up for it, you might want to try reading some of Tolstoy's work, as his characters are considered "some of the most complex and psychologically believable in fiction." (1)

(1) Frank Raymond Leavis, British literary critic