A few weeks ago, I got a bad review. It happens, and even when, as is the case with this particular book, it happens a lot less than the positive ones, it’s still unpleasant.
But that’s not what this post is about. It’s about why he hadn’t liked the book, because being a character-driven author (as you probably know very well already) I could not conceive that some people actually thought that way, and, as an author, you really can’t afford to.
The reason why he didn’t like the book was that he didn’t find it realistic that my main character, Alex, could possibly have low self-esteem if he had a superpower; that if he (the reviewer) had a superpower, he would always feel good about himself.
If you see the inherent flaw in that logic, congratulations! You’re probably used to writing well-rounded characters.
A lot of people think that if they had just the one thing they desired, then their life would be perfect, and they would have no more troubles. Fortunately, most writers understand that there’s more to life than that, and that having the one thing you desire seldom fixes your entire life.
Real people have lots of things that are above average; smarts, looks, money, physical prowess. But nobody’s life is perfect, and nobody really sees themselves as a perfect, flawless human being, and no matter how greener the grass seems in someone else’s yard, they have their own problems too.
Sometimes, these problems come from the past. Childhood can be a pretty scarring time, if you have the misfortune of going through trauma in those formative years. Take Batman, for instance; if he hadn’t been through the trauma of witnessing the murder of his parents, he might have been satisfied with having all the money in the world. But everyone knows that’s not the way it turned out.
Survivors of abuse like Alex very seldom have a good image of themselves. When the people who are supposed to love and support you unconditionally spend the better part of your formative years hurting you and yelling at you, it becomes very hard to form a positive image of yourself; you often have a hard time believing you have any worth at all, much less something that is better than most people have.
But one does not need to be a survivor of abuse and trauma like Alex is to have problems such as a self-esteem issue. In real life, there are a lot of beautiful girls with eating or self-harm disorders; extremely financially successful people who are unable to really connect with another human being; smart, inventive people who are trapped in abusive relationships; amazing athletes who have no confidence in their own intelligence because they’ve always been told it “wasn’t their strong suit”; there are so many common examples that it would be impossible to list them all.
So is it so hard to believe that someone that has a superpower could feel unintelligent because he has only a fifth grade education? Worthless because of the abuse and trauma he suffered as a child? Helpless to provide advice and emotional comfort to those around him, because he has such little confidence in his own intelligence that he can’t even seem to be able to talk to girls? Having a superpower has very little bearing on any of those things.
So when you’re creating a character, remember; things aren’t all white or all black. Life isn’t perfect, and it’s rarely all bad. It has ups and downs, and all characters have things they’re proud of and things they don’t feel so good about. They all have their qualities, but they all have their flaws too!
By the way, this isn’t the first time I have posts on characters; it isn’t even the first time I have a post on the fact that characters shouldn’t be perfect, so if you liked this post, you might enjoy two earlier ones on creating believable and relatable characters, and the first one I wrote on the subject, on writing well-rounded characters.
I’ll also leave a link to a tool a lot of people have enjoyed in the past; it’s an exercise called the character questionnaire, that you can fill out to really flesh out the personality of your character. You can find it here!
Alex Winters is the main character of my current ongoing series, Family by Choice. Book 2 of the series is due to be released March 8th.