by Beth Bauman
Spalding MFA Faculty, Writing for Children and Young Adults
My new favorite TV show is the HBO crime drama “The Night Of.” It’s tough and gritty and co-written by the inimitable Richard Price. I’m going to detour here and mention how at a New Yorker festival years back, I first met Price when he and another author gave talks about their writing. The first was affected and kept tinkling the ice in his glass in a soft, actorly way. He was sort of full of it. Price, on the other hand, bounded onto the stage when it was his turn, looking like he was wearing a pajama top. He looked at us and said, “Hey, did you know there’s a really good bar across the street?” Well, he had our attention.
Price can write, and he knows a good character. John Stone, his bottom-feeder lawyer played by the excellent John Tuturro, cruises the station house, looking for clients, and hands around cheesy business cards with th
I mention him because he’s everything a good character should be. He’s complicated and flawed. And while on the surface these things seem obvious and important to good fiction writing, my students sometimes struggle with the concepts, even as they recognize their truth. Too often virtue and nobility are traits students want to pin on their main characters, especially in children’s writing. I think they do this for several reasons, the main being that if the character isn’t intrinsically good then how will the story be any good. And/or if the character is flawed we won’t like him and then we won’t like the book and may even dislike the author. God forbid. So all this is to say that often I encounter the too-good protagonist with her full heart and pure thoughts. If she’s flawed, the flaws are minor and create shame and angst to the degree that they’re nearly cancelled out.
Here’s the thing: In fiction, only trouble is interesting. You have to give your character trouble and not just external trouble but internal trouble. You character will need to screw up. You’ll need to put obstacles in your character’s path, obstacles that are hard to take on. But even more important are obstacles that are hard to want to take on. Often the greatest antagonist is the self.
It works really well when a character has a flaw that works in harmony with your set up and themes. Take Harriet in the winning middle-grade novel Harriet the Spy. She’s fascinated by people, highly intelli
Let this be your character development motto: Thorns will be necessary. Remember, the world is inescapably complex and we’re all immensely vulnerable. We’re all an inexplicable (though wonderful) mess. So the next time your main character gets a little too noble, a little too righteous, give him a chopstick and get him scratching.
Beth Ann Bauman is the author of a short story collection and two young-adult novels. She’s the recipient of fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts and the Jerome Foundation.