Several years ago, I was designing a character and I kept adding traits: she had an interest in gladiators, a bit of a mischievous streak, a love of old movies and TV shows, etc., etc. It got to the point where I started to wonder if a real person could have all these traits, or if I was just stitching different people together like Dr. Frankenstein. It’s a problem that often comes up in TV shows, especially scifi or fantasy ones. Like in the pilot episode we’ll meet a character who seems like an average person, but after five or six seasons we’ll find out they speak nine languages, are an expert in five forms of martial arts, can hack a computer with only a few keystrokes, and so on. The vast majority of these talents only show up in one episode. Like, maybe the bad guy needs some Mayan artifact to finish their doomsday weapon, and this character instantly knows what it is and what museum it’s in because, “Oh, you mean I’ve never mentioned my interest in Mayans? How odd.” The good guys go to the museum, but the bad guy’s goons are already there so the character grabs a sword because, “I’m an expert swordsperson too.”
Real people do have wide and varied interests and talents: I’m interested in World War II, some people like the science fiction stories I write, I have some gardening projects I’m slowly working on, etc., etc. Some characters feel like real people, while others are just plot devices. There’s no clear dividing line between them, so it’s very easy to cross from one to the other.
I think the main reason this happens is that it is easier for the reader to understand – and also easier to write – if we have basic characters. Basic characters like the competent hero who can repair any mechanical problem with a paper clip and some duct tape, and the bumbling buffoon we can laugh at because they never do anything right. Until right at the end when the buffoon somehow flies a helicopter and saves the hero.
In reality, people are probably closer to the buffoon than the hero, but people read to escape reality. But this can lead to people just expecting some hero to come save them from their problems. So maybe next time you’re stitching together your hero, throw in some buffoon to make them more realistic and less the uber-hero.
Image from Pixabay.