Advice for Young Writers:
By the Way, I'm Not Perfect
By Elizabeth Chayne
Copyright © 2009 by Elizabeth Chayne, All Rights Reserved
By the Way, I’m Not Perfect
By Elizabeth Chayne
Back in middle school, I went through a bit of a Superman phrase. A
superhero from another planet, with x-ray vision, the ability to fly and
superhuman strength—it was fascinating.
There were two things that irked me, though. One was his tacky costume,
the other was Kryptonite, or to be precise, Superman’s Kryptonite
Why, I wondered, would anyone create a superhero who wasn’t super all
the way? Isn’t that the point of calling him Superman? Shouldn’t he have
perfect immunity to all weapons? How could the people
writing/drawing Superman failed to realize that very important fact?
So I set out to write a super story about a real superhero, one
who could handle everything and who wasn’t scared of rocks.
At first, things went great. My friends liked the stories and were
constantly holding their breath as the hero walked into one dangerous
trap after another. And they loved the way he could walk into a room and
knock out all the bad guys in a few seconds. He could turn invisible,
move objects with his mind, fly, and see through walls…well, those were
the powers I gave him to start with, but as situations got stickier and
stickier, I bestowed more and more superpowers on him to help him get
out of them.
Gradually, however, the stories started getting predictable. Everyone
knew that the hero would get away okay, so they stopped worrying about
him. And what happens when people stop caring about your main character?
Well, they stop caring about the story too.
Truth be told, it wasn’t only my friends who’d lost interest in the
super superhero; I found myself thinking it boring as well. What was the
point of making up elaborate traps for him to get stuck in if he was
going to walk away unscathed in a few seconds?
I’ve heard the same piece of advice from many sources many times over
since then: don’t make things too easy for your main character. Make
people work for what they want. Don’t make any character perfect.
Only when your characters are sweating will your readers start sweating
too. And when readers care about a character, they start caring about
the story you have to tell as well.
What does it mean to make a character sweat? Here’s an example. Say you
want your protagonist (let’s cal him John) to get from the wooden hut
where he now lives, to the palace to see the king about a neighbor who’s
stealing his [John’s] horses.
Yeah, clichéd tale, but bear with me here.
Now if all John had to do was get on a horse and ride to the palace,
there wouldn’t be much of a story to read. The whole thing could be
written on half a page of paper and still leave room for a drawing.
Obviously, something will have to happen to John between the time he
walks out of his front door and the time he walks into the palace.
You can use your imagination here. Maybe even before the journey begins,
John will run into the problem that he has no more horses to ride on, so
he must walk all the way to the palace. Another problem might be the
fact that he has no idea where the palace is.
And on the way, you can have him meet people who might not be what they
seem. A frog who’s actually a princess, or a serving maid who’s actually
a powerful sorceress. Alternatively, you can also make John run into
financial difficulties, or lose his belongings.
After you’ve thought out all these adventures for poor John, you have to
make sure that he makes wrong choices for some of the encounters. He
should not emerge unscathed throughout everything and anything that
happens to him; that would make him way too super to be good. Let him
get turned into a toad…it’ll be good for him.
John should not be Mr. Perfect Guy who knows all the rules (even if he
does know all the rules, he doesn’t have to follow all of them. And even
if he does follow all the rules, there’s no guarantee that everyone else
is also following the rules…) Make him worry about his fate; don’t hand
him the power to fly away from everything that looks dangerous.
The fun doesn’t have to stop when he gets to the palace, either. You can
make the king an evil tyrant who couldn’t care less about John and his
But wait! Who says John has to get to the palace? Perhaps along
the way he’ll meet someone and realize that having horses stolen isn’t
so important after all. Or maybe he mistakenly thinks that something
else is more important than his horses, only to discover that it isn’t.
Hopefully the above has given you some idea of how to make life hard for
your imperfect hero.
But—and this may sound confusing—making your character imperfect is not
the same as making him useless, because knowing he’ll mess everything up
every time is just as predictable as making him sail through everything
with perfect marks. If he is useless most of the time, give him a couple
of victories too, or let him have one thing he’s really good at. Or make
his silly mistake the right solution to a problem.
Whatever kind of character you create, make him or her human. Nobody is
perfectly perfect or completely imperfect. Everyone has their triumphs
and failures. Your characters shouldn’t be any different.
Being a Teenage Writer, By Lorianne Watts
Insightful essay written by a teen writer.