Once upon a time, I was editing a terribly dramatic scene in a fantasy novel. The princess had stolen her dead mother’s elven bow to take part in a sudden battle, and in the process of defending her palace had been mortally wounded. Her father, the king, was openly weeping at his only daughter’s bedside as the nurse broke the news to him that the wounds were too deep. Obvious cliches aside, this was a painful scene to read. I had wanted it to be touching and heartbreaking, but it was boring and somehow unrealistic. The worst of it was that I didn’t know why it wasn’t believable. Everything had been building up consistently to that moment, and the characters were acting just as I had thought they would, well within their personality’s ranges of responses. The language was elegant and flowing… but something just made me cringe.
I pulled out one of my favorite handbooks (The Writer’s Little Helper by James V. Smith, highly recommended) and skimmed through the pages, looking for inspiration. On the dialogue page, something caught my eye, and I knew that was it. Venom. Every character, no matter how gentle, has an edgy and irritable side. In my process of aiming for ultimate beauty in writing, I had left that out entirely… basically turning all my characters into emotional wussies. That realization changed everything! Now the king was not weeping gently–now he was furious! His daughter had desecrated the memory of his late wife and needlessly endangered herself in a stupid action, and now the royal medical staff who should be able to fix anything claim there’s nothing they can do. There was always something they could do before, why not now when he needed it? Now my king threw an all out tantrum. It wasn’t peaceful and beautiful but nerve-wrecking and intimidating. And it was completely believable. He was too infuriated to speak with his daughter but was throwing things at the nurse and swearing her death on his wife’s grave! Somehow, that’s much more interesting to read than a cliche battle side death scene.
One thing that I have pulled from that experience to this day is the fact that characters need venom. They need to stand up for themselves every so often and not be babied by their loving author. They need to get up on the wrong side of bed sometimes and hold grudges over things that might not matter to other characters.
These days, I pull aside some of my editing time for just this purpose. I review each character–what makes him tick, who bugs him and what he won’t tolerate, and then I review his role in the plot and looked for anything that might have slipped through the cracks previously. Are there any reluctant “Yes, dear” moments that should have turned into household spats or at least sarcastic remarks? Do any characters willingly let the author toy with them without complaining or even noticing that something’s wrong? I’ll save my rant about character relationships for another article, but for now, let’s stick to the point that your readers will love your characters and your writing as a whole if you just let things get down and dirty once in a while. After all, you wouldn’t want your plot to be without conflict–why don’t you give your characters some as well?