The Power of Gray

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking of what I like. What type of fiction do I enjoy? Now, in some way this flies in the face of the rules of being successful. It seems that so much of the advice in terms of how to be successful is to write towards a given market. To look at what has been proven and to create in that vein.

That has been a problem for me. Don’t get me wrong. I am by no means a rebel or pushing the boundaries. As much as I wish I were a radical artist whose genius recreates genres, I’m more just someone with certain preferences. Preferences that get a lot of friends telling me I just need to relax, or quit being so strict. I’ve even been told I hate joy, which isn’t true, but I can understand why it serves as shorthand. That grumpiness is why I dubbed my reviews here “Grumpy Bird.” Because I have birds and am grumpy.

But, again, I don’t mean to be grumpy, I just have standards. And, boy howdy, doesn’t that sound snobby?

So, what tends to make me grumpy? When stories are overly simply. And by that I don’t really mean the details of the plot. There are so many variations of the basic “X wants Y and has trouble getting it.” that the framework can be endlessly entertaining. I guess I should be specific and say that when characters are overly simple, I lose interest pretty quick. Especially when we are talking in terms of good and evil.

When a story ultimately boils down to a hero is always good and makes the right choices while the villain is evil and so is capable of nothing but evil, it also boils down to dullsville. (Yes, I am largely talking about flat versus round characters, but I really want to frame it as simple versus complex for this little piece.)

I imagine by now that readers are possible thinking ‘do you have examples of poor character work in mind?’ Oh, man, do I ever. The whole motivation for this was thinking about a common theme of so much of what I don’t like. But, I’m going to keep all that negativity to myself. I don’t want to tear down. At least not hear. (Buy me a drink and ask me the question and I’ll tell you about it all night.) Here I want to lift up. Although my two examples barely need any lifting up.

Think about Captain America. For a long time he had seen by the public at large as a simple boy scout. A shiny shield and a golden grin that punched hitler and ate his Wheaties. But comic readers (and recent movie goers) have known for a while that Cap’s stories have often be used to tell the stories of a good man struggling to do the right thing in a word of grays. He has been used to explore the notions of what does doing the right thing really mean. What makes him a strong protagonist to follow is that his choices often come with consequences that he must pay for.

And a good villain needs to be just as complex and have as many difficult choices. I forget who said that “a villain should be the hero of their own story” but it really is good advice. To keep to comic book examples, let’s talk Magneto. He went from a mustache-twirling, conquer the world bad guy, into a nuanced character that has survived man’s inhumanity to man and is willing to fight to keep that from happening again, even if it turns him into an authoritarian tyrant.

These are complex characters that can be used to tell complex stories. These are the characters that I want to learn more about.

These gray zones, these complex motivations, can make a story great and help characters stay memorable. These are the characters I want to populate my own stories. I want the heroes to be flawed and sometimes make poor choices. I want my villains to be understandable and even sympathetic. I want them to be more than just simple characters.

Now, with my extensive back catalog of one easily available novel, it might surprise you to learn that I don’t think I have completed the journey of being able to write fully complex/rounded characters. Every page is a step on that journey and I know there are going to be some wrong turns and poor choices ahead. But that is okay to me. Hopefully my readers will forgive my errors, assuming there aren’t too many and they aren’t too grave.

So for now, I’m going to try and keep my characters gray.


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