There are times when the simple route is an appealing one. Our protagonist characters make good decisions, and good things happen. We project ourselves into the lives of our heroes, orienting ourselves towards making brave, clear-cut decisions that yield beneficial results for everyone involved. It keeps the narrative straightforward and our protagonists squeaky clean.
If you’ve spent any amount of time in the real world, you know things are never that simple.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which if you haven’t seen, you should do yourself a favor and find to watch. There are no big bad villains to face, no world-ending threats, not even anything I’d call massively contrived, save for the science at the heart of the conflict. Still, you can overlook the contrivance because of the film’s focus on its characters, the choices they make, and the regrets that emerge as a result of those choices.
People face hard choices every day. Decisions need to be made in the name of survival, protecting those most precious, and preserving one’s self in the face of negative emotions, aberrant thoughts, or unwanted influences. People wrestle with their own demons in an invisible war that only manifests in their choices, and in the casualties left behind, in broken hearts and scarred souls. Not everybody comes out unscathed. Sometimes, nobody wins at all.
Your characters should not be any different.
The best characters, the one that truly engage with an audience, are identifiable as people, rather than ciphers or caricatures. And people make hard choices. People make mistakes. People pursue lines of flawed logic. And people can be corrected, adjust their courses, and try to make better choices in the future. It can be painful. It can be costly. It can haunt people.
The more you show this, the better your story will be.
Your characters don’t have to be perfect. Their choices don’t have to be perfect, either. It isn’t just slaying monsters or saving worlds that make our characters great; sometimes, overcoming one’s own obstacles and insecurities is more heroic than any of those great deeds. Let your characters confess their weaknesses. Let your characters accept responsibility for transgressions. And let your characters forgive those they care about who’ve wronged them. It will make the audience think, nod, cheer, and maybe even find a piece of themselves within the narrative that they can take home.
They’re your characters. The choice is yours.