For Every Virtue, A Vice

Courtesy TuB gin

Disclaimer: Blue Ink Alchemy in no way endorses or encourages the use of substances such as those described in the following post in excess or in lieu of healthier activities. It is important and responsible to use these or any other substance or activity in moderation to ensure as long and fruitful a life as possible.

It is also important to use moderation in moderation lest you become dull.

I’m not an entirely virtuous or pious person. I’ve got quite a list of character defects going. I’d like to think that I’m not a horrible person, but I’m no saint. I don’t exercise outside of walking to and from various train stations, I’ve never counted carbs or calories and some of my personal hygiene habits are a little disgusting. And even if I did all of those things and refrained from some of my worse habits, I’d still have flaws. I’m human.

The point I’m going to try and make is that your characters are human, too. It’s been said before on more than one occasion but it bears repeating. If every character you create is a squeaky clean paragon of virtue free of negative emotions, habits and experiences, your story is going to be boring. And if the character is ‘perfect’ even as disaster is occuring all around them, the character is boring.

When I get into the office in the morning the first thing I do (after disabling the alarm) is make a cup of coffee. Caffiene kick-starts my brain. It tends to be sluggish first thing in the morning. I’m actually writing this post on the train before my first cuppa and it’s been a stop-and-start procedure. In the same way, not every character is going to pop right up out of bed, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, ready to face the day’s challeneges or the monster of the week. Sure, a lot of young adult works are going to start this way, but a lot of young adult works are trying too hard. Ask any agent.

Caffiene, for all of its morning-abating qualities, is in fact a drug, and it’s highly likely that using it daily will cause dependence. On Sundays in particular I can develop bad headaches if I don’t bring some into my system using coffee or soda pop. It makes it difficult to concentrate; things don’t flow as they should. More than once I’ve actually had a similar feeling while writing. Things aren’t flowing as they should; the story is missing something. There’s a shot of narrative espresso that will get things back on track. Have you ever encountered this? Have you ever felt your creative gears grind to a halt, only to start back up moments or days or months later when a stray thought falls into place like a caffinated cog?

So here comes the stereotype involving writers and their booze. My liquor cabinet is a shambles, along with a great deal of my apartment, but a couple beers a week tend to find their way to me due to the charity of friends and the fringe benefits of being part of a community-minded cutting-edge start-up. I’m sure bottles of gin and scotch will soon grace my shelves again, but I certainly don’t expect my writing to improve just by them being there. Alcohol does, however, tend to illicit altered behavior, from fostering relxation to causing soft-spoken people to pick fights with strangers of imagined slights. Have you ever imagined a character of yours on a bender? Would they stumble around town? Hit on someone else’s significant other? Wreck their house in a sudden fit of rage? Curl up in a corner and weep? All of the above? The better your know your character and the more human they are, the more you can predict the results of a night on the town. How about when they get in a fight sober? Or get their heart broken? Or lose their job? Our flaws define our reactions and ambitions just as much as our dreams and strengths do, and our characters are no different.

I’ve broken out the tobacco pipe on more than one occasion, though my good one has a broken stem and I can’t find my super glue. I’ve had encounters with other substances, and like President Obama, I did in fact inhale. Experimentation is a part of growth, and a part of our wrting as well. Try something new, turn a trope on its head, change a character’s race or gender, kill your darlings and any witnesses close to them. In the worst case scenario, you’ll have to rewrite some words to undo any damage you’ve done to the narrative. As long as you learned something about where your work is going and how you ant it to turn out, it’ll have been worth it.

Your chararcters are living things, even if it’s just on the page. And for every strength they show to the audience, there should be some sort of weakness, even a fleeting one. For every virtue, your character should indulge in a vice. This will make your work more interesting to write, and increase the chances it’ll be interesting to read, too.

3 Comments

  1. I absolutely agree. I wish I could say the pitfall of writers making their main characters the ULTIMATE PARAGON OF SUPREME BADASSERY AND PERFECTION didn’t happen often, but I see it on a daily basis.

    I see it on a daily basis because I used to be huge on play-by-post roleplay, where people assume the role of a single character and collaboratively weave a story with other player-controlled characters. I consider all these people writers because they enjoy writing and telling stories, and most also have dreams of publishing a novel.

    Unfortunately, four out of every five of these writers is too personally invested in the characters they have created. They want their character to be the most beautiful, the most talented, the most clever, and the list goes on. They fail to balance a single trait with any type of flaw; not so much as a mole or scar!

    I adore writing characters with flaws. I love having the plots influenced by the characters flaws. Someone with a bad temper and too much pride can make a very rash decision in the heat of the moment, come to regret it, but still refuse to back down from what they did/decided. That makes for some fun plotlines. What do you get with the “Perfect Person”? They’d either not make the mistake in the first place, or as soon as they did run off the apologize and fix everything promptly. There’s no tension or plot in that.

    So yes. Flaws are beautiful. They should be embraced, and used to the full. Flaws are what breathe life into your character, and make a reader care about what happens in the story. Flaws are what gives your character a heartbeat.

  2. I totally agree that flawed characters are more interesting. I especially think you make a good point about flaws defining reactions, I’d probably turn that round and add that if a flaw isn’t defining something about the way the character interacts with other characters or the world in general, it isn’t really a flaw, having a scar that everyone thinks is sexy is not a flaw, being ‘tempestuous’ (real danger sign that word) but somehow always being forgiven is not a flaw and so on, there need to be consequences for something to genuinely be a flaw.
    At the other extreme I’ve also run into some roleplayers and/or writers who love flaws to the point where they forget to give their characters any virtues, effectively turning them into entropy on legs or making them unlikeable to the point of disinterest. I guess I’m saying that balance is, well balanced, it’s in the middle.

  3. When I saw your title, I automatically added, “And for every vice, a virtue.” From my queries, it seems that many understand that protagonists have to be flawed (although with varying degrees of success in interpretation; clumsiness is NOT a flaw, people). Rather than perfect heroes, my query pile suffers more from utterly evil villains. They want to take over the world or destroy or kill for seemingly no reason other than to have the hero stop them. A person who is nothing but a bundle of vices is just as boring as someone who is a pillar of virtue.

    For me the ideal is when both hero and villain are so complex and varied that you could almost see their roles being switched. It’s harder to pull off, but being so drawn in to the villain that you want to hear their story, that takes the villain to the next level. (Darth Vader, anyone? While the execution sucked, it’s understandable to see why they wanted to create the story of Anakin Skywalker.)

    As for protagonists, I admit to being particularly partial to those whose strengths are also their weaknesses. Both Harry Potter and Harry Dresden have a “saving people thing” that can cause them to act rashly and end up hurting themselves and those they love. One of my authors has a book where the protagonist has a knack for inspiring people to follow her, only to have it lead to those people getting hurt. But I suppose that plays into my enjoyment of moral grays.

    At the same time, I like to have a sense of the character’s own moral code. In the TV series Veronica Mars, there are two major secondary characters feuding with each other. Logan is a rich kid with a rotten home life, and Weevil is a poor kid leading a biker gang. At one point, Weevil sets fire to Logan’s home, and in retaliation Logan sets fire to the community pool. The reason I loved Weevil and hated Logan was Weevil’s fire only harmed Logan, and he was sure that Logan wasn’t home before it was set. Logan’s fire made a whole community of innocents suffer. Of course both acts were bad acts, but the execution behind them is why I find one forgivable and the other deplorable. That, I think, is the key in working with your main characters’ vices.

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