Author Bill Blais: Behind the Scenes of Writing: Creating Character Traits

Behind the Scenes of Writing: Creating Character Traits That Matter

Written by Author Bill Blais

What are the most important traits a character needs to help a reader care about them?

Oh, that’s easy: Flaws. Am I done now?

Okay, so it’s not quite that simple (gotcha, Annabell!), but the basic idea is true for me. I like characters who can (and do) fall down, but only — ONLY — if they refuse to stay down.

Yes, Superman (at least in his original incarnation) is strong and good and just and there’s a lot to be said for this kind of clear-cut virtue, but really, it’s hard for me to empathize with someone who is ‘perfect’. There was never any doubt that he would succeed, so there was no real concern to hook me. Okay, he had weaknesses, but they could be counted on two fingers: Kryptonite and Lois Lane. The former was external and about as empathetic as me saying I have a weakness to bullets. The latter was a much stronger and more compelling weakness, but even then, there was never really any doubt about their relationship (again, I’m not up on the recent ‘versions’ of Superman, in any medium, so this may no longer apply, but I’m old and stuck in my ways, so too bad).

Now, I’ve mentioned elsewhere that Boromir {Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien} was the first adult fiction character who spoke to me as a fully realized person, and the reason was two-fold. First, it turns out I’m a sucker for a good death — a rather morbid fact that has no origin or source in my own life or experience that I’ve ever been able to discover — and Boromir’s ranks at the very top for me. The lone warrior defending the weaker charges, despite his certain knowledge that he could not outlive the fight. Just writing about it now gives me goosebumps. Seriously.

But the real power of Boromir’s death came not from how he died, but was the direct result of his character arc; particularly, his flaws, including pride, arrogance and, most prominently, his weakness toward the One Ring. Without this last tragic turn, he would have been largely indistinguishable from Aragorn, the upright, virtuous, un-swayable hero (the Superman of Middle Earth, if you will). Boromir was a great warrior in his homeland and heir to the Stewardship of Gondor, but he had to come face to face with his own weaknesses before he could become a great man. Sadly, in his case, that recognition did not come until the very end of his life, and this is what makes him such a tragic character.

Now, I have spent considerable detail describing what I like in characters (on the page or on the screen), but does this really apply to most readers? Well, I can certainly hope so, because those are the types of characters I’m intrigued by and tend to write about, but I also think there’s some evidence to support this.

Imagine, for example, if Sydney Carton, the cynical, alcoholic barrister from A Tale of Two Cities, had kept to his dissolute ways and left Lucie and Charles to deal with their own problems (far better for him / far worse for them)? Or if Charles Darcy had not been so consumed by his over-developed sense of pride (a much shorter and far less-interesting story)? Or, to try a totally different tack, what if Rocky Balboa never got knocked down or lost a fight (this is why there were Rocky movies, not Drago movies)?

It’s my belief that these stories are great stories (okay, with the notable exception of Rocky V ), for the very weaknesses their characters contend with. These weaknesses make them give them depth and allow us to connect to them. Though, as I said before, in each case it is critically important that the weaknesses do not define the characters. Charles Darcy is remembered for his pride, yes, but loved for overcoming it. Sydney Carton is recognized as self-centered, but his place in literary history is cemented by his final selfless act. Rocky is Rocky not because he keeps getting knocked down, but because he always gets back up.

We are human and therefore fallible, so if our heroes are only perfect, they are unattainable and distant, objects of unquestionable awe and wonder, but not of empathy and in the end, I think this only makes it less likely for us to see ourselves as heroes in our own lives. I cannot imagine a greater tragedy.

So here’s to weakness (and overcoming it)!

Thanks so much to Annabell and Open Book Society for having me here, today, and for the excellent topic. Now that you’ve listened to me blather on about what I think, though, I’d love to hear your opinions. Agree? Disagree? Am I on crack? How could I put Rocky in the same paragraph as Pride and Prejudice?

Author Bio: Bill Blais is a writer, web developer and perennial part-time college instructor. His novels include Witness (winner of the Next Generation Indie Book Award for Fantasy) and the Kelly & Umber urban fantasy series. Bill graduated from Skidmore College before earning an MA in Medieval Studies from University College London. He lives in Maine with his wife and daughter.

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Twitter: @onemoredraft