Storytellers want to have their cake and eat it too, even if the cake is absolute perfection, and the eating is relatable flaws. The inevitable result of trying to have it both ways is a character that defies human nature. These characters have traits that are so unrealistic, the audience starts thinking about the author’s intention rather than the story at hand.
Since all storytellers face similar dilemmas, unrealistic character traits come in a number of distinct flavors. Here are five.
Edward Cullen is over 100 years old when Twilight begins, yet according to author Stephenie Meyers, he never kissed a girl before Bella. That’s right, we’re talking about 85 years as a 17 year old boy, and NO KISSING. Why? Because he’s not a normal being, he was specially crafted by God for Bella and only Bella. Totally realistic, that. Just to add a cherry to the top, he is also a vampire that doesn’t drink human blood. Anne Rice, you have done horrible damage to vampires everywhere.
It’s easy to find unexplained chastity in romances, but this trait goes beyond the romance genre. Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn Trilogy stars a virginal protagonist, Vin, who has spent her life in poverty, and works in a crew of male thieves. In the beginning, he painstakingly explains why she has not been raped. That’s fine, not everyone wants to deal with dark topics like that. But he doesn’t explain why she hasn’t had consensual sex yet. She has struggled just to eat, and the right romantic partner could get her food, safety, and shelter. Add simple pleasure to that, and it’s unlikely she’d still have her cherry.
There are a lot of conservative writers who don’t want romantically involved protagonists to get it on before they are married. That’s okay, but don’t dismiss their biological compulsions. If you don’t want your characters to have sex, either don’t leave them alone together, or provide a compelling reason why they resist temptation.
To give conservatives a break, I should also say there are instances where sex is not realistic. I’ve read several books that involve mutual lust between siblings. Social taboo isn’t the only reason sibling incest isn’t common; nature doesn’t like it either. Two children of similar ages that grow up together are unlikely to be interested in each other. This is still true if they are not genetically related.
Update 4/3/15: I have written a comment in response to concerns that this section marginalizes asexuals or
other various lifestyle choices. Read my comment.
Drizzt Do’Urden, from the Forgotten Realms D&D setting, is an example of many of the traits on this list, but none is more obvious than how out of place he is among the Drow. He is raised in a society where cruelty is glorified and orgies are common events, yet he somehow decides he shouldn’t kill the innocent or have sex with women he doesn’t know well.
Storytellers want heroes to stand out from normal people. An easy way to do this is to set your story in a culture you consider inferior in some ways, and then have your hero see past it. But this tactic can come off as cheap and contrived. It’s impossible not to see the hand of the author at work when a hero embodies a different culture than the one they are raised in. When the hero uses their outside perspective to solve problems, it doesn’t seem as enlightened or clever as it should, because it’s obvious to the audience.
At worst, cultural anomalies can also be used to express racism. Just replace the Drow with a real group of people, or a race that is reminiscent of a real group.
If you want your character to have different values than the people around her, she also needs to have different experiences. Give her a dissident mentor, an unusual background, or a defining moment that shows her what’s wrong with society.
In Snow White and the Huntsman, Snow White is locked in a room from childhood until sometime after adolescence. Then she escapes, learns to fight, and leads an army to take the kingdom back. It isn’t explained why being locked in a small prison for her formative years had no effect on her mental health, physical health, social skills, or dental hygiene. Except for a inclination toward terrible speeches, she comes out unscathed.
Backstories with extreme hardship are attractive, but storytellers that include them need to acknowledge the permanent effect they have on the character’s personality. That effect is generally not good – a real Harry Potter could suffer from depression and anxiety, or exhibit violent behavior. He might think his role in life is to be a doormat, and surround himself with other people that abuse him. Or he might abuse others.
Serial stories like TV shows also have a habit of neglecting the long term impact of tough times. Star Trek is particularly notorious for torturing a character in one episode, and then never mentioning it again, as though no recovery period was needed.
Characters can overcome and move past previous tragedies, but the audience needs to see them struggle with their demons. To do less is to dismiss the harm inflicted on real people in similar situations.
Tristan is a naive and socially awkward boy at the start of the Stardust movie. He has perhaps a day of training on a flying pirate ship. Then he’s suddenly suave, good with a sword, and able to one-up his devious opponents.
It’s common in a lot of movies. Good storytellers start the protagonist with humbling spinach, and then make him more awesome until he defeats the villain, is crowned king, and lives on in the legends of his people. But what if your story takes place in a matter of days? You’ll need a montage, because real people don’t grow and learn that fast.
It is possible to make a character rapidly gain new skills, but it’s tricky. The Matrix is one of the few good examples of this happening. That’s because there’s a scifi explanation for how characters gain new skills quickly. They have the technology to simply download the knowledge they need into their minds. Even so, Neo still isn’t there — he gets his ass kicked by Morpheus in their first fight. What he needs to get ahead isn’t something that takes study and practice, just a change in mindset. An event that would have a strong impact on anyone gives that to him.
Try something similar if you need to level up your protagonist in a short time period. It doesn’t have to something like “there is no spoon.” It can instead be “trust in yourself” or “think ahead.” Clearly demonstrate why that particular weakness is holding him back, and then create a scene that realistically teaches him that vital lesson.
In The Dark Crystal, Jen was raised and educated by wise mystics. They knew the secrets of their world, and predicted the quest he would have to embark on. Somehow despite that, the only useful thing he learns from them is how to read. He goes off on his journey completely ignorant about any of the animals, plants, peoples, or places around him. Imagine if you stepped out your door and became frightened by a squirrel.
Spec fic storytellers are always struggling to find ways to explain their world without resorting to exposition. Having an ignorant protagonist allows the storyteller to explain through that character. But unless this protagonist has just been imported from another dimension, he should already know quite a bit about the world he’s living in. Even if he’s lived a secluded life and hasn’t seen much in person, word gets around.
Few things that are either prevalent or have a strong influence on the world would be unknown to anyone dwelling outside of a breadbox. If you want it to be unheard of, you’ll need to justify it. Alternately, you can give your character commonly held misconceptions or false rumors, and have her learn the truth along the way.
The easiest way to avoid unrealistic behavior is to research how real people behave in similar situations. If real people who are locked in a basement through adolescence end up with serious problems, so would your dungeon-confined character. Not that your character should be like everyone else; you want him to be distinctive. But the bigger the gap between his traits and normal behavior, the more convincing your explanation must be.
Want pointers on your story? We’re available for hire.