Making It Worse: Why Awkward Characters Are The Best

So, is this a good time to tell you that your scabbard is in a REALLY awkward place?

Awkward characters are the most fun to write.*

Here’s why: you’ve got a situation. Because you’re a writer, it’s probably bad. Some shit’s about to go down and everything stands on the brink of disaster. One false move, one inappropriate word, and the whole thing comes crashing down.

Having an awkward character there is like having a match when you’re standing knee-deep in gunpowder.

It’s all about potential. Awkward characters—and by that I mean characters who say or do the wrong thing at the wrong time, just like real people—are endless sources of complication, hilarity, tragedy, and things going completely pear-shaped. They’re like machines designed to make chaos.

Which, as a writer, is fucking great.

See, the best thing about awkward characters is that you never have to look outside for sources of conflict. They make their own, which is far more compelling than anything I can impose on them. Comets falling from the sky and invasions of Mole-Things from under the earth are way less interesting than a rookie fighter who, because of some broken wiring, can’t stop herself from mouthing off to the biggest, baddest necromancer around.

This isn’t to say external conflict isn’t good and, sometimes, necessary. It can also be fun. But if you’re looking to create tension, most readers instinctively cringe when a protagonist does something stupid. Because we know what it’s like. We’ve done that. Okay, maybe not giving the finger to the five-storey-tall rampaging mech, but we’ve definitely said the wrong thing to our boss, or our partner, or a cop. We’ve done stupid shit and had to reap the consequences.

And knowing that a character can do something awkward is a great source of tension: “Oh, god, Jimmy’s stuck in the middle of the horde of Bob the Bleak-Hearted, he should just give up, give up, Jimmy, don’t start talking again, every time you talk it goes bad.”

Whether or not Jimmy says what’s on his mind to Bob, the tension is there. People will read just to see how bad he fucks it up. He might not fuck it up, especially if this is the Last Great Confrontation and Jimmy has to get his shit together or destroy time and space. But the potential for fuck-uppery permeates the scene, winching ever tighter around the heart of the reader, until the sheer tension makes them want to throw up.

Writers: we’re bastards. Get used to it.

*Though, for me, not always to read. When I’m reading I love those knife-edged, grey area bastards like Harlequin in Myke Cole’s Control Point.

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