Captain Marvel in her own movie: Undefeatable.
Captain Marvel pitted against an actual god in Avengers Endgame: Um…not undefeatable?
I loved every second of Captain Marvel. Every freakin’ second of it! But it got me thinking if she was too powerful and yet not powerful enough. Was my new feministy fave an unrealistic character? Yes, yes, I know she’s a superpowered character from a comic. But is she also human? Relatable?
Can’t relate to that example? Then how about another one. Ever wondered why Edward from Twilight nursed almost Edwardian opinions about chastity? For someone who’s lived for so long—and graduated so many times—why didn’t he ever lock lips with a girl before sniffing Bella out? And why won’t he make out with her even after they do get together?
So, what’s wrong with
this picture these stories?
Storytellers like to showcase their out of the box perspectives. Even so, they need to do so while also giving a real feel to their characters. Those two factors can complicate the journey of defining the characteristic traits of protagonists. If they don’t focus on mimicking how normal humans behave in daily life situations, writers can accidentally give unrealistic traits to their beloved characters!
Some will do it to make the protagonist distinctive, while others become guilty of this literary crime when they simply to add up more spice to the plot! Have you erred in this manner? Even if you have, don’t worry and dump the manuscript in the river just yet. That’s because this blog will do three things for you:
Story characters showing no impact of the hard times they have faced throughout their lives aren’t realistic or relatable at all! Authors need to put their characters in human shoes to prevent this from happening. Imagine someone you know who went through extreme hardships in their past. Did they still evolve a strong personality? Okay, so they did. But could they do it with no major damage visible in the way they behave? Sounds unrealistic, right? So, how do you keep your characters’ harsh history while also ensuring readers can see how it shaped them?
Well, that’s what audiences wants in their favorite characters. Overcoming tough experiences they have had in their past and struggling with their demons to evolve as the lead character can be inspiring. Your readers can relate with that. And this is doable with all kinds of characters. Was yours locked up in a room for a major period of time? Did they face shocks and captivity during the formative years when actual mental and physical character building is taking place? Sure, such characters can still come out heroic figures. Ones that your readers can root for. But only if they carry their emotional baggage the way real people—you, me, us—do!
Although constructing such characters might not be a piece of cake. What’s more, no two people carry the same kind of emotional scars. We all deal with grief and trauma in different ways. So, you’d have to ensure your protag manages the residual pain in a way that’s related to what they faced in the past.
The personality trait where characters remain unaffected, even after going through extremely hard times, show great strength and power to move on, and keep doing so no matter what is a good one. You just have to show the price your protagonist pays/paid to remain that strong. Now, it is not necessary to showcase every bit part of the process of how they overcame their trauma. But you will have to demonstrate some of it.
One example of an aloof character is Harry Potter. A boy who had to endure extreme hardships and struggles even before he became a teen. Even so, he’s able to function like everybody else. Goes to school, has flings, forms healthy bonds, doesn’t grapple with PTSD? Had a similar situation happened to someone in real life, things would have been very different! It would have been tough for a real human to evolve as a strong heroic personality without having any major setback due to those hardships.
We see another example in the movie, Snow White and the Huntsman. Snow White was locked up in a prison and that’s where she remained for all her formative years. Even after being imprisoned for so long, she comes out unharmed with no major mental or physical health impact. How did you fare when the world had to practice social isolation? Need we say more about how unrealistic this characteristic is? There are no after effects on Snow after years of being locked up. What’s more, the moviemakers try to divert reader’s attention with a journey where she gets to fight and leads an army to take back the kingdom.
Want your lead to stand out from the hoi polloi? A character may act like a huge cultural anomaly as compared to their surrounding community. However, they must do so in a believable manner. So, in order to portray why your character has different values than their surroundings, show your readers the experiences your lead needed to go through to become that way. For instance:
Some authors also try to apply the inferior race trope. Doing that can be a mixed bag. Sure, you can label a fictional race as inferior, but can you do so without making it seem cheap? Moreover, your protag’s radical solutions as they try to enlighten others could come off as contrived or nothing special. In short, tread carefully!
The Forgotten Realms D&D character, Drizzt Do’Urden, is unique in his setting. He practices abstinence and doesn’t participate in killing frenzies. But there’s logic behind his behavior! Drizzt had a priestess who believed in only exercising violence when necessary and a peace-loving father. Together, they were able to let him keep his innocence and develop morals. Drizzt grows up into a person who prefers making friends to enemies!
Imagine the way our world would have worked if we could pick up any skill we didn’t already possess within minutes—or after a montage. Earth would become a planet of Neos—from The Matrix trilogy. But the creators of that franchise do show us why learning at the speed of light is possible for Neo. New skills get downloaded directly into his brain!
Many stories feature humble protags. You know the ones who In other words, if your character doesn’t live in Neo’s world, you’ll have to come up with a logical reason for their newly found dexterity. Some moviemakers think their audience won’t find this problematic if they can make their protag likeable enough. We do notice, by the way, but we just love those montages! The new Karate Kid had one, for instance. Most of us also love it when kids stand up to bullies. So, we don’t
What do those compilations do? Montages indicate the passing of time. If a character is acquiring a new skill and it takes them a reasonable amount of days to master it, you’ve got a deal. Sometimes, even montages don’t work so well. I’m thinking of Wanted, the movie. Sure, James McAvoy’s character spits out blood and sweats buckets during physical training. But he embraces the skill of shooting wings off flies—yes, that’s what does happen—a little too quickly for my taste. Even Neo loses his first fight to Morpheus and his skills were downloadable!
Additionally, while montages will usually work for movies, authors need a different way to show the transformation. So, if you are thinking to give your character this particular trait, you must:
The first part makes your characters more real to readers. The second one keeps them reading the rest of the book! So, whether your story revolves around a couple of days or more, skip the minute-minute learning updates. But find a way to show your protag grueling through ordeals to acquire a skill.
The movie, Stardust, doesn’t pull this off well. Tristan starts off as a naïve tongue-tied boy. A one-day-long crash course with a cross-dressing pirate later, he transforms into a suave and highly skilled swordsman. Will your readers be rooting for your lead if you copied that trick?
We won’t. Instead, try creating weaknesses that will hold characters back from achieving said goal. Those have to be believable, so embed them right from the start. Then, you won’t have to go from bending spoons to there being no spoons. You can simply demonstrate how they overcome the flaw and thus, acquire the skill-in-question.
Although it is one of the most unrealistic character traits in a story, being unaware of the surroundings allows the narrator to give an in-depth explanation through that character. That’s a plus for most authors, especially speculative fiction writers. With so many new things and concept to explain, they don’t want to info-dump and bore readers. Therefore, they often choose to educate through the eyes of an unaware protagonist.
However, unless your lead has just landed on a new world/planet/dimension, this move can be hard to justify! Imagine being surprised by an oak tree or a squirrel when you step out. Does that seem possible? In real-life, even the agoraphobic wouldn’t be that unaware of their surroundings. Neither can somebody be as self-absorbed. Then, why shouldn’t the same be true for your character?
There are ways around this trope and you’d need a very good reason to justify it in your story. For instance, your lead could be traveling to a land unknown to most people. What they do know about the place is through rumors. Since nobody knows if the rumors are baseless, your character can walk around and put those misconceptions to rest.
Mildred and Captain Beatty from the classic novel, Fahrenheit 451, are such characters. However, they’re part of a world where most people are literally ignorant. Almost nobody knows how to read. The television is their only source of information—more appropriately misinformation.
Want to see what happens when this trait is treated badly? Then look at Jen from The Dark Crystal. You might want to argue and say he’s actually one of the two last surviving members of a race. It’s no surprise he doesn’t know anything about…well, anything. That only applies if we overlook how Jen was raised. Mystics or the urRu were responsible for his upbringing. His mentor was Master UrSu, whose knowledge of secrets was legendary even among the group of fellow mystics! After spending all that time with UrSu and the urRu, the only thing Jen learns is how to read. What’s more, he’s assigned a quest and must complete it without knowing anything about the flora and fauna of the land! Does that sound plausible?
The list of unrealistic characters traits many storytellers have bestowed on their heroes and heroines is huge. They range from being ignorant of the practices in their own homeland to remaining unaffected by trauma. All of them, though, have one thing in common, i.e., those traits make them harder to relate to and less real. And while it’s okay for authors to dream of crafting distinctive protagonists, they need to back those up with believable backstories and motivations. Finally, the wider the gap between theirs and human behavior, the stronger your explanation would need to be! Therefore, you’d have to show authority to your readers. Prove you know your creations so intimately that you can accurately relate each action and decision of theirs!