Sunday, December 30, 2012

More About Mr. Perfect

I've blogged about avoiding superlatives, and beaten up that nice Mr. Mike Smith about his superlative protagonist.

Just now I found something that underscores what I'm talking about. Here's a link to an article about things overachievers do. It gets depressing at the end when it says they don't write books. Sigh.

The point I derived from this article is that if you're really, really good at X, then you'll be less good at A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, J, K, L, M, N, O, P, Q, R, S, T, U, V, W, Y, and Z. If that was tedious to read, it was tedious to write. And now imagine that instead of just reading each letter, you were getting a Ph. D. in it? Sounds unrealistic? It should.

If your dashing knight is the best swordsman in the world, then s/he's got no time after swords practice for mastering the violin, or piloting a star fighter, or figuring out how to romance members of the appropriate sex?

If you see any of my ebooks, you'll see the art of Joanne Renaud. We've become friends because I am not an artist. She is. I've hired her to do art for my books. She's good. Yet she reminded me of something that weirded me out some years ago. Did I say I'm not an artist? Keep that in mind.

My sister was cleaning out some of the papers from my dad's house. And some of my teenaged papers were mixed up in them. She sorted them out, and returned them. I saw some landscapes and a picture of a superhero with a jet pack and ray gun.

"Who drew these?" I asked.

"You did," she replied.

I could not imagine any time at which I had been interested in doing something like that. I could not remember making those pictures. They were completely unfamiliar to me. I'm not an artist.

This bothered me a bit and I racked my brain about how these drawings had come to be. Over the course of a couple days I remembered having some time on my hands immediately after graduating from High School and before I started working in my full-time job. In the summer of 1973 I wasn't an artist. I wasn't anything. Just a kid who'd finished school with pretty good grades and a diploma from Kent City High School (The worst high school in Kent County, Michigan back then. I was told.)

In the decades afterwards, I've applied myself to studying Mathematics, Computer Science and Software Engineering. Then I applied myself to writing and storytelling so that my artistic expression is seen in my writing. Not the graphic or visual arts.

Who I am is informed by these activities. The culture of the geeks I ran with helped form my values and attitudes. When I ran into artists in my various writing groups, making purdy pitchers was something they did, not me. Thus my shock and denial that I had dabbled in producing something I was now interested in only as an observer and consumer. This is sort of the inverse of my blog post about reading like a writer.

I'm not anything special and where I aspire to be special, I relate less well to the book-buying public.

I once wrote a writing mantra about making your protagonist someone you'd want to get on the train with. And that means your protagonist has to be someone normal humans can relate to at some level. Stan Lee does this when he makes Peter Parker an awkward high school student. C. S. Forester does this when he lets that nice Mister Midshipman Horatio Hornblower get beat up for doing something right. 

Look again at what those overachievers do: they trim away parts of their life that are unrelated to their goals.

Overachievers are unbalanced characters.

An overachiever in X will be an underachiever in something else. To make your characters believable they must be in this sense realistic. Maybe your ninja is the best swordsman in all Japan, but he sucks at marketing and promotion.

Think about your characters' strengths, and now imagine a list of everything that remains. Regard those things as weaknesses. Sherlock Holmes was an embarrassment to his family when John Watson disclosed he was a flat-earther. Just ask Mycroft.


  1. As I first began writing I was a terribly afflicted by this. I hope now that I actually have a book in the wild I have overcome this fault. I greatly enjoy stories of characters with weaknesses and how they rise above them or accomplish a goal with that weakness.

    1. I think this is why Marvel comics is much better than DC. All the Marvel superheroes had something unhappy in their background. e.g. Tony Stark has an ailing heart, but Clark Kent has no worries as long as he stays clear of that green glowing stuff.


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