One of the exercises we were asked to do at the Backspace conference a few weeks ago was to think of a scene where your main character is dealing with someone they don’t like. What do they do? Then write down what they want to do, but don’t, because it’s impolite, or it’s against the law, or because people won’t like them anymore.
We were told to look at what we wrote. Did it make us smile? Did we enjoy having our character act out? Okay, so go back to the book and make that what happens instead.
Because bad behavior is more interesting.
In all great stories, the main characters say and do things that people in real life rarely do. Not because people don’t want to, but because the consequences are too overwhelming. It’s what prompts people to cheer as their reading a book or watching a movie. The main character tells someone off in a manner that the audience has always wanted to and the words come out perfectly. The hero who’s willing to do whatever it takes saves the day, despite questionable choices made.
The consequences to these actions are just as important as the actions themselves. If a story doesn’t show the fallout of the main character acting against the norm, then what was done just becomes another norm in that reality. If there is no negative reaction, the initial choice is much less impressive. Because what really makes a character noteworthy is when they go against the grain, knowing full well that it will make their lives harder in the long run.
Now, in reality, we would probably all avoid relationships with the characters we so love. Why? Because that’s a whole lot of drama to invite into your life. Someone who flaunts rules and niceties that much? That’ll just be tiring.
Then there’s the fact that when you meet real people, you only see them in specific situations. You’ll never see all the interactions. So, if a coworker is a jerk in the office, you’ll probably never know that to someone else in a different part of their live, they’re a hero.
In good stories, however, you get to see the contrast. You’re privy to both the way a character alienates other people and the way they pull them close. The way their poor behavior yields both positive and negative consequences. Their strengths and insecurities, and how they handle both.
And, knowing all this, you like them better for the moments they live outside the lines.