How are your characters mad?

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As we humans have the capacity to imagine a different future, many of us are actually two people. Yes, really. There is the ‘me’ you see in the mirror. Perhaps that ‘me’ is a little chunky, having a bad hair day, wearing yesteryear’s styles. Then there is that ‘me’ in the future who is fit, gorgeous, well dressed, and would never stand in the middle of the kitchen eating a full carton of double chocolate ice cream at two in the morning.

Self-help books assume that we can make decisions about the things we care about and stick to them. Those books forget that each of us is a tich mad. Our self-control isn’t there when we need it, our talents never meet our expectations, our ability to design our lives is frequently a fantasy.

As Adam Phillips says in his book, Going Sane, “Madness is equated with loss of control, which is equated with doing forbidden things; sanity, on the contrary, is law-abiding, makes sense, and is equated with self-possession.” When, truly, do any of us really feel ‘self-possessed’?

We live in an age when the ground is shifting and the foundations are shaking. Each of us has reasons to be insecure. Self-possession is much treasured but rare asset.

Add to this that we understand how time works and that one day,we’ll be dead, even if we pretend this isn’t so. This impending death hits us in the face at times and makes us a little crazy. Somehow, each of us has to find a way to cope.

When the ground shakes we scurry into religion, work, alcohol, drugs, exercise, art, popular culture, the news of the day, the rules and regulations that make the world work, environmentalism, politics and more. These things ‘busy’ us and keep us entertained as time passes. We convince ourselves sometimes that if we are good enough and wise enough that we will live past our death. We will leave the world a better place. We will have left a legacy.

What does this mean for you as a writer?

When sitting down to write, the natural tendency is to create characters out of our hopes. The future ‘me’s of your imagination. That is, characters who are better than ourselves. Trouble is, there is nothing for a reader to explore in this imagined perfection.

Why wouldn’t someone else want to explore your ideal world? Well, readers don’t go into a story to learn about you, the writer. They go into a story to learn about themselves.

The good characters of dream writing always do what they’re supposed to, are never surprised by themselves and never have a moment of indecision. These ‘good’ characters come off as featureless, bland and fake. Readers have highly attuned radar for spotting fakery. “Who could be that good?” they ask themselves as they drop your book.

Plus, if a character is totally good, why do they need to change? If there’s one thing I see in manuscript after manuscript, it’s characters who are ‘perfect’ and thus, have nowhere to grow. Without a place to grow, there’s no story.

The great characters of literature are far from perfect. Can you recall one “good” character who has memorable lines?

Just like you, great characters are struggling with their sanity. Like us, they may pretend not to be struggling, but they are. Think of King Lear, Hamlet, Withnail, Dexter.

What does Hamlet sees when he looks in the mirror? The reason hell tells Ophelia to “Get thee to a nunnery” is because he has such a low view of himself (and all men). He is full of loathsome, sinful, ambitious and revengeful thoughts, and Ophelia would be better off in a nunnery than marrying any man. See full speech, below.

Readers connect with characters that are struggling because they see themselves. They are looking at a mirror, not a mirage. And when they follow a character who is struggling, it helps them to figure out the challenges they are facing in their own lives.

Hamlet: 

Get thee to a nunnery: why wouldst thou be a
 breeder of sinners? I am myself indifferent honest;
 but yet I could accuse me of such things that it
 were better my mother had not borne me: I am very
 proud, revengeful, ambitious, with more offences at
 my beck than I have thoughts to put them in,
 imagination to give them shape, or time to act them
 in. What should such fellows as I do crawling
 between earth and heaven? We are arrant knaves,
 all; believe none of us. Go thy ways to a nunnery.
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3 thoughts on “How are your characters mad?

  1. I was actually just reading an interesting discussion on Absolute Write about whether the MC in a story always has to change or not. The end result of the discussion seemed to be that it depended on the genre.
    http://www.absolutewrite.com/forums/showthread.php?t=268195

    That being said, in a genre where change is expected, an MC who is so perfect that change literally cant happen (even though it should) is sometimes referred to as a Mary Sue or a Gary Stu. As you said, it’s the author’s best version of themselves — perfect, beautiful, never making huge mistakes, always saying the right thing at the right time, etc…

    …and as you put it: “featureless, bland and fake.” And may I add — boring!

    The trouble is, as with so many self-help books, the person making the mistake is usually the person most blind to it. It often takes a brutally honest beta reader to point it out, followed by the grief cycle: 1) she is NOT a Mary Sue! 2) you’re just being a hater! 3) Well, maybe she does need a LITTLE tweaking, 4) I’m a terrible writer, maybe I should just quit, 5) Okay, okay, maybe a major re-write is in order…

    And that’s for the writers who are hopefully taking an honest look in the mirror after receiving constructive feedback. Those who get stuck on 1 or 2 and refuse to look in the mirror, well, good luck to ’em!

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