Characters: Unless His Name is "Jesus," He Should Mess Up
One of the first brilliant moments Editor Adair had was about five years ago, when TESS AND THE TRINKET was four chapters and a few sketches in a notebook. She took a look at Prince Christopher, the love interest for my protagonist, and said "This character is completely unlikable. And you know why? He's too perfect."
We realized that I was so distracted by Tess's storyline -- in which she makes mistakes and learns to look outside of herself in order to make up for them -- that I had forgotten to make other people in the novel just as real as she was. I was so focused on Tess's imperfection that her fiancé was like paper doll. This generically prince-y guy was certainly no one to root for, and why would the reader care if things got tense between them? He'd probably just take it like a paper doll would -- without much complaint.
"Perfect" characters doom the story, but I'm not saying your characters have to be overly nasty and selfish.
Here's how we perked up Prince Christopher to be the fascinating figure he is today (I flatter myself).
Behold, the way of the imperfect character.
1. Give the character a specific goal.
A nauseating catch phrase in the theatre world is, "What is your character's want?" I think I hated it even when I used it in directing classes. Why are we using "want" as a noun, people? "Desire" doesn't work as well? "Goal"? In improv, a much less pretentious (true of improv in general) word is used: mantra. All this means is, as the creator of a character, the first thing to do is to establish the character's priorities. Once the top priority is established, the character's choices become more focused and consistent. A character without a clear purpose, even if that purpose is to be purposeless, is a weak device in the story. And all things must serve the story.
So we gave Prince Christopher a goal: to lead his kingdom in a military renaissance. To him, the most important thing is to be proud of his kingdom, and he can't be proud of a kingdom that is so (to his mind) submissive.
2. Make the character's choices "flawed," rather than boiling an entire personality down to a single vice.
99% of the time, people are doing the best they can. What kind of a story depicts characters when they're just ... kind of trying? Maybe Russian short stories. But that's not the kind of literature young people need (in my opinion). Teenagers make big mistakes when they are trying their hardest. Either they are trying their hardest to avoid the right choice, or they are trying their hardest to make the right choice. Either way, if you want the reader to hope for the character's redemption, make the choice wrong and leave the person essentially good. People are not defined by their vices.
Oh, and every choice the character makes should, in some way, be informed by the goal you established in step 1. The mistakes can happen when the character tries to accomplish that goal in the wrong way.
(Prince Christopher decides to start a small militia on his own, and eventually convince his father to start up a respectable military when the time is right ... Oops; the time was right years ago.)
3. Have characters disagree for compelling reasons, and let the reader choose a side.
The ideas posed in your story should never be homogenous. Sure, you have your opinions, but they are given more credence when there is a reasonable voice that challenges them. The strongest ideas stand the test of time and argument. So, why not test the ideas in your book? Your imperfect characters should face dilemmas. When they do, have a very wise character explain to them what they should do ...
Don't do that. Let them wrestle with the dilemma! Giving the reader more credit is never a bad idea. If you don't present a solution right away, your reader might have to ... gasp ... think!
(Prince Christopher doesn't know with whom to share his covert activity, and Tess feels very strongly that she should be let in on the secret. Problem: Tess would not agree that Chris's efforts are worthwhile, and she might tattle.)
4. Rather than making your characters mess up over and over again (= irritating), let the characters deal with the repercussions of one mistake.
Yeah; like I said.
You know those animated movies that feel like one, very stressful, very loud chase scene? "Oh no! We are about to fall into the lava! Quick, jump into this boat. Phewf. Oh no! A lava monster! Quick, into that cave! Phewf. Oh no ...!" Ugh. Can't take it. This, to me, is the equivalent of reading a story where the character learns absolutely nothing from his mistakes and tries absolutely zero new strategies in order to accomplish his goal.
I'm looking at you, every angsty teenaged character ever.
(Chris's one decision to secretly teach himself the art of war jeopardizes his relationship with his parents, his fiancé, and his kingdom.)
5. Big mistakes change people.
Remember that one of the reasons that the story of Jesus is so compelling (maybe THE reason) is because of the weight of the human mistake. Through his works and teaching, Jesus lovingly pointed out how people were messing up. Both the hot shots and the losers were forced to face their bad choices head-on. More often than not, the former refused to recognize their choices as mistakes and therefore toppled, whereas the latter chose to renounce their mistakes and rose above.
Either way, we are fascinated by how people deal with messing up.
You know what's not a compelling story? Jesus came to Palestine and went to all the very good people, patted them on the back, and said, "You guys are doing great." No one would read that book.