by Beth Bauman
Spalding MFA Faculty, Writing for Children and Young Adults
My new favorite TV show is the HBO crime drama “The Night Of.” It’s tough and gritty and co-written by the inimitable Richard Price. I’m going to detour here and mention how at a New Yorker festival years back, I first met Price when he and another author gave talks about their writing. The first was affected and kept tinkling the ice in his glass in a soft, actorly way. He was sort of full of it. Price, on the other hand, bounded onto the stage when it was his turn, looking like he was wearing a pajama top. He looked at us and said, “Hey, did you know there’s a really good bar across the street?” Well, he had our attention.
Price can write, and he knows a good character. John Stone, his bottom-feeder lawyer played by the excellent John Tuturro, cruises the station house, looking for clients, and hands around cheesy business cards with the slogan “No Fee ‘Til You’re Free.” He’ll do anything to make a buck, he’s not much respected (except when he is), and he looks like a schlub in a dowdy trench coat. Not to mention he obtains evidence illegally and sleeps with his prostitute client. He also suffers from a terrible case of eczema and his feet, cracked and bright red, are often housed in Crisco, Saran Wrap and Birkenstocks. Worse, they itch like crazy and he carries around a chopstick so he can scratch. But he’s savvy and has good instincts, believing in the suspect despite the damning evidence. And he rescues the murder victim’s cat, taking it in and caring for it when no one else wants it, even though he’s highly allergic. John Stone is a lot of things—noble and not so noble, hungry, driven, a little sleazy and gross, self-effacing. He’s a fascinating mess.
I mention him because he’s everything a good character should be. He’s complicated and flawed. And while on the surface these things seem obvious and important to good fiction writing, my students sometimes struggle with the concepts, even as they recognize their truth. Too often virtue and nobility are traits students want to pin on their main characters, especially in children’s writing. I think they do this for several reasons, the main being that if the character isn’t intrinsically good then how will the story be any good. And/or if the character is flawed we won’t like him and then we won’t like the book and may even dislike the author. God forbid. So all this is to say that often I encounter the too-good protagonist with her full heart and pure thoughts. If she’s flawed, the flaws are minor and create shame and angst to the degree that they’re nearly cancelled out.
Here’s the thing: In fiction, only trouble is interesting. You have to give your character trouble and not just external trouble but internal trouble. You character will need to screw up. You’ll need to put obstacles in your character’s path, obstacles that are hard to take on. But even more important are obstacles that are hard to want to take on. Often the greatest antagonist is the self.
It works really well when a character has a flaw that works in harmony with your set up and themes. Take Harriet in the winning middle-grade novel Harriet the Spy. She’s fascinated by people, highly intelligent, and a budding writing committed to the truth; she believes in honesty at any cost. What this means is that Harriet has no filter and says a lot of pretty awful (but true) things about people, which creates the book’s central conflict. Fitzhugh, the author, gets much mileage out of this flaw and in the process makes Harriet maddening, colorful, and interesting, and more importantly, deeply complicated and real. When you set out to create your characters forget lovability. This doesn’t mean your character can’t be lovable. It means it shouldn’t be your goal. Forget about likability and lovability. Set out to be interesting. And real. And human. Likability and lovability will fall where they may. John Stone and Harriet, it turns out, are plenty likable. Consider too that sometimes we like people for their flaws, because hey, they’re just like us.
Let this be your character development motto: Thorns will be necessary. Remember, the world is inescapably complex and we’re all immensely vulnerable. We’re all an inexplicable (though wonderful) mess. So the next time your main character gets a little too noble, a little too righteous, give him a chopstick and get him scratching.
Beth Ann Bauman is the author of a short story collection and two young-adult novels. She’s the recipient of fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts and the Jerome Foundation.