In my experience, one of the trickiest things to manage in terms of character development is the issue of morality. Unless the character is autobiographical, then at some point your character’s moral compass is going to shift from your own. Will they be more honourable than you? Will they do things you wouldn’t dream of doing, and if so, how as the author can you navigate through the storyline without letting judgement creep in?
As a writer, I tend to lean toward the heavily-flawed character — they’re a lot more interesting in my opinion. I don’t want to read about the beautiful golden-haired girl, who has an unwavering moral code and — oh, by the way — is a mixed-martial arts expert, can bake up a storm, and sail a frigate in her sleep. Even if someone has done the wrong thing by her, even if she has twenty cruel stepsisters and they’ve kept her in a cellar for the majority of her natural life, I’m going to be gunning for the bad guys. I’m a bad guy kind of girl.
Am I a bad person in real life? Honestly? I’m boringly straight and aside from the odd white lie, my moral compass invariably points north. If there’s a fine print in terms of rules to follow, then I’m the girl who anxiously reads through the fine print and dots all the i’s, crosses all the t’s. Maybe that’s why I love flawed characters so much — they give me an outlet to safely explore their off-kilter world without having to relax the white-knuckle grip on my own. But here comes the problem. My characters get up to a lot of things I would never consider doing. These things range from low-grade humiliation of a vulnerable classmate, to entering premises in the middle of the night and “borrowing” things they shouldn’t. I feel bad just thinking about this stuff, but for my character, they wouldn’t think twice about it.
The main thing I’ve realised is that I can’t apply my own moral code to my characters. I need to step away and take a voyeuristic approach. When they are doing the questionable stuff they do, I’m a scribe, I’m simply recording the events as they unfold. That way, they are behaving as they would in the scenario. Not how I would behave in their place.
That said, I’ve realised there’s something else to consider: the reader’s moral code. Somewhere in the depths of our reader’s mind is the thought: “I can see why this character is behaving in this way, but the behaviour is wrong.” At some point, our belovedly wicked character is going to have to receive their comeuppance. If they don’t learn from their mistakes, they haven’t grown. My first manuscript is called: A Less than Perfect Transformation. Less than perfect, because my tearaway protagonist (who thinks she’s perfect, but is most definitely not) endures a number of indignities during the climactic scenes of the story. Why? Because she really needed a wake up call. At the end of the book, she’s still a work-in-progress but on her way to being a nicer person.
Another thing to consider is “the step too far” — when a character crosses the moral line to the extent their behaviour is irredeemable. The Silver Linings Playbook is one of my favourite movies of all time. I also enjoyed the book, but I didn’t LOVE, LOVE IT the way I loved the movie. Matthew Quick’s portrayal of the characters is probably more true to life than in the movie, but when I finished the book, I found there were two characters I couldn’t forgive. [Slight spoiler alert…] Tiffany makes the same error of judgement in the book and the movie, but in the book the consequences are so disasterous, I found I couldn’t emotionally invest in a future between Tiffany and Pat. In the movie, the consequences were very mild — I think that was a smart move on the part of the screenwriters. When the credits rolled, I was shipping Pat and Tiffany forever. I had a similar experience with Pat Senior. In the movie, Pat Senior is blinkered by his football superstitions, and that’s also used to great effect by the screenwriters. Football ultimately brings father and son together. The same level of resolution isn’t achieved in the book. That’s life, I guess, but I was left hankering for that Hollywood ending. Maybe a hopeful sign would have been enough. I finished Eleanor and Park this week (and LOVED IT). The ending wasn’t a “let’s wrap this up in a pretty red ribbon” finale by any means, but there was hope…
Anyway, these thoughts have been rolling around in my head all week. I hope they’ve been helpful. I’ll leave you with the music queen of flawed characters, Lana Del Rey: