I had yet another writing epiphany while watching TV this weekend.
One of the things I struggle with is writing flawed characters. Readers tend to like my characters, but I don’t usually have big character growth arcs of the sort that are necessary to sell books to publishers these days, especially for younger readers. The last couple of projects I’ve sent to my agent, that was one of her biggest complaints, that my characters pretty much have it together at the beginning and don’t have much room to grow. They don’t make a lot of mistakes. When I look at most of my books, my character arcs are mostly about gaining confidence and learning to step out and take action, which works, but I seem to have gone to that well too many times, and it’s not very dramatic.
The other night, I was watching Beecham House on PBS. It’s a frustrating series because it’s beautifully filmed and full of potentially interesting stories, but it’s pretty dull. The series centers around an Englishman in India in the late 1700s who’s trying to build trade relationships outside the East India Company, and he’s competing with the French. He’s a widower with an infant son who’s the heir to a maharaja, and he has to protect the baby from the evil uncle who wants to kill him. His mother has shown up in India with a young woman as her traveling companion who she wants to marry her son (who is so not interested), and his younger brother is a soldier for the East India Company who’s embraced the local culture (in more ways than one), but who is kind of a wastrel. The older brother makes for a pretty dull hero because he’s practically perfect (just a bit dense in trusting the wrong person, but then he doesn’t have the advantage of having watched enough British television to know that guy is always the villain).
But then in the latest episode, the older brother has been framed and arrested, and the younger brother has to step up and deal with everything. I found myself thinking that the series would have worked better if the younger brother had been the main character, the slacker party boy who suddenly has to deal with everything when his practically perfect brother gets in trouble.
And that was when I had my “duh!” realization. The guy who has lessons to learn makes for a more interesting hero. He’s still smart and capable, and he actually figures out that the untrustworthy guy can’t be trusted, but he also has to make some big moral choices and go way out of his comfort zone. And I still like him, even though he isn’t perfect.
It is a bit easier to do this sort of thing on a TV show because the actor can make a big difference. I was prone to like the younger brother because he’s played by an actor I liked in something else, where he played the nice, smart guy, but he’s also got a lot of personal charisma. In print, you have to create that for readers without being able to rely on an attractive actor who may bring positive baggage to the role. Still, the hero who has to step up and go outside his comfort zone and overcome his own flaws to succeed makes for a better story. When I’m struggling with this in the future, I can remember this vivid example.
I keep having these breakthroughs while watching TV, so maybe I should go back to doing more of that. I’ve just about stopped lately, but everything I have watched has given me a big writing realization.