It’s Father’s Day as I write this, a gray rainy one in my neck of the woods. Normally, I’d be doing something with the kids today, but they’re out of town for the week (schedule issues, couldn’t be helped). So, I get some breathing space in which to ponder this particular observance.
I’m of mixed emotions about Father’s Day: I like the basic idea of it, and I enjoy spending time with my kids, even though I do it all the time as a stay-at-home dad. However, the Hallmark nature of its observance grates on me (and all the other holidays, come to think of it). On top of that, there’s always a twinge of sadness for me, as my dad has been dead for several years now, and nothing drives that loss home like holidays. Especially Father’s Day.
But, a tale of woe is not my intention here. As I said earlier, I have mixed emotions about the whole kit and caboodle, so if I were going to write something about Father’s Day—a personal essay, a poem, even a radio jingle—I would be forced to confront those various emotions in the writing, and as a result, I would expect echoes and touches of all those emotions to come out. This collection of nuance and shadings, I hope, would give a more fully realized picture than a one-dimensional portrayal. Doesn’t that seem logical? People feel more than one way about virtually every subject that exists.
So it should be with your characters, if you want them to feel and act like real people. People with binary views of the world may make for purity of purpose, but they’re rather dull outside of narrow applications, and frankly not all that interesting even inside those applications. It’s the impurities, the flaws, the flashes of other thoughts or feelings that create character shadings and quirks, and those make your characters human. A villain who is pure evil may look cool a la Darth Vader, but is basically only good for moving the plot forward, and that only mechanically if the reader thinks they’re just a device. On the other hand, a villain with flashes of humor, insight, morality or something other than malevolence can be something altogether more fascinating.
In one of the forums recently, there was some discussion of the Lord of the Rings films and how the heroes were portrayed. While it was generally agreed among the participants that the heroic focus was flawed (something carried over from the books, in my opinion), one thing the movies did right was to deepen the portrayal of Gollum. Driven mad by years of exposure to the Ring, he nevertheless retained enough of his humanity (hobbitanity? hobbitness?) to fight the compulsion to kill Frodo and Sam, and allow his grudging affection for Frodo to temper the overwhelming need to possess Sauron’s trinket. Gollum was more than just a cartoon evil in the films, and his eventual loss is all the more poignant for it.
It works for heroes, too. Pure good is just as hard to swallow as pure evil, perhaps more so given the fact that good is often the harder stance to maintain. A flawed hero is more interesting, because dramatic tension comes from struggle, and seeing a hero engaged in that struggle is inherently better narrative. It gives more character insight, provides more intellectual and narrative stimulation, and opens up more opportunities than a simple binary choice. This is probably more obvious since anti-heroes are the trend now; just about any popular series of books, from Harry Potter to Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels to the Dresden Files, features a hero who is, at best, struggling with personal issues. That’s a good move, because the regular people who read these books can more easily identify and accept someone with recognizable flaws and traits than they can a perfect, monochrome avatar.
My point here is that emotional complexity—the ability to feel or hold two or more differing viewpoints or emotions on the same subject simultaneously—is something that is common to all people, and as a result, it should be common to all your characters that are more than window dressing. Portraying that can be tough, especially if you’re working within the confines of a short story, but it can be done. All the things that we do to show characters and their construction—gestures, thoughts, words, actions—can be used to show this complexity, in minute detail or broad strokes. In doing that, we help grant these characters life beyond the page’s cold text, and make their travails live for the readers. That’s good, necessary magic, and something to strive for.