Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Nobody's Perfect

by Robison Wells

In my first book, the main character, Walt Stewart, is infatuated with the new girl in town. So when she shows up to church on Sunday, he naturally can't keep his eyes (and mind) off of her. Or, at least, he couldn't keep his mind off her until my publisher told him to pay attention and sit up straight. LDS novels, they told me, are very often read by youth, and the novels' main characters become role models. And, since the last thing we want is for our youth to think about girls during sacrament meeting, then Walt couldn't either. So, I changed a couple sentences to make him a little more upstanding, and thus the youth were saved!

Now, I don't want to get into a discussion about the conservativism of LDS publishers/bookstores/readers. For one thing, I've talked about it a lot before and it's just not that interesting to me. For another, it's getting better. For example, Matthew Buckley recently emailed me to let me know that he got permission to use "hell" in his book. (By comparison, my second book tried to use the word "hell", in the context of quoting a scripture, and after giving the scripture reference, and yet all I got was a lousy ". . ."). So, to make up for it: hell hell hell.

Anyway, back to the point: one of my very favorite TV shows is House, M.D.. The plot of every episode is pretty much the same: somebody comes in to the hospital with weird symptoms, Dr. House and his team treat the patient, the problems get worse instead of better, the patient almost dies, and then House solves the mystery! It's about as formula as formula can get. But the reason the show is so compelling is that Dr. House is one colossally screwed-up guy. He appears to have nothing but contempt for everyone, he viciously ridicules the few people who try to be nice to him, and has the bedside manner of Steve Martin in Little Shop of Horrors. And yet, in spite--and because--of it all, he remains one of the most exciting and interesting characters on television. Why? Character flaws. Aside from his medical brilliance, there's nothing about him that isn't flawed. It makes for dang good TV.

On Saturday, Catch Me If You Can was on TV. If you missed it, it's about a thieving con man, and it's fantastically good entertainment. What about Ocean's Eleven? Thieves, all of them, and yet very much the protagonists. James Bond is a womanizing assassin--but he womanizes and assassinates to save the world!

In my books, I've always tried to give my characters flaws, but I've always felt a little restricted. Maybe it's because of the sacrament meeting incident in my first book. I just can't shake the feeling that in an LDS book, the main characters have to fine upstanding people, virtually flaw free--and if they have problems, the problems are relatively minor, like having wavering faith or not praying enough.

So I ask you, gentle reader: In LDS fiction, how much flaw is too much flaw? And, the second question: do they have to be redeemed?

For example, Jennie Hansen's Wild Card: the main character is very flawed, turning to a life of crime for a while, but he eventually gets back on the right path, making amends for his past. But could an LDS novel be written about a similar cattle rustlin' cowboy, and not have him give up crime by the end? I'm certainly not saying that that's how Jennie's book should have ended; I'm just wondering if such a book could be written, and how the LDS market would receive it.

I have an ulterior motive, of course. My upcoming book has some awfully flawed characters (or, at least, it does in its current, unfinished form), and I'm nervous about how they'll be received.

So, what do you think about screwed-up protagonists?


At 1/30/2007 5:42 PM, Blogger FHL said...

Well, have you read the Artemis Fowl books? The protagonist is an adolescent, genius, but criminal mastermind. Throughout the book, I found that I admired his cleverness, but disliked his goals. I'm told that over the course of several books, he does somewhat come around.

(sidenote: If anyone else has read the first book, could you please explain the ending to me? It just ... doesn't make sense.)

I would have to say that flawed protagonists are easier to relate to, being far far from perfect myself. I know they tell you to make your characters larger than life, but if there were no Kryptonite, would Superman be as popular?

How flawed is acceptable? Tough call. I suppose the guideline I'd set for myself is : will my protagonist tempt the reader to try out his flaws? Does he accept / embrace his flaws, or try to improve?

At 1/30/2007 6:08 PM, Anonymous Amy said...

Youth read LDS books? I thought I was the only one. Harry Potter and Pendragon seem more popular among my friends.

House is like the only show I watch and it's probably because of House's flaws that I like it so much(And maybe the fact that I want to be a Oncologist. Go Wilson!) I think flaws are important in stories because everyone has flaws and so people can easily relate. Not everyone, not even most people, over come their flaws so why should LDS book characters have to over come theirs?

Though, I guess it could depend on how, and in what ways, screwed-up the protagonist is. Like House screwed-up probably wouldn't be too great in a LDS novel. Neither would a character like James Bond.

(Sidenote to fhl's sidenote: No one understands the ending of that book! Talk to the author.)

At 1/30/2007 7:18 PM, Blogger Keith Fisher said...

House is intriguing to some. My wife and daughter quit watching it because of some of the content. I never did watch it.

such is the nature of the national market. being a star trek fan I loved the last series Enterprize but I turned off some of the episodes because of content. The producers apparently were trying to keep the ratings up.

to answer your question, I agree that flaws should echo life to an extent. but there needs to be guidelines or we will end up writing national market stuff.

about leaving the flaws without a change for the better, I think that LDS fiction (Because it is LDS fiction) should show the characters becomeing better. after all that is the message of the Savior and should be the purpose of our writing.

At 1/30/2007 8:00 PM, Blogger -*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*- said...

I enjoy your blog and read it often...just don't respond. But I thought I would today!

I think your dillemma is an interesting one. It kind of demonstrates how in the church we like to focus on how things should be and try to sweep under the covers the flaws or sins that people have. I think it's one of the things a lot of people outside of the church don't like about the members of the church - they can seem too perfect and that just isn't real.

As far as the character being obsessed about a girl all through a meeting - that seems pretty realistic to me (having been a young single adult for a number of years....I can relate!) I think that's pretty normal.

Do you think some poor sheltered youth would that and somehow be led astray and also think about someone all through sacrament meeting?? Or if we don't write about it does that help it not happen??

Really kind of a weird concept, isn't it. We're a peculiar people - that's for sure! LOL


At 1/30/2007 9:07 PM, Blogger FHL said...

Dawn, you've got one heckuva display name! =)

At 1/30/2007 9:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Don't you mean that you're "nervous as hell about how they'll be received"?

At 1/30/2007 9:47 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nearly all, if not all, my professional associates from across the country show a deep interest, nay, a thirst for living the Leave It To Beaver Life. If only they could get back a little of the Cleaver way. They talk about living the socially and morally naieve life many members of the LDS faith take for granted.

Writing entertaining fiction and living day to day in real life are usually miles apart and that is likely one of the reasons Brigham Young and other early LDS church leaders had little good to say about fiction and other forms of storytelling entertainment. It is a powerful medium. It captures not only the imagination but the heart and soul of the reader. It portrays non-reality as if it were reality. How many times have you or your friends or youth in your ward drawn their dialouge from movies and books? How many times do they found answers to important questions from the pages of a novel or a scene in a movie? How many times have they justified their own actions because, hey, the character in Robison Wells' book talked like that, thought like that, acted like that?

The real chicken or egg dilema is wither flawed characters reflect reality or actually influence it? Briham Young, it seems, was more concerned about the influence of fictional characters on the hearts and souls of the saints than he was of any unfair portrayal of LDS members in fictional works. And that my dear LDS author friend is the question you must answer as you wrangle with your editor over what the hell you're going to include in your novel and what you choose to leave out. The pen is mightier than the sword. It is also, in some intances for some members of the LDS faith, more powerful than youth conference, general conference, scripture reading, the Ensign, a Bishop's counsel, a parent's prayer, fasting, and myriad other sources of advice and counsel. You can call fiction entertainment while referring to gospel tenants as counsel. But for some odd reason I don't think even neurologists understand, the mind and the heart and the soul are incapable of telling the difference. Entertainment has as powerful an influence in the soul's of men as does every other form of media. It is part of our experience. Good luck with your writing and your editing...

At 1/30/2007 10:40 PM, Blogger Matthew Buckley said...

Conflict, and character. You have to have heavy doses of both, if you're hoping for a good story. And if the character is flawless, there ain't going to be no conflict (double negatives are making a comeback).

I think as long as the flaws are not glorified, then you're good to go. Making wrong choices is part of life, we all do it. We do it again and again. But if an author shows the consequences of the wrong choices, then it's 'good fiction', in my opinion.

My second book (which I won't name, to keep this post from becoming a shameless plug), addresses this exact topic. The boys choose the wrong (they would have to wear CTW rings, if there were such a thing). The important part is that in the end you see the consequences of the choices made. Not in a preachy way (hopefully!), but in a matter of fact way.

Anyway, excellent post, Wells.

At 1/30/2007 11:54 PM, Blogger Tristi Pinkston said...

My computer just freaked out on me and I lost my whole brilliant reply. Your loss -- it was incredible.

At 1/31/2007 1:07 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

In the fictional world of novel writing there is a world of difference between a flawed character and characters that make poor choices, learn from mistakes and overcome the tendency to make those self-defeating decisions. The flawed character usually arises from the author's insistence on describing their protagonist through means of a psychological profile. The genearlly good character who makes flawed decision usually arises from the author showing them in comprosming situations where they choose wrong. If you find that you characterize your protagonist byt means of a psychological profile, you have essentially boxed them into parameters that will be difficult to change regardless of how brilliantly you write her conversion. If your descriptions are less psychological and more descriptive of actions and decision, it is a simple matter to show your character change over time. Not glorifying the wrong actions is a real world solution to protect youth and society in general from the moral slipery slope, but in fiction the matter may depend more on the ability of the author to show the character as a good person making wrong choices, rather than a flawed character with a psychological profile.

At 1/31/2007 8:17 AM, Blogger Evil HR Lady said...

When I as at BYU I took Playwrighting from Tim Slover. It was a fabulous class (and I'm not just saying that because I got an A), but this topic was thrown around a lot.

Many classmates wanted flawed characters and so to demonstrate their characters' flaws they threw in bad words. If an character says "&*0#!$!!!!" then I automatically know he is flawed. "Oh look," says the audience, "he is not going to be called as the next stake president!"

I think it's much more of a challenge to produce flawed and realistic characters without resorting to such things.

I have no problem with a flawed main character. (And Rob, I think your editor was whacked if he thought that it was bad to have someone daydreaming during church. That's not flawed, that's normal.) But House is so intriguing not just because he's flawed but because he does have a streak of goodness and kindness running through him.

What I dislike is flawed characters in "realistic" novels who don't have consequences for their actions. Oceans 11 is not realistic fiction. Neither is James Bond. And I think that expectation is higher in LDS fiction. If your character is committing all sorts of sin and is blissfully happy I'm not going to like it. If they commit sin and have consequences, that's fine--even if those consequences aren't essential to the story line.

At 1/31/2007 8:56 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think the most LDS fiction gets is quirky characters. Kerry Blair's Sam Shade is lots of fun and wonderfully quirky. I don't say she's flawed simply because she never doubts the gospel and is a generally good person, but she has terrific character quirks that make her fun to read. Miss Eugenia in Betsy Brannon Green's books is the same. The make the book more fun to see a "real" person with "real" wierdnesses.

At 1/31/2007 12:25 PM, Blogger Kerry Blair said...

I don't know where you've been, Matthew Buckley, but this blog is all about shameless promotion! "Chickens in the Headlights" is one of the best LDS books I've read. Tell me the title of the next one coming down the pike or I'll . . . well, I can't really think of anything to threaten you with right now, but I'll come up with something dire!

And MB's right, Rob. It's a great post. (I didn't get away with "hell" in my book -- and I was using it as a place name, too. Sigh.) I appreciate your perspective too, anonymous -- and not just because you're nice about Sam. As unfortunate (and seemingly unfair to writers) as it is, you're right on about the hearts and minds of our youth being influenced by LDS fiction. I get a whole lot of "fan" mail that makes your point. Thanks for the reminder. We all need it from time to time, I think. (PS - Still waiting for that guest blog . . .)

At 1/31/2007 12:37 PM, Anonymous Fellfrosch said...

Wow, it's kind of amazing how well you can predict a comment's usefulness by whether or not it was posted anonymously. At least when I want to rant about pet peeves (like right now) I sign my name to it.

At 1/31/2007 2:56 PM, Blogger Mean Aunt said...

If you want a screwed-up protagonist I give you Scarlett O'Hara. Talk about a flawed character--but you so want her life to turn out fine even though she is self-destructive.

And even at the end you know that if Rhett has any sense he'll never come back, but you really hope he does and they'll live happily ever after.

Or is GWTW too much like Jane Austen for manly Rob Wells ;)

At 2/06/2007 9:31 AM, Blogger Josi said...

I think the key is finding the balance between flawed characters and relatability. We all have flaws--some we're aware of and some that are invisable to us but blatently obvious to poor saps that have to put up with us. Reading about characters that through the course of action in a novel discover their weaknesses and work toward overcoming them is a kind of hope for the rest of us. Everyone hates Peter Preisthood and Molly Mormon because they make us feel small--who needs more smallness in their life? Not me.
So give me someone that has room to grow, that makes me nod and say "Yeah babe, I TOTALLY hear ya!" and then when they succeed the triumph is even sweeter. At the risk of taking it too deep, it reminds us of what the Atonement is all about--renewal. Being better today than we were yesturday. It doesn't have to be a conversion or something dramatic, it can be a cold person hugging their child, a control freak taking a step back, an alcholic putting down that one drink. But it shows strength, it shows overcoming and it shows...character.
I've often said that the basis of every book I've written is imperfect people with imperfect lives doing the best they can and quite honestly, I wouldn't know how to write a perfect person--where on earth would I get the impsiration for that? Certainly not in the mirror, that's for sure.

At 2/06/2007 9:32 AM, Blogger Josi said...

And I can't spell--that's another weakness of mine that...apprently I'm not making much progress on. Sigh.


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