From time to time I get emails from new novelists, usually with questions about their characters. (We all know that I ain’t the person to call when you need help plotting or worldbuilding; I have enough problems of my own.) Usually new authors find themselves with one of two problems: either their character is a flat-out jerk and they don’t know what to do about it, or their character is literally too perfect to exist and they need to take him down a notch. I’m here to talk about the latter.
This can be a tricky beginner’s mistake (although you’ll see plenty of veteran novelists fall into it too because writing is hard, guys) – in creating your Hero (or Heroine) you create your biggest problem. Nobody wants to read about a Perfect Character, because nobody is perfect. Even the purest souls have issues. That’s what makes us interesting – that’s what gives people something to strive for. If your character has no faults to combat and no inner demons to fight, they might as well be a cardboard prop.
This is where the tricky part comes in, because by this point you know your character. You know what they’re about. You know they’re an honest, cheerful, optimistic idealist! So how on earth do you make them feel more…well, realistic?
Now, while I usually have the opposite problem (you don’t want to know how many lying, grumpy, pessimistic downers I have littering the ol’ brainbox) I have an ace up my sleeve that I pull out in times of need. Like King Arthur returning to save Britain from calamity, this hack shows up whenever I need a white knight to be just a little less shiny.
I call it the Reversal.
I lied. I don’t call it anything; I made that up on the spot. Just pretend I’ve always called it that.
Here’s how the Reversal works. I take my Flawless Character and study all his positive aspects. Let’s look at the traits I listed before, and how we can use them to give some realistic, in-character imperfections to our paragon.
- Honesty. Honesty is great. It’s something to strive for. Honest people can be trusted. But, as Captain Jack Sparrow said, it’s the honest ones you have to watch out for because you never know when they’re going to do something incredibly stupid. Maybe your character is too honest. Maybe they’re in a situation where they should probably lie to save someone’s life – but they tell the truth, because they can’t help it. This is a negative to their honesty, and could cause a lot of problems – particularly if your character is involved in any kind of undercover or espionage work.
- Cheerfulness. A little cheerfulness goes a loooong way. Maybe your character is so upbeat that it drives everyone else a little crazy. Maybe your character is so cheerful that they seem insensitive at all the wrong times. Maybe your character means well, but causes friction by accident.
- Optimism! Now, as a pessimist-turned-optimist myself, I know the pros and cons of both viewpoints. I think my natural inclination toward pessimism helps keep my optimism from going overboard, but for your character, maybe their optimism leads to making stupid decisions. Maybe your characters’ optimism has disastrous results – like leading someone into a trap by accident, or biting off more than they can chew.
- Ah, idealism. Your character wants to believe the best in people – which leads him to make some fairly stupid choices. He means well, but even the most intelligent person can make bad decisions when they see the world through rose-colored glasses. This is especially effective if other characters are following this character on his journey. In fact, that’s true for all of these aspects – when other fates are hitched to your MC’s, every decision is magnified enormously.
So you see the Reversal is self-explanatory – just take a positive trait and flip it! How could this positive trait cause a problem? What’s the downside? The best thing about the Reversal is that it works both ways. Say you have the aforementioned problem of your character being a flat-out jerk. Take his negative qualities and turn them upside-down – what are the upsides? Is your character bossy? They might make a good leader, if they could learn some people skills. It’s a simple but effective way to keep your characters three-dimensional while staying in character!