Disclaimer: Blue Ink Alchemy in no way endorses or encourages the use of substances such as those described in the following post in excess or in lieu of healthier activities. It is important and responsible to use these or any other substance or activity in moderation to ensure as long and fruitful a life as possible.
It is also important to use moderation in moderation lest you become dull.
I’m not an entirely virtuous or pious person. I’ve got quite a list of character defects going. I’d like to think that I’m not a horrible person, but I’m no saint. I don’t exercise outside of walking to and from various train stations, I’ve never counted carbs or calories and some of my personal hygiene habits are a little disgusting. And even if I did all of those things and refrained from some of my worse habits, I’d still have flaws. I’m human.
The point I’m going to try and make is that your characters are human, too. It’s been said before on more than one occasion but it bears repeating. If every character you create is a squeaky clean paragon of virtue free of negative emotions, habits and experiences, your story is going to be boring. And if the character is ‘perfect’ even as disaster is occuring all around them, the character is boring.
When I get into the office in the morning the first thing I do (after disabling the alarm) is make a cup of coffee. Caffiene kick-starts my brain. It tends to be sluggish first thing in the morning. I’m actually writing this post on the train before my first cuppa and it’s been a stop-and-start procedure. In the same way, not every character is going to pop right up out of bed, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, ready to face the day’s challeneges or the monster of the week. Sure, a lot of young adult works are going to start this way, but a lot of young adult works are trying too hard. Ask any agent.
Caffiene, for all of its morning-abating qualities, is in fact a drug, and it’s highly likely that using it daily will cause dependence. On Sundays in particular I can develop bad headaches if I don’t bring some into my system using coffee or soda pop. It makes it difficult to concentrate; things don’t flow as they should. More than once I’ve actually had a similar feeling while writing. Things aren’t flowing as they should; the story is missing something. There’s a shot of narrative espresso that will get things back on track. Have you ever encountered this? Have you ever felt your creative gears grind to a halt, only to start back up moments or days or months later when a stray thought falls into place like a caffinated cog?
So here comes the stereotype involving writers and their booze. My liquor cabinet is a shambles, along with a great deal of my apartment, but a couple beers a week tend to find their way to me due to the charity of friends and the fringe benefits of being part of a community-minded cutting-edge start-up. I’m sure bottles of gin and scotch will soon grace my shelves again, but I certainly don’t expect my writing to improve just by them being there. Alcohol does, however, tend to illicit altered behavior, from fostering relxation to causing soft-spoken people to pick fights with strangers of imagined slights. Have you ever imagined a character of yours on a bender? Would they stumble around town? Hit on someone else’s significant other? Wreck their house in a sudden fit of rage? Curl up in a corner and weep? All of the above? The better your know your character and the more human they are, the more you can predict the results of a night on the town. How about when they get in a fight sober? Or get their heart broken? Or lose their job? Our flaws define our reactions and ambitions just as much as our dreams and strengths do, and our characters are no different.
I’ve broken out the tobacco pipe on more than one occasion, though my good one has a broken stem and I can’t find my super glue. I’ve had encounters with other substances, and like President Obama, I did in fact inhale. Experimentation is a part of growth, and a part of our wrting as well. Try something new, turn a trope on its head, change a character’s race or gender, kill your darlings and any witnesses close to them. In the worst case scenario, you’ll have to rewrite some words to undo any damage you’ve done to the narrative. As long as you learned something about where your work is going and how you ant it to turn out, it’ll have been worth it.
Your chararcters are living things, even if it’s just on the page. And for every strength they show to the audience, there should be some sort of weakness, even a fleeting one. For every virtue, your character should indulge in a vice. This will make your work more interesting to write, and increase the chances it’ll be interesting to read, too.