If there’s one thing I love more than anything in writing, it’s creating characters. As I post, I’m going to write a lot about certain elements of character creation, and to start it off I’m going to go into something I’ve seen a lot in my time as a beta reader and editor; people love to protect their characters.
Now when I say protect, I don’t at all mean from harsh situations. In fact, something many writers enjoy doing, to an almost disgusting extent at some points, putting their characters through horrible situations to make them suffer. There are times when I read through drafts of people’s work and every other second sometimes horrendous happens. That gets overwhelming, and I think people should learn when to lay back. No, what I’m talking about is protecting characters from themselves.
When I read more modern books, one of the things I notice is characters almost never do stupid things. For instance, in Harry Potter, I can’t off the top of my head think of a single, absolutely dumb thing Harry does. He’ll make mistakes, no doubt about it. He breaks rules, and he says things he shouldn’t, but his moral compass is always pointed towards good. He’s rarely selfish (though at some points Rowling tries to make him have his moments), and whenever he does do something that could be counted as stupid, it’s rationalized by the situation or it ends with him being right in the end. Like in the first book, he and his friends break almost every rule set down for them, but instead of being punished, they’re rewarded greatly.
Another example, one that might be more clear, comes from a friend who’s in the middle of developing a book series, and the two of us were talking about her main character and one of her choices. She and her brother join a group of bandits who end up being the antagonists of the story. At first it was the girl’s idea to join, but then the author kept trying to change it so it was her brother’s idea and the girl was hesitant. Then she tried to think of a way to rationalize her character’s decision, and I reminded her that people do stupid things.
The author was trying to protect the main character from making a stupid decision, and in a way, making her incapable of having real flaws.
Because let’s face it, humans do stupid things. Really stupid things. They say horribly rude comments about other people in earshot, they get into irrational fist fights, they don’t pay attention. It happens, and protecting your character from it doesn’t let them grow. Like, in the opening of my dragon story (which now has a name!), one of the main characters, Landon, is drunk with his buddies and they burn a house down. It’s stupid. It’s mean. It’s not an okay thing.
Guess what? It’s human.
When you’re writing the story, you know when the character is about to do something so mind numbingly stupid, and it’ll be your instinct to protect your baby from doing something idiotic, whether you realize it or not. But the character doesn’t know it’s stupid. Or maybe they do and they do it anyway. People will say to you, “how could you make them do something so stupid?” and your response shouldn’t be to rationalize. It shouldn’t be to explain exactly what your character’s thought process is. It should be, “they’re human.”
Do you guys ever protect your characters? I know I do sometimes, and I have to remind myself that I’m not their mother. Feel free to leave an example of something idiotic your character(s) have done, or when you’ve stopped them from doing something.