The world—and in this context, by ‘world’, I mean the part of it that gives writing advice—is full of articles discussing character motivations and choices. Why does your character do this and not that? Why did they press that button? Why did they fuck that guy? Why, why, why?
It’s a good question. As questions go, it’s one of my personal favourites.* But here’s my tweak: the reason your character has for doing stuff…it doesn’t have to be a good one. In fact, a lot of the time, it’s better if it’s not a good one. And by ‘good’, I mean ‘the best possible choice in the circumstances.’
Why? I’m glad you asked.
Nothing is more boring that perfection.** And boring characters kill stories like the cold, heartless assassins they are. So fuck the main character who makes good choices. We want to see them make bad decisions. Not bad as in stupid; I fucking hate it when a character makes an illogical, pointless choice for no reason other than the plot demands that it be made. But making decisions based on faulty logic? On emotional turmoil? Or, my personal favourite, making a choice because some less-than-attractive aspect of their personality demands it? Oh yes. That’s the good stuff.
We want to see their pettiness, their insecurities, their damage. Because that’s how we know that they’re just like us.
If you try and tell me that every decision you’ve ever made has been the result of careful consideration and logic, you’re either a liar or an android sent to spy on us by an alien civilization. Also, I hate you. And you’re probably boring.
No one wants to read The Adventures of Someone Who Thought Very Carefully About Everything, because that person probably doesn’t have adventures. Or, if they do, they’re the result of outside forces impinging on that person’s meticulously ordered world, which is less interesting than someone who goes out and does stuff on their own. Even if it’s bad stuff. Especially if it’s bad stuff.
I want to see your characters fuck their ex even though they know, deep down, that it’s a bad idea. But they’re having a rough day and there are meticulously boring assassins everywhere and they don’t know who to trust. And, sure, maybe the ex is a deadbeat with daddy issues and a killer robot sidekick, but damn it, they’re cute. And they still have that smile. And it’s been a really, really, really hard day. ***
Show us that: the moment of weakness, the lapse in logic, the choices that are made for all the reasons that we shouldn’t make choices. But we do. Every damn day. And sometimes they work out and sometimes they don’t. It’s the same for characters. Just keep them away from perfection.
*Along with “I wonder what happens when I do this?”
**Anyone seen the Lego Movie? There’s a reason the Kragle was the tool of ultimate evil.
***I kind of want to write this now.