Reading has been long equated with escapism, imagination, and wish-fulfillment. What if this adventure happened to me? What if I was the hero? Roleplaying games function much the same way, and can create some amazing things. But, as writers, we have a certain responsibility to the characters we create.
Writing can also become a wish-fulfillment activity. And while there’s nothing inherently wrong with this–if a writer doesn’t feel the wonder, how will their readers?–there is a distinct difference between imagining how you would feel in the role of your character and imagining yourself as the character. People take cracks at Cassandra Clare for this every now and again.
Wish-fulfillment writing is where we get “Mary Sue” characters, which most commonly refer to overpowered characters who the others (and the readers) are expected to understand is somehow intrinsically right and amazing. Usually, the story will suit this character’s moral views perfectly, unless it is somehow opposing them to create extra drama or martyrdom.
Let’s put one of my characters, Dimitri, on the table for surgery. In the making, I thought, wouldn’t it be cool to to have a necromancer with a pack of undead wolves at his command?
I did that because I thought it would just be really fun. And it is. But I also knew what story I wanted to write. Let’s take two different approaches to breaking down this character:
Dimitri Hawthorn is a prodigy of his age. He can unravel formulas other necromancers have struggled with for generations. He has an ability to see the Truth of All Things, which means he can’t be deceived. He travels in self-imposed exile with a pack of undead wolves because he is arrogant, young, dedicated to dangerous research, and unable to see things from other perspectives. This impedes his relationships with his father and brother.
He is not ready to fully grasp the responsibility of his powers, which degrade his vision with each use and often tempt him to stick his nose into situations he’s not a part of. The conflict of Dimitri’s story is largely moral, challenging him to reconcile his pride with doing the right thing when his family needs help.
There’s one. Now here’s two:
Dimitri Hawthorn is a prodigy of his age. He can unravel formulas other necromancers have struggled with for generations. He has an ability to see the Truth of All Things, which means he always knows what’s right. He travels with a pack of undead wolves because other people are jealous of his powers and don’t understand the merit of his research. His father and brother reject him for pursuing the path he was meant to follow, but still demand his help to solve a problem of their own making.
Yikes. Did Dimitri write that last one?
Putting too much of yourself into a character, or putting yourself into a character you wish you were, puts you at risk of tunnel vision. If Dimitri was essentially an avatar of me, I might not choose to send him around accepting hard truths, facing his weaknesses, and taking criticism. What I want is for everything to play out in my favor, isn’t it? I can’t be more than myself. Which is one of the absolute worst pitfalls of self-inserts and wish-fulfillment: they kill character development.
Notice I went out of my way the first time to give him neat powers and abilities, but limit them. Just because he’s a genius doesn’t mean he has good judgment. He can see the “truth” of the universe, but will eventually go blind from it–and what he does with the knowledge comes down to judgment again. He has good qualities: determination, intelligence, value for human life, and an ultimate desire to be recognized for the good he does. But he’s got bad ones, too: pride, selfishness, a need for control, and a bad temper.
Which qualities dominate his decisions? That’s what someone will keep reading to find out. How will he change throughout the course of the story? He’s not going to change if he’s always right, or never doubts himself.
And please keep in mind: angst is not a character quality. If your character has a tragic past, them sitting around and thinking about how tragic it was does not actually count as a character weakness unless it affects the story directly. Maybe a character freezes up where it matters. They struggle to move on while their partner threatens to leave them. They try to find the motivation to go outside for the first time in days.
These are all elements of decision. They have built-in conflict. A character has to do something with them, as opposed to sitting in a dramatically-lit corner and having a droning monologue about how sad their flashbacks are. If, on the other hand, this character has been trying to suppress these flashbacks and the audience is slowly piecing together what happened…
See? Isn’t that much more fun to write? Characters are great! They’re people, friends, and children, just like us.
But they aren’t you. Parts of you, maybe, but they’re organic creations that grow and develop like anyone else. They are not vehicles, avatars, or costumes. They’re something unique, that only the writer can convey. Don’t limit them to just what you (or a perceived audience) wants to see.