[00:00:00] Hello, and welcome to The Storyteller's Mission with Zena Dell Lowe, a podcast for artists and storytellers about changing the world for the better through story.
[00:00:09] One of the more recent aha moments I've had as a writer has come because of the work I've done doing script critiques and working with students and evaluating scripts as a consultant for different production companies, that sort of thing.
[00:00:25] And what I would like to argue is that it is essential, it is absolutely essential that you rethink how you construct your character from the beginning so that they have the makings of heroism.
[00:00:39] What happens is because we know that our characters must be flawed, we are creating these flawed characters that have to overcome some deficiency or some wound or that sort of thing, which is appropriate.
[00:00:52] But unfortunately, the characteristic that we're giving them most commonly is selfishness. And see, that's a really, really tricky trait for your character to overcome. Because if they're truly fundamentally selfish, then they're not heroic. And we need our characters to have the makings of heroism from the beginning.
[00:01:15] So, what happens then is we are confused about what it means to be potentially heroic. And we are also confused about this notion of making our characters flawed. Of course they have to be flawed, but we tend to make them... Not just flawed, but morally depraved to the point of not being redeemable. We tend to focus on character traits like selfishness that take it a bridge too far. It's not, It's not something we can come back from. Certainly not easily.
[00:01:51] Now I've spoken about this a lot in previous podcasts, but it bears repeating here and I have maybe a new solution today that is going to maybe help you if you're struggling with this because no matter how much I talk about it, it's still prevalent. It's everywhere. People are just confused about this notion.
[00:02:10] So, the real point is that while you can have a character whose perceptions are flawed, if your character is truly fundamentally selfish, then we, the audience, are going to hate them. Then we are going to see them as being self indulgent, self interested, self pitying. Anybody that is overly consumed with self is a problem.
[00:02:36] It's just a problem. So how do we overcome this? I'm going to get to some solutions in a bit. The whole point, though, of story is for you to create a character that is so interesting and likable or at least sympathetic enough that your audience is going to be emotionally sucked into him or her story.
[00:02:58] And if you have a character that is too selfish, then we can't do that. Your audience, your readers, have to care about your main character. But no one cares about someone who's pathetic. And no one cares about somebody who's having pity parties. Or boo hoo hoo, poor me. Nobody cares about somebody who sees themselves as a victim.
[00:03:23] And that's just the truth. Pity parties cannot be allowed. Is your main character a drunk? Fine, let him be a drunk, but you have to give him a justifiable reason to be drunk. And, uh, it, and it has to be a real reason. It cannot be simply because, boo hoo hoo, they feel sorry for themselves and the world has really given them a rotten hand.
[00:03:46] That is not sufficient. We will hate them. Because we expect our characters to rise above that. Now, if you have a character who's a drunk because they're having PTSD episodes and they drink to try to get over the haunting, the images that come to their mind when they're sleeping. Now it's different. Now it's something they're doing, not because they feel sorry for themselves, but because it's the only way they know to escape these images.
[00:04:15] If it's just... Oh, I'm so sad and pathetic, and everybody, and my son doesn't like me, so I get drunk. Now he's pathetic, and we hate him. So it does need to be connected to a trauma wound. The lies that he believes about himself because of those wounds, but what we see needs to be someone who acts contrary to that.
[00:04:40] This is essential. There are so many hateful main characters out there right now, and it doesn't work because they're just not likable to us. We just can't, we can't invest in their emotional journey because we cannot care about them because they're pathetic and they're selfish and they're victims. So, what does that mean then?
[00:05:07] How do we do that exactly?
[00:05:09] Furthermore, what types of qualities does your main character need to have to be likable or potentially heroic instead of selfishness? Or how can you change selfishness so that it doesn't seem selfish? So that they can actually be likable then. It's all of these questions and it's nuances, by the way.
[00:05:29] And here's the truth. The acid test at the end of the day is always, does it work? So, some of the solutions I'm even offering here may or may not work depending on how you employ it. But we're going to try it. We're going to try. Because this has to be changed if you want a good character that your audience can get behind.
[00:05:47] So again, let me just say for the record that selfishness is a very, very tricky characteristic for you to give your main character. And I've already addressed this in depth, in several other episodes, and yet it keeps coming up, it keeps coming up, I keep seeing it, I keep seeing it, and so we're not getting it yet.
[00:06:07] And I can't explain why exactly we keep seeing it, other than to say, that we have some confusion on this subject that needs to be addressed.
[00:06:16] I will also say here that it's helped me, at least, to realize that selfishness can never actually be their true nature. If I want the audience to accept them as heroic, selfishness cannot actually be true.
[00:06:33] They can appear to be selfish, but they can't actually be selfish at their core. So then, what I need to show is that they are, in fact, being sacrificial. That is one of the ways that we can use something that looks like selfishness to show that it's truly self sacrificial. Because at the core, and this is a key characteristic of heroes, heroes are self-sacrificial.
[00:07:04] That is what makes them heroes. They will lay down their lives for others. And see, if you have a drunk who is going to be so self indulgent that they're going to drink and be drunk. That is the fundamental opposite that they need to be than self-sacrificial. The only way that works is if they think they are being self-sacrificial.
[00:07:30] So if they have a bad relationship with their son, and they want a relationship with their son, but they truly believe that they are going to hurt their son or that the son's exposure to them is somehow going to put the son in danger or at risk... now, not being there for the son isn't selfish, it's sacrificial.
[00:07:57] So now they're sacrificing their own happiness, which is to be with the son for the betterment of the son. Which might look like selfishness because they're off at the bar drinking, but really they're doing it for the son's benefit. So it's not truly selfish.
[00:08:14] You see how this works? Now again It has to be because they have a skewed or flawed way of thinking based on a prior wound. That's the only way that works. They really have to believe that they are so damaged that they're going to damage other people in their world. And so they're choosing to do things in a way.
[00:08:33] Maybe they even get drunk for the purpose of chasing other people away. But even then then it's not for their own purposes. It's because they need everybody else to be afraid of them or to think that they're a piece of crap so that those people are protected. So it's still an act of sacrifice. Do you see how that works?
[00:08:52] It's a nuance. It's a trick, but it is essential if you want your character to be potentially heroic. Heroes are self-sacrificial. Selfish characters are selfish. They're the opposite of self-sacrificial. They are selfish. They get and they gain for themselves. So this is a fundamental flaw in main characters that exists.
[00:09:19] And you should challenge yourself to look at your main character and ask yourself are they truly fundamentally selfish or do they only appear that way? Is their selfishness, in fact, a disguise?
[00:09:34] So, to that end, that is one of my primary solutions that I want to offer you today. You must have a character that is only selfish by disguise.
[00:09:46] The selfishness is a disguise. The character is hiding behind this characteristic. Letting others believe it's true when in fact it's not. And again, even them hiding behind it is not for their own benefit, but for the benefit of the others in their world.
[00:10:05] And so, it can be reframed or packaged in a slightly different, more noble way. Because that's the thing. You've got to be thinking about your character as doing things for noble reasons, for reasons bigger than themselves.
[00:10:20] See, a selfish worldview is myopic. It's right here. All I can see is what fundamentally affects me.
[00:10:28] But a heroic character sees things out here. They have to have a wider lens that they're seeing the world through. And so therefore, they are seeing things as it affects other people, and it gets beyond their own limited perspective. But if you have a character that's here and only sees how things affect them, they're a hateful character.
[00:10:53] They simply cannot be noble. But there is something bigger calling a hero. There is something bigger. It's a bigger calling. And they take responsibility for things that are not theirs by assignment. But selfish characters can't do that. Selfish characters can't even take responsibility for their own actions because they see themselves as victims.
[00:11:18] But we need characters who take more responsibility than they own. That's heroism. They see it all as being their problem. They see it all as being their responsibility. So that's part of the problem with having a truly fundamentally selfish character is they're not doing it for the right reasons. And all you have to do is switch the reasons why they are acting in a selfish manner.
[00:11:47] If they are acting in a selfish manner for the good of everybody else, now all of a sudden, even that becomes noble. Because they're trying to do it for the benefit of the people in their world. So, for example, I have my novel that I'm writing. It's a children's fantasy novel called The Bottomless Box.
[00:12:08] And the main character's name is Percy. And in the first iteration of it, Percy was fundamentally selfish. He was truly selfish. He was selfish because Percy had been abused by the Master, And so that was a natural outcome of the abuse. However, it didn't work. It didn't ultimately work. Percy was not noble.
[00:12:34] I realized that with my character Percy, I needed to reframe his apparent selfishness. I wanted him to be broken and bitter, and I had a good reason for Percy to be bitter and resentful. And his selfishness was justified.
[00:12:50] Even so, the story just wasn't working. Because I had made him so fundamentally selfish that it was difficult for people to connect with him or to empathize with him or to be emotionally invested in his story. And what I realized is that I needed his selfishness to be expressed differently. In this case, it's Percy who believes he's horribly selfish.
[00:13:19] He hates himself for it. He knows himself and he sees his flaws, and yet the irony is that his actions belie his words. We see him acting nobly.
[00:13:32] Percy has a distorted sense of self because of the wounds that he received at the hands of the Master. He thinks he's bad. He thinks he is fundamentally unlovable at his core, when in fact we see that he's good because he acts in a way that is for the good of others at his own expense.
[00:13:59] He's doing the right thing, not for any gain to himself because he doesn't think he deserves any credit and it becomes a beautiful, beautiful act of self-sacrifice.
[00:14:10] Now there are times when Percy hurts other characters in the story. He abandons them or he is cruel to them. He says mean things, but in fact, he's doing it not to hurt that person, but to help them, he thinks he's helping them because that person is relying on him and he knows he's going to fail them.
[00:14:35] So he believes he is helping them to toughen up, to rely on themselves. Because Percy is the wrong person for them to believe in. So even his cruelty is not for the purposes of being cruel. It's for the purposes of helping the other person have the equipping that they need to survive on their own since Percy is inevitably going to fail because he believes he is a failure.
[00:15:04] And so it changes why he's doing it, which is essential. Motivation matters. The act itself still feels cruel, but why he's doing it fundamentally changes our experience of that act. And now we can be sympathetic or empathetic with him, even though we hate that he's hurting these other characters that we've come to love.
[00:15:30] You cannot have a heroic character who doesn't make sacrifices. It is an essential quality of heroism. They must have self sacrifice. You must have a character who, at the end of the day, only appears to be selfish because in fact their selfishness is for the benefit of others because of some skewed perspective on their own part.
[00:15:57] They need to believe that whatever they're doing is going to ultimately benefit the other characters because of whatever wound has skewed their own perspective.
[00:16:07] And to that end then, my suggestion is that you use selfishness as a disguise. It's something that the character hides behind, but it isn't absolutely true. It can't be, if I want a heroic character. A heroic character has to think beyond their own myopic worldview. They have to see things for the good of others.
[00:16:34] They have to do things for the good of others. They have to do things for noble reasons. You have to find the nobility that is driving the action. What is the noble purpose? Even if their actions are cruel, what is the noble motivation behind it?
[00:16:53] These are the things that I think you need to have. If you are going to have a character that has some selfish traits, these are the things you need to filter into it so that they are not truly fundamentally selfish. Because at the end of the day, a truly fundamentally selfish character is not heroic, and it ain't gonna work.
[00:17:16] So I hope that this has been helpful to you, and that you will apply this to your own story.
[00:17:22] All right, I want to thank you so much for listening to the Storyteller's Mission with Zena Dell Lowe. And may you go forth inspired to change the world for the better through story.