I Heart Sketch Bags: Writing Broken Characters

Totally not sketchy.

Everyone I like is a sketch bag.

Not my friends—at least, not all of them. Friends, you know who among you is a sketch bag, and rest assured if I haven’t beaten you with a sock full of nickels yet I probably find it endearing—but my fictional characters. Some people gravitate towards the Captain Americas and Supermen of the fictional world.* I am not one of them.

No, give me your broken women and fucked-up men, your people that fall down over and over again. Give me the ones that fail.

It’s a little too fucking trite to say that I like those characters because they remind me of myself. It’s a little too small, as well, because the truth is that they remind me of people. Because people mess up so much. The ability to fail—to fuck up, to make bad choices, to identify the right choice but still make the wrong one—is a compelling character trait because it reminds us of ourselves and everyone we know. We’re all a mess, in some way or another, so characters that reflect that are more believable.

But there’s a flip side to the sketch bag character coin, and it has a name: redemption.

We need characters that fuck up because we need to them to redeem themselves. You can’t redeem someone who’s already perfect. They need to be damaged before they can be fixed. And they have to fix themselves. It can’t be a case of some other character swooping in to solve the problem. That is annoying as hell and makes me want to set the book in which it occurs on fire. No, whatever is messed up, they have to untangle that ball of yarn on their own. Other characters can help, offer advice, maybe supply that crucial piece of the puzzle when it’s needed. But in the end, the character has to choose.

A compelling fucked-up character is one that makes the wrong choices a lot, but when it comes down to the wire, they choose right. Even if it hurts them.

This may result in new problems and emotional baggage and scars. That’s fine; change isn’t always good. But the character should be moving. Fuck ups who remain fuck ups in the same way are boring. Fuck ups who change are not only interesting, they are believable. And, hey, like the rest of us, they can always try again.

*Even in the RPGs I play, I’ve only ever played a lawful good/principled/fill in your system’s term for the quintessential Good Guy here character once; it was in a short campaign and I mostly played it for the lols.

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