Vision: A Resource for Writers

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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 weakness.

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 horses.

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.

Further Reading

Being a Teenage Writer, By Lorianne Watts

Insightful essay written by a teen writer.