I realized the other day that many, if not most, of my pet peeves in writing can basically be summed up in a giant lump category of “characters who are written badly”.
I realized two and a half seconds later that just leaving it at that is only fractionally more useful than announcing that I don’t like bad writing. Not because “bad writing” is an invalid marker to place on something, although it would be interesting to get into a debate a la Dead Poets Society about whether or not such an objective judgement can be passed. It’s more that saying “I don’t like bad writing” is a little bit like saying “well, days where I’m in a lot of pain are worse than the ones where I’m not.” Yeah, and …?
So in the spirit of being not only accurate but useful, I’ve been trying to break down what it means when I think that a character is being badly written.
My previous post on context took a look into one way that characters can be crippled by their writers. This time, I want to look at another problem otherwise awesome characters can find themselves afflicted with: the Problem of Application. I don’t really have a rule for this, some specific way to avoid committing this error as a writer the way I did for the last one. If I stumble onto some convenient trick I’ll come back and add it in, but for the moment all I really have is the oh so helpful “think before you write!”.
Well, maybe being aware of a problem is the first step to resolving it.
Life is complicated. No amount of preparation is going to be able to set you up with exactly the right knowledge to handle every specific situation you’ll ever encounter; that’s why schooling is so much about teaching people how to learn, giving us the tools so that we can be equipped to find the solutions to problems we don’t even know can exist until we run headlong into them.
Far more important than the ability to handle any one specific situation, then, is the ability to take what we know from the rest of our lives, extract the parts that can be relevant to what we’re dealing with now, and piece them together into a working framework to apply to strange new dilemmas.
A lot of characters in fiction seem to have skipped class the day this was taught.
Instead of using basic reasoning skills, any number of otherwise intelligent characters will look at a new situation and freeze up when confronted by the unfamiliarity. Sometimes, of course, this is reasonable: someone from a small farm in a township that functions mainly on a barter economy probably won’t have much of a concept of interest, and the local peddler in a fishing village can’t really be expected to understand the finer points of taxi etiquette.
But it goes beyond that. I’ve lost track of how many times someone from a fairly smalltown environment finds themselves in a more urbanized setting and can’t understand why they’re not allowed to just waltz right in and talk to the chief of police, or the president, or some other high-level official. A seemingly-competent adult leaves their small community and finds – oh, the horror – that here in the big city we sometimes have to ally ourselves with people we personally dislike in order to advance larger goals. They seem shocked to learn that sometimes, favours come with nasty costs, or that sometimes people do unpleasant things and it’s just business.
So, what? Am I supposed to believe that these people have never faced similar situations before?
Did the mayor of the local village never tell his assistant “I’m sorry, Henry, I’m busy with important things, anyone who wants to talk to me will have to wait until later this afternoon”? Has no one in their rural village ever had to present a unified front with the horrible neighbours to convince the local officials that yes, there really is a crime problem and yes, it’s really worth bringing in a constable? Have they never received “help” from a friend or a relative, and then turned around a month later and found themselves caught up in some passive-aggressive guilt trap?
No, none of these situations are quite the same as being told you have to take a number to see a clerk to make an appointment to see the secretary to make an appointment to see the Vice President’s second cousin, or having to smile and shake hands with the wife of the man who ordered his troops to withdraw rather than coming in to save your village from the evil dragons. There are bound to be differences, both in specifics and in scope.
But that’s part of life! Part of growing up is learning to accept that the things you thought you knew as a child (your parents know everything, summer days last forever, you have to finish your vegetables) aren’t quite as immutable as you’d first been taught. As people, we learn to adapt. That we don’t do it perfectly, that some of us are better at it than others, doesn’t change the fact that it’s a fundamental part of human nature.
It’s that, more than anything, that makes the “Character learns that sometimes life is complicated and that they can’t just get everything they want” seem so tedious: because most of the time, the character is already clearly well aware of that in pretty much every other aspect of their lives!
Watching a character I’m supposed to like or respect struggle with the fundamental concept that cities have bureaucracy, or that politics involve some people who aren’t nice, doesn’t give me a sense of struggle or legitimate frustration. It just smacks of an author who wanted some tension and couldn’t come up with a real conflict. The problem with undermining a character that way is that instead of offering an opportunity for actual growth, we’re left in a situation where the best we can really hope for by the end of the point of tension is for the character to have worked their way back to their previous level of competence. I’m not proud of them if they succeed, just wearily relieved that they’re done being idiots. And if the author screws it up and they fail, there goes one more character I used to like.
Life is frustrating. New situations are scary. There are plenty of ways to shake things up when characters are surrounded by the unfamiliar. But really, if your character is flustered by a bit of red tape, how are they going to react when it turns out that the local general store is secretly run by demons? You only get to pull the same trick once or twice in every story, don’t waste it being lazy.