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Today’s guest is fantasy author Devin Madson! Her work includes We Ride the Storm, a finalist in the 2018 Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off; In Shadows We Fall, winner of the 2017 Aurealis Award for Best Fantasy Novella; and The Vengeance TrilogyWe Ride the Storm and the rest of The Reborn Empire series are being traditionally published with the trade paperback of the first book coming in June—but you can read the ebook edition of We Ride the Storm right now!

We Ride the Storm by Devin Madson Book Cover

Perfectly Shallow Characters

When we think of poorly written characters, it’s often the obvious things we focus on — senseless decisions, insufficient motivations, or in the case of female characters, boobing boobily down the stairs with their booby boobs. These issues are easy to see and often pull us out of a story, but sometimes characters feel flat despite having believable motivations and not boobing boobily around (no, I will never stop saying that), and it’s hard to put your finger on quite why that is. In my experience, the reason is almost always because of a subtle and insidious thing I’ll call social ideals. What that means is that, without even thinking about it, we have a tendency to create characters who conform to our society’s perceptions of perfection and purpose. BUT… as you are all probably well aware, many of our social expectations are far from realistic (see almost any magazine cover for examples of unrealistic beauty expectations).

I’m sure everyone can think of obvious ones — men shouldn’t cry, women must aspire to beauty, women shouldn’t be taller than men, women should be attractive but also sexually virtuous. In fact, female characters are particularly susceptible to being flattened in this way because our society puts a lot of pressure on women to be perfect. Not just perfect in looks (buy this cream and that makeup and you have no value unless you look like a cover model) but in behavior. Women have to be nice. Women have to smile. Women have to be helpful. Caring. They aren’t allowed to struggle. They have to have it all. Be it all. I could go on forever. But the point is, that this expectation for women to be perfect — whatever form that takes — often leads us to write female characters at the very extremes of any spectrum. Perhaps because to not do so risks the dreaded question ‘well why did it have to be a woman then? What was the purpose? The REASON it couldn’t have just been a man?’

(This is also why we so often hear the even more common question, but why are they gay/disabled/black, something something forced diversity something something, because for some people the social ideal they’ve absorbed from a lifetime of very white, very cis, very abled media is that those differences are just complications. To them, such a character has no place and would not exist in an ideal world thus can only be in the story if their identity has a clear narrative purpose.)

While that is, on its own, a whole other rant (and one I am nowhere near qualified enough to put into words), this concept affects the depth of all characters, not just in the potential lack of diversity, but in the lack of… let’s call it Messiness. Our society has no value for messy. Think about your Instagram or your Twitter feed. When you’re scrolling through your social media feeds and you see something pretty, most people are going to like it, while scrolling on past anything that doesn’t fit our social ideals — untidy houses, unattractive selfies, or even a miserable status update. BUT… if you consider the things you really click with on social media, it’s often the opposite. We may give our tick of approval to pretty pics and happy status updates, but they don’t touch us. Not the way someone’s all too real tweet about parenting might, or a friend’s emotional outpouring, or even the picture of a dirty house helping us feel better about our own lack of domestic perfection. We may not always hit like for these things (thank you social ideals), but they are the ones we feel more connected to because they are real.

Characters are like that. We have been socialized to a certain set of ideals and they have a sneaky way of making it into our writing even when we don’t want them to. Even when we think ourselves immune.

(As a side note, this concept is also why many characters get erroneously dubbed a Mary Sue/Marty Stu, even when they aren’t. Often those characters just have a very strong adherence to the prevailing social ideals.)

Most authors learn early that it’s unrealistic for their characters to be instantly good at everything, or for all of them to be remarkably beautiful, and that perfect paragons are a bit boring, but it can take a lot of honesty and self-awareness to truly embrace the Messy Character. The ones that wield the magic swords and fight the grand battles, but still have such complicated REALNESS that we can see ourselves in them, can really connect with their plights and their experiences. The characters who are capable of feeling two conflicting emotions over the one event, the ones who dither, who run out of spoons, who hit their ceiling on making decisions for the day and just want to lie down and sleep, the ones who know something is a really terrible idea but will do it anyway for a whole slew of complicated reasons, because objectivity is really only available to a detached reader, not someone living in the moment. These characters ugly cry, they get confused, they are sometimes impenetrable, and they experience the human condition in all the same complicated, inelegant and painful ways we do, and in being less ideal, less definitive, become more alive.

Most characters are written with flaws, but like when you’re asked about your flaws in a job interview, social expectations often lead us to state things like that we care too much and work too hard and that in fact our flaws are an excess of perfection rather than a lack of it. And in characters it’s often expected to be one obvious thing. But when I think about all the amazing characters I’ve read lately (Kalina and Jovan from Sam Hawke’s POISON WAR series, Dannarah in Kate Elliott’s BLACK WOLVES, and literally everyone in Tasha Suri’s forthcoming THE JASMINE THRONE, which is an absolute must read for messy, complex and painfully real characters) they all lack this single, easily definable flaw all heroes are meant to fight against and overcome, and instead have something far more valuable — muddy depths.

But of course, the ultimate struggle most authors have in writing these kinds of characters is reader expectations. Characters have to be active. Likeable. We have to cheer for them. We have to understand them. They have to be… perfectly formed and identifiable each in their own way. But the truth about real characters, as with real people, is that you don’t always like them, you don’t always agree with them, and you don’t always cheer for them, but they latch onto your heart in a way socially ideal characters don’t often do. These deep, messy humans in whom we see ourselves reflected are the ones, at the end of the day, we’d go into battle for.

Devin Madson Photo
Photo Credit: Leah Ladson
Devin Madson is an Aurealis Award-winning fantasy author from Australia. After some sucky teenage years, she gave up reality and is now a dual-wielding rogue who works through every tiny side-quest and always ends up too over-powered for the final boss. Anything but zen, Devin subsists on tea and chocolate and so much fried zucchini she ought to have turned into one by now. Her fantasy novels come in all shades of grey and are populated with characters of questionable morals and a liking for witty banter.