While at the FWA, I gave a seminar, “Why Did You Reject Me?” I like this particular talk because authors receive form rejection letters and have no clue as to why they got rejected. My seminar outlines the major causes for rejection.
One of those reasons for rejection is character development. Of course, we want fully developed, three-dimensional characters, but there’s a lesser known aberration, and that is the tendency to make them too perfect. It’s a natural consequence because we lurve our characters and hate the thought of making them appear unlikeable. It’s an overreaction.
And that’s exactly what can get you into trouble. I call it the Barbie and Ken Syndrome.
Oh, how I loved Barbie when I was a wee bairn. She was perfect in every way. Great hair, great clothes, perfect body, her makeup never smeared, and I’m willing to lay down good money that she never farted or burped. And don’t even get me started on her pink convertible. Le swoon.
And Ken? What a dudemeister. He always had the perfect tan, perfect white teeth, his swimming trunks fit like a glove (hey, I’m a Southern Californian, I notice these things), and he always had plenty of money to take Babs to all the great places in an equally groovy car. I’m certain he never farted or burped either. Well, never in front of Barbie.
And this is what writers tend to do with their characters because they can’t bear the thought of readers seeing their characters in anything other than a good light. The outcome, however, is that the characters are as deep as the beagle’s margarita glass. They’re boring and one-dimensional.
As I grew older, I began to have some serious doubts about Ken and Barbie. C’mon, my devilish side argued, no one is that perfect. I began to wonder if they ever argued. If they did, what would they argue about? In my mind, Barbie took on the guise of the consummate Valley Girl and spoke only in Valley Speak. Ken morphed into a boor who had too much time on his manicured hands, and Daddy’s money gave him the freedom to cheat on Babs while she was away on her job as an astronaut, doctor, or a flight attendant. Lord knows he never seemed to be burdened with those pesky things like a job. The only thing I ever remember him doing is scuba diving.
I imagine a typical conversation as going something like this:
Babs: Keeennnn <sound all whiny like>, when are you going to take me to that, like, totally awesome new restaurant? I bought the most radical outfit that shows off my perfect body.
Ken: <yawning while checking out his reflection in the window and worrying mightily because he already has reservations for the restaurant – only he’s taking that hot little beach bunny he met last Tuesday> Like, really? I heard they disguise rat droppings for ground pepper. Dad suggest we make more appearances at the country club, since he was just elected president.
So all of a sudden, Ken and Barbie have some human qualities that invite more meat for conflict and juice to the story.OMG! Ken and Babs now have some dimension!
After my seminar, a lovely woman (and I wish I could remember her name so I could give her proper attribution) told me that her crit group had such a problem with the Ken and Barbie Syndrome that they started calling it The Seven Deadly Sins.
I love that.
This isn’t a literal idea where you need to limit yourself to wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust (hello, Ken, you two-timing bastid), envy, and gluttony.
It’s the quick tattoo-to-the-forehead reminder that writers must ensure their characters reflect the qualities of real people. And think about it; the more human your characters are, the more delicious things you can do to them. My original vision of Barbie and Ken was that they were so perfect there wasn’t anything to talk about. And that is what makes agents and editors reach for a form rejection letter.
Don’t be afraid to give your protagonist human failings. Ken may be a rich womanizer right now, but who’s to say he won’t undergo a huge transformation when Babs develops breast cancer and looses her job and health insurance? As long as you have enough positive characteristics to hang our hat on, we’ll forgive human failings because we all got ‘em.
Well, I don’t…