I’ve Been Freshly Pressed and You Can Be, Too

On Monday, I got an email from WordPress:

Hi there Pat Bertram,

Congrats! We’ve picked your post ( https://ptbertram.wordpress.com/2012/08/13/a-perfect-grasp-of-storytelling/ ) to appear on Freshly Pressed on the WordPress home page.

We really enjoyed your well-written, sharp, and succinct take on perfect characters, unbalanced worlds, and good storytelling in general, and we know the rest of the WordPress community will too. Your post will appear on the site in the next day or two, so get ready to welcome your new readers.

Once your post goes live, shout it from the rooftops! Tell your family, friends, and readers to check out the WordPress home page, and share the good news with your social networks (we’ll do the same).

Most importantly, keep up the great work. To boost your blogging prowess even more, check out “So You Want To Be Freshly Pressed” ( http://en.support.wordpress.com/freshly-pressed/ ) for tips on everything from enhancing your theme to becoming a grammar guru, and visit The Daily Post ( http://dailypost.wordpress.com/ ) for pro tips, blogging challenges and more.

Thanks for making the internet a more interesting place!

***

The post appeared on Tuesday evening. This was the third time I’ve been Freshly Pressed. The other two articles that made the WordPress front page were I Am a Three-Month Grief Survivor and I Am a Six-Month Grief Survivor.

All three times, the honor came as a surprise, but the truth is, I had prepared for such an eventuality by following the guidelines in “So You Want To Be Freshly Pressed.” Until I read that article, I’d never used photos in my posts. I’d also over-tagged and over-categorized (though that doesn’t seem to be something they care so much about now). On the off chance that the WordPress editors would notice my little corner of the blogosphere, I cut down to no more than ten tags and categories combined, and I started adding an image to my posts. (That became an art in itself, taking the perfect photo to accompany my words.)

I’ve always aimed for typo-free text and eye-catching headlines, but I don’t always have a strong point of view. (I don’t much like contention.) Apparently, though, I’ve managed to strike the right chord with the WordPress editors three times, and you can, too. Just keep blogging. If you write it, they will come.

A Perfect Grasp of Storytelling

I don’t know who started the whole “characters need flaws” concept of writing, but whoever it was did a disservice to the writing industry. People keep saying that perfect characters are boring, but the way I see it, there are no perfect characters, only writers with an imperfect grasp of storytelling.

A story begins when the normal world becomes unbalanced. In A Spark of Heavenly Fire, the normal world of Colorado became unbalanced when a deadly disease decimated the population. In More Deaths Than One, the normal world of the main character became unbalanced when he found out the mother he buried twenty years before is dead again. In Daughter Am I, the world of the main character became unbalanced when she learned that the grandparents she’d been told had died before she was born had just now been murdered. In Light Bringer, the world becomes unbalanced in a variety of ways, each POV character experiences his or her imbalance, and the nearing of an unknown planet literally unbalances the earth.

A story continues with the characters’ efforts to restore the balance. These efforts result in a worsening of the balance, either in a ripple effect of actions, such as when Jeremy King decided to do anything he could to leave Colorado in A Spark or Heavenly Fire or when everything the character learns deepens the mystery, such as Bob Stark’s search for himself in More Deaths Than One.

A story ends when the balance is restored, a new balance is attained, or the world remains out of kilter. My books all fall in the middle category — things never go back to where they were, but the characters and their world do establish a new balance.

Without this unbalance, there is no story, and within this unbalance, characters change.

Which brings me to the point I want to make about perfect character vs. imperfect understanding of storytelling.

If you create a perfect character — a gorgeous woman with a stunning figure, perfect hair, smart, successful, athletic, kind, talented, knows how to do everything, has no addictions — that is merely the beginning. It is what authors do with such a flawless character that shows their writing skills. For example, if the character always remains the same perfect character in balance with her world, it is not the character’s fault that her perfection is boring. It is the writer’s fault for not unbalancing the character’s world.

A gorgeous, intelligent woman who can do anything is only spectacular in the presence of lesser beings. What happens if she is thrown into a world of people exactly like her? What would she do to preserve her self-image of being extraordinary when all of a sudden she is ordinary? How would she reestablish the balance in her world? For example, a high school cheerleader/student body president/valedictorian goes to an ivy league university and discovers she is just one of many such achievers. Or a stunning and talented young woman enters a beauty pageant, expecting to win the crown and scholarship and a boost to her career, and finds out that she isn’t anything special. Or a perfect human being ends up in a robotic world of perfection. How would she prove that her perfection was natural, that she was a human and not a robot?

Sounds to me as if in the write hands, such a flawless character would be . . . perfect.

Creating Characters Who Burst From The Page Into Readers’ Hearts

Yesterday I wrote about The Flaw Of Flawed Characters and how the oft repeated advice to create flawed characters is itself flawed. The best characters are not flawed, but are those facing terrible dilemmas who are forced to work against their strengths. If they have a lot of knowledge, they are most compelling when they need to act without being able to use the knowledge, perhaps using logic, intuition, or snap judgments instead. If they have armed services experience or strong physical skills, they are most interesting when forced to use their minds and wits. If they tend to be serious, they are most fun when forced to rely on their humor, or vice versa.

Besides having characters work against their strengths, you can make characters real by taking their positive character traits to the extreme. For example:

Caring about and caring for other is a positive trait, but taken to the extreme, such characters could become bossy, thinking they know what is best for those they care for.

Confidence is a positive trait, but taken to the extreme, the character could have a hard time acknowledging another point of view.

Creativity is a positive trait, but taken to the extreme, the character could be impractical, or the character could be insensitive to others’ needs when they are focused on creation.

Being outgoing is a positive trait, but taken to the extreme, the character could be flighty or superficial.

Being introspective is a positive trait, but taken to extremes, the character can become self-absorbed.

These extremes are not flaws. They are simply different shades of human behavior. What about your characters’ negative traits? Turned on their head, such traits can become positive. For example:

Fear is generally considered to be a negative trait, but fear can be turned into caring if the character is fearful for another.

Anger is generally considered to be a negative trait, but anger can be used to propel a character to accomplish great feats, particularly if the character is trying to right an injustice.

Even if negative traits can’t be turned into positive ones, they can be used to raise the stakes for your character. For example, a timid character who overcomes his timidity to accomplish a daring feat is much more real to us than an adventuresome character who takes such feats in stride.

The important thing to remember when creating characters is that there is a broad spectrum of human behavior to choose from. You do not have to rely on superficial, trite, or boring flaws to create a character who bursts from the page into readers’ hearts.

The Flaw of Flawed Characters

I cringe every time I see authors brag about their “flawed characters” as if that’s a good thing. Apparently, somewhere along the line, writers were told not to write perfect characters but to give them flaws, and so writers everywhere are assiduously flawing their characters. Well, they are wrong.

There is no such thing as a perfect character. If a character can do everything, meet every challenge the first time, and do it all without damaging a single hair on his/her head, the only thing perfect about that character is that it is perfectly boring, which makes it far from a perfect character. Adding flaws to such a character only compounds the problem, making the character not only boring but trite. Aren’t you sick of the cynical detective struggling with a drinking problem? Or the overextended single mother struggling with the rebellious teenager? Or the lonely person struggling to find love but who is too stupid to see the love disguised as a friend or even enemy? Well, you might not be, but I sure am.

The best characters are not flawed characters, but those facing terrible dilemmas who are forced to work against their strengths. If they have a lot of knowledge, they are most compelling when they need to act without being able to use the knowledge, perhaps using logic, intuition, or snap judgments instead. If they have armed services experience or strong physical skills, they are most interesting when forced to use their minds and wits. If they tend to be serious, they are most fun when forced to rely on their humor, or vice versa. Anything else is just cheap.

One thing most people say about my main characters is that they are real. And guess what? There isn’t a flawed character in the bunch. Not a single character drinks too much (okay, Kid Rags in Daughter Am I might tipple, but he never gets drunk or lets his drinking get in the way of business). Not a single character cheats on his or her spouse. Not a single character is mean. Not a single character makes stupid mistakes. Not a single character is self-absorbed. (Well, Jeremy King, the world-renowned actor in A Spark of Heavenly Fire is focused on himself, but that isn’t a flaw but the personality trait that makes him a great actor.) Not a single character gets into fights just for the sake of proving how flawed they are — all the fights are to protect themselves or others. Every character acts to the best of his or her ability at all times, and if the best isn’t good enough, they get better.

Instead of flaws, my characters have character traits. For example, in Daughter Am I, at first the hero Mary Stuart tends be a bit of a pushover, going with the flow because she simply doesn’t care enough about the outcome of any situation to fight over it. When she makes the decision to find out who her grandparents were and why someone wanted them dead, she becomes almost obsessive in her quest, even going so far as arranging a meeting with a notorious hit man and various other shady characters. And when she finds something to care deeply about — the octogenarians who accompanied her on her journey — she becomes steely in her determination to protect them at all costs. Are these traits indications of flaws? Of course not. They are indications of a true-to-life character grabbing her destiny with both hands and going along for the ride. Flaws would only get in the way.