Writing Mistake: Are Your Characters Invincible?

Photo credit: Cihan Unalan on Flickr
I write stories with a lot of action: explosions, gunshots, sword fights, wars, chase scenes, gruesome wounds, death—you name it, I’ve probably at least thought about incorporating it into one of my WIPs. So as you could imagine, very few of my characters have made it through my stories completely unscathed, but it recently occurred to me that despite the injuries and deaths and fight scenes, I’d often been too nice to my characters.

It wasn’t that I didn’t let them get hurt—I certainly did—my problem was that I often allowed them to recover quickly and with next to no consequence besides a couple scars.

In my case, the problem wasn’t that it was necessarily unrealistic—I’ve written paranormal, straight fantasy and sci-fi, so there was always a valid reason for the quick recovery. No, my problem is that I wasn’t allowing my characters to be truly affected by their physical, emotional and mental damage. I was protecting them without even realizing it, and as a consequence I was missing out on huge opportunities for character deepening and plot progression.

I’d accidentally written invincible characters.

Humans are strong, but physical, emotional and mental breakdowns are all (often unavoidable) parts of life—and our characters shouldn’t be exempt. When we allow our characters to be invincible, we discount the true weight of what it means to be damaged. We are, in essence, telling our readers not to worry about our characters, because they’ll be just fine regardless of what happens to them.

Sometimes we have to remind ourselves (and our readers) that our characters are fragile—that it’s possible for them to break and suffer the repercussions of violence or traumatic experiences. That their injuries and experiences are serious, and that life-altering damage is possible.

I’m not saying that all of your characters should suffer permanent physical, emotional or mental damage throughout the course of your WIP—what I am saying is that sometimes we forget to consider that lasting repercussions are a possibility. Sometimes we forget to ask what if that fight left more than just a scar? Sometimes we forget that our characters can break—even the ones we want to protect from serious damage.

So I for one will be on the lookout for invincible characters in my writing—they don’t exist in real life and they have no place on the page, either.

Have you ever written invincible characters? What did you do about it?


Darth Lolita said...

I think that's one of my problems. In my WIP, my leading character is getting so horribly mauled by the danger she's been exposed to, I even made a tally on my blog, just to count it all down. But truth be told, it's like she gets all these injuries and they just accumulate. They're not bringing her down as much as they should be.

Thank you for this post! I think I need to do some fixing, which is weird because I'm usually good at making sure the characters suffer mental, emotional, or physical, long-term effects. I think maybe because this current work is a novella--and one I have to send to a contest--I've been sticking too close to the main action without putting in a proper (and personal) cause-and-effect.

Ava Jae said...

I'm glad this post helped! It's an easy mistake to make (at least, it was for me) because we sometimes forget that there are consequences to damaging our characters--instead, the injury becomes something that just happens along the way, rather than something that happens and has a distinct effect.

Cheryl Carvajal said...

I think my characters are too weeny. I love vulnerability, but sometimes I make them so weak that nobody would like them. I do detest complaining in real life, though, so perhaps the key is to have them bear it silently... but not too silently, or nothing will happen. If they're too stoic, they're being perfect, and that isn't exactly good.

Excellent post... really got me thinking.

Daniel Swensen said...

No... I find them boring. The only time they're interesting, say, in the case of somebody like Superman, is when they run into a problem they can't punch out or blow up -- something their abilities won't help them with (usually a moral problem, although that only works if the character has morals to begin with).

Emily Mead said...

This reminds me of Catcher in the Rye for some reason, because Holden Caulfield is almost the opposite. I love Catcher in the Rye because of his vulnerability...then again, a lot of people don't like it. You have to find a balance, I guess.

Ava Jae said...

Thank you, Cheryl! I think you're right that finding a balance between overly stoic and whiny is important. If the characters lie too far to the side (on either side of the spectrum), they can easily start to become problematic.

Ava Jae said...

I agree: invincible characters get boring very quickly, although I like your point about having to face something they can't steamroll over. Strong characters with conflicting morals can be very interesting to read about.

Ava Jae said...

A balance is definitely important--too much vulnerability leads to whiny characters (and very few people will tolerate whiny characters) while too little leads to boring, invincible characters.

Jacques Duvoisin said...

I so love this post--I even tweeted you about it. I know exactly what you mean. I've been thinking about this for months now. My character is a tough chick, and part of the tough chick literary raison d'etre is that she's fearless, where the men in her life are afraid. She's the tough one, and they're the sentimental ones. I like the role reversal. She wins fights because she stands up to people when they expect her to cringe or flee.

The problem is that this verges on invincibility territory. My solution so far has been that she is obsessed with the possibility that she's getting to be too cruel, that the violence is turning her into a monster. And it's not just because of the things she does, but also because of what happens around her and indirectly because of her. At one point, she wonders if someone like her can really go to her Senior Prom. Can she be a normal teen-ager. Can she have friends, or even a boyfriend, etc.

I've been reluctant to write a fight scene in which she loses. But I have written scenes in which the emotional cost of winning is very high. I'm writing one now in which the fight is made necessary by a mistake in judgment on her part, and she dwells on all the recriminations for the deaths her mistake carries in its wake.

I wonder if this sort of emotional vulnerability is enough to make up for the rest of her invulnerability. Sometimes it fells like it is, other times, I'm not so sure.

Ava Jae said...

I don't know if you've had anyone else look at your story yet (that would probably depend on whether you've completed a draft yet, or if you're still working on the story), but the best way to determine whether or not something is working, I've found, is often to get outside feedback.

You say that you're reluctant to write a fight scene in which your character loses, but my question to you is this: if she always wins her fights, what stakes are there really? My guess is it probably won't take the readers very long to determine that she's never going to lose. If you'd like to test out her vulnerability, my suggestion would be to write a scene in which she loses. It doesn't have to make it into your WIP, but it could be a good exercise--and who knows? Maybe it'll turn out you like it, and if not, that's fine--no harm done. You can delete the document and pretend it never happened. :)

Just my thoughts. And thank you for the thoughtful comment and kind words, Jacques!

Jacques Duvoisin said...

Thanks, Ava Jae.

I think I'll try that today. It sounds like an excellent experiment, even if I don't end up using the scene. My original thought was that the heroine's problem is precisely that she doesn't lose. She can't make friends because she's "impervious." That made sense for the first two books in the series. But it's beginning to feel a little confining to me now. The first two went through several beta readers. The third isn't to that stage yet.

It's a YA series, so there's room for the fantastic. I originally thought she would end up cyborg, because of all the skeletal implants she'd need for the pounding her body takes. But my 13yo daughter informed me that if she becomes a cyborg, no teen-ager will read it. The two of us put our heads together and came up with Shinto gods instead. But the point is, she's on the margins of the human, so vulnerability might look different for her. But maybe what I'm overlooking is that losing might reveal her dilemma even more clearly.

Ava Jae said...

Experimenting with various situations can be a great way to explore ideas we aren't sure about. And the nice thing about computers is if we don't like it, no harm done. We can bury the file or delete it with the click of a mouse. :)

mericlese said...

My current WIP features a character who is well and truly invincible (the story is called Impervious) at least physically, then has it taken away by the end. He's going to have to deal with just how much he relied on that particular strength and how he's going to deal with it not being available to him.

Ava Jae said...

Wow! I like that idea. Very cool premise! :)

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...