Thursday, June 26, 2008

Wimpy Characters

By Heather Moore

Have you ever picked up a book and stopped reading because the character was too weak, wimpy, or just simply lame? How can we avoid this in our own writing? Please note: a flawed character is different from a wimpy character.

In Jack Bickham’s The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes he points out that the most interesting characters are the ones who are risk-takers (21).

So what defines a wimp? The character who won’t fight, who retreats from conflict, who is indecisive, who sits around passively, who whines . . .

Of course in real life we are surrounded by exactly that. But as Bickham says, “Fiction isn’t reality . . . it’s better.”

Recently I had someone tell me that the boyfriend of my main character made her seem wimpy. Overall her character was good, but that boyfriend-aspect had to go. He was the controlling type and she was letting him control her. So I cut him. My character had to be strong enough to not let anyone have so much control over her.

Wimpy characters slow the story. They are not action-oriented, and action is what you need to move the story. This doesn’t mean that every character has to be a character like The Rock, but he needs to be goal-motivated and active. Yes, he might be scared or intimidated, but he needs to act regardless.

The character must have a goal, large or small, and be determined to reach it. Bickham says that it’s vital that your story must have the following (23):
1. Something has changed
2. Your character is threatened
3. He vows to struggle
4. He selects a goal and starts taking action toward it.

Examine all of your characters and find where they are passive, where the story slows, where nothing happens. Your character needs to actively walk toward his goal.

As a reader, don’t you care more about a character who doesn’t sit around and wait for something to happen, a character who will not give up no matter what, or a character who will determine his own destiny by taking action?


Don said...

OK, so can weak, wimpy passivity be the character flaw that is overcome in the end? I'll have to ponder this some more.

Tamra Norton said...

Great info, Heather. I once picked up a book (it was a sequel) and in the first chapter all the main character did was cry. I closed the book.

I've never even considered if my characters were wimpy, but these are great points!

Annette Lyon said...

Don, I'd lean toward no on that one, because the reader is unlikely to hang around long enough for the character to overcome the flaw. A plot where a character only reacts isn't engaging to read. Unless you manage to find a great spin on it and the character is forced to act early on or something.

Heather B. Moore said...

I agree with Annette. Every book should start with a character at a point of change. That change can be having to take action, even if it's against the character's nature. So if your character is passive naturally, he/she will still have to be action-oriented to move the story along. THE GOOD GUY by Dean Koontz comes to mind. The main character isn't looking for trouble, hanging out in a bar minding his own business, when trouble comes to him. And even if he isn't naturally inclined to take action, he is compelled by his conscience.

Kimberly said...

The Hobbit is what comes to mind for me. Poor passive Bilbo Baggins, thrown into the thick of it and being forced to act.

Some fabulous insights here, Heather. I'd never given it much thought. And considering I'm currently working with a very passive natured main character, it's something I really need to be wary of.

Pink Ink said...

Hi Heather. I agree; I noticed that in my stories, when the characters are becoming too wimpy, the story drags. When I have them say or do something brave, the story sizzles.

Curtis said...

I'm not an expert on the subject, but Don, I feel like there are certain books where weakness can be a character flaw that can be overcome and that the journey toward that discovery can be an intriguing element in the story. I do believe, however, that it takes a lot of work to create a character that is likable enough to want to share that journey with. It really depends on how the story is told.

To make a long comment short (too late), I don't think that it's a set-in-stone rule, but that exceptions should be few. That's my two cents, anyway.

Annette Lyon said...

Curtis, that's a pretty good way to think of almost any writing rule--not set in stone, but exceptions should be few.