Monday, January 30, 2012

Characters: Wishy-Washy to Tyrants

Characters are the life blood of good novels (and movies). If characters are dull, unresponsive, passive little creatures, readers won't care what happens to them. If readers don't care about characters they won't want to read about them.

Normally, we wouldn't want to use a wishy-washy character as a protagonist. They're too inactive and boring. However, if our wishy-washy nobody gets pushed past a breaking point or challenged by something she absolutely must respond to, she just may be able to reach down inside and become the bold, assertive person she's always wanted to be--and the kind of character readers are eager to care about.

Michael Douglas' character in the movie "Falling Down" comes to mind as an example. He's a nobody who gets pushed too far and turns into a tyrant. If his set of life circumstances hadn't changed him into a more intriguing character, movie viewers wouldn't have cared what happened to him.

I'm not suggesting we need to make our dull characters into psychos or violent antagonists, but, certainly, we can help our lukewarm characters to find the strength they may not even know they possess.

Rocky Balboa, Sylvester Stallone's famous character in the movie "Rocky," is someone who lacks confidence, a nobody fighter who purely by luck is given the chance of a lifetime. While the public thinks of Rocky's "challenge" to fight Apollo Creed as a joke the meek Balboa takes this opportunity very seriously and turns himself into a skilled fighting machine. He reaches down and finds the guts even he may not have known he had and wows everyone with his prowess in the boxing ring. No one is laughing at Balboa anymore by the time he's finished his fight with Apollo Creed.

If Balboa would, instead, have done nothing to prepare for the fight and merely walked around bragging about what a good fighter he must be simply because Creed had chosen him as an opponent, who would have cared what happened to Rocky?

But people did care about Rocky--they cared so much, how many movies made up the series? :-) Way to go Stallone!

In my #1 bestselling historical romance "Change of Heart" (set in 1850s Nebraska) which you can download for free at major Internet bookstores, the protagonist is a librarian from Chicago who's just lost her job. Worse yet, she gets news her dear sweet sister and her husband were killed in the wilds of the Nebraska territory. Marietta had been so frightened of going to Nebraska, she never once in five years visited her sister, even though she missed her terribly. When her five-year-old nephew is orphaned, she is compelled to face her fears and go to Nebraska to collect the boy.

So meek Marietta endures the hardships of travel in the 1850s and makes her trek to the horrible, wild frontier to fulfill the wishes of her beloved late sister.

Her worse fears are realized when she becomes trapped on the frontier. She has no choice but to endure her terrible circumstances. But meek Marietta doesn't give in to her fears. Instead, scared as she is, she finds courage she never knew she had, and she does what she needs to do to take care of herself and her nephew.

Marietta grows in a very believable way from a wishy-washy woman who could barely manage her own life to a strong-willed, courageous woman who is finally able to make a clear choice of just how she wants to live her life.

Protagonists must be strong, distinct characters who are up to meeting the challenges of the inciting incident in a story--even if they appear weak or dull (like Marietta or Rocky) before the inciting incident occurs.


Fran Shaff, Award-Winning Author

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