Making It Worse: Why Awkward Characters Are The Best

So, is this a good time to tell you that your scabbard is in a REALLY awkward place?

Awkward characters are the most fun to write.*

Here’s why: you’ve got a situation. Because you’re a writer, it’s probably bad. Some shit’s about to go down and everything stands on the brink of disaster. One false move, one inappropriate word, and the whole thing comes crashing down.

Having an awkward character there is like having a match when you’re standing knee-deep in gunpowder.

It’s all about potential. Awkward characters—and by that I mean characters who say or do the wrong thing at the wrong time, just like real people—are endless sources of complication, hilarity, tragedy, and things going completely pear-shaped. They’re like machines designed to make chaos.

Which, as a writer, is fucking great.

See, the best thing about awkward characters is that you never have to look outside for sources of conflict. They make their own, which is far more compelling than anything I can impose on them. Comets falling from the sky and invasions of Mole-Things from under the earth are way less interesting than a rookie fighter who, because of some broken wiring, can’t stop herself from mouthing off to the biggest, baddest necromancer around.

This isn’t to say external conflict isn’t good and, sometimes, necessary. It can also be fun. But if you’re looking to create tension, most readers instinctively cringe when a protagonist does something stupid. Because we know what it’s like. We’ve done that. Okay, maybe not giving the finger to the five-storey-tall rampaging mech, but we’ve definitely said the wrong thing to our boss, or our partner, or a cop. We’ve done stupid shit and had to reap the consequences.

And knowing that a character can do something awkward is a great source of tension: “Oh, god, Jimmy’s stuck in the middle of the horde of Bob the Bleak-Hearted, he should just give up, give up, Jimmy, don’t start talking again, every time you talk it goes bad.”

Whether or not Jimmy says what’s on his mind to Bob, the tension is there. People will read just to see how bad he fucks it up. He might not fuck it up, especially if this is the Last Great Confrontation and Jimmy has to get his shit together or destroy time and space. But the potential for fuck-uppery permeates the scene, winching ever tighter around the heart of the reader, until the sheer tension makes them want to throw up.

Writers: we’re bastards. Get used to it.

*Though, for me, not always to read. When I’m reading I love those knife-edged, grey area bastards like Harlequin in Myke Cole’s Control Point.

Broadening Your Horizons (If You Know What I Mean)

Warning, Sex in progress Do not disturb

Writers: we're natural voyeurs. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A while back, I decided to try something new in my writing. Something guaranteed to push me out of the writing comfort zone and straight into Awkward Town.

That’s right: a sex scene.

God, it was hard.* Not only trying to keep the characters in character, but trying not to end up with something that sounded like: a) a Penthouse letter or b) a Harlequin romance. A scene from Preacher kept playing in my head, when an angel is discussing his love affair with a demon with the main character:

Angel: It was a tornado. A hurricane. A tsunami crashing down upon a tower of rock. Our juices fell like rain on the inferno.
Jesse: Hey!
Angel: We were not meant to even meet, let alone achieve such union. We were not created —
Jesse: Hey! How much more of this horseshit have I gotta listen to?

Don’t be that guy. No one likes that guy.

Anyway, it ended up taking me most of the day to get five hundred words I was happy with.** And I will note that a thesaurus leads you to some interesting but very strange word choices in this context. There were a lot of deletions and re-writing in that afternoon, and a lot of questions:

How much detail do I put it? Is that too much? Or is this coming off like it was written by a virginal choir girl? What adjective appropriately describes how breasts move? (Pokes own for inspiration.) Wobbled? God, that’s terrible. The hell is wrong with me?

And so on.

In the end,*** the biggest challenge was making sure the characters acted like themselves. Which means I had to consider how those characters would have sex.

That was an awkward afternoon.

But I’m glad I did it.**** It helped define some parts of their relationship for me, which made subsequent moments, sexy and otherwise, easier to write. The sex scene ended up being less about the act and more about their reactions to it. In that sense, it had to do the same job as every other scene: either advance plot or illustrate character. Thinking of it like that helped me get it right. I had to make sure it was them having sex, not some faceless interchangeable Mary Sues.

So she trips on the way to the bedroom, almost taking them both down, and then laughs about it. He can feel the scars on her back under his hands, and finds it kind of a turn on. And it’s all tangled up with who they are and what’s happening in the world around them, even if only as an escape from it. It’s part of the story then, not just a random add-on. It serves a purpose.

And, you know, it’s hot.

*Save the jokes until the end, folks, or this will take forever.
**All written with the curtains drawn, lest the neighbours become aware of what I was doing. Stupid Catholic upbringing.
***Seriously? Too easy.
****So were they.