Monday, April 13, 2015

When Good Characters Go Bad

by Kasey Tross

Agent Booth from Bones on Fox (fyi- when male characters go bad the facial hair is a dead giveaway)

I was searching through my bedside table notepad last night in search of post ideas for today, and after sorting through a few to-do lists, notes for my novel, and lesson ideas for church, I found a notebook page with a big "MMW" scrawled across the top. Jackpot!

Well, sort of. You know how when you're in the moment (at 11:30pm) and you get that flash of inspiration and you write as fast as your pen can go and it seems to make perfect sense at the time? But then just doesn't?


Well, anyway, after reading through it a few times I think I kind of got the gist of what I was trying to say. So here goes.

I was watching the TV show Bones (great show, btw) and in the show a main character was murdered. Obviously, this was a major shock to the other characters, and so while part of the show was about bringing the killer to justice, another part was about how the characters handled it.

What I found interesting about this story arc is that it created a great catalyst for character development. While most of the characters grieved this loss and became determined to solve the case, one character- Agent Booth- who is typically a very moral guy- started to lose it. It started to push him over the edge, and he began to go from dedication to obsession.

The writers could have very easily made this story arc all about the plot- after all, it is a crime show- but instead, they chose to take one of the main characters' strengths- his dedication to justice- and let the grief push that positive trait into dangerous territory: a mad need for revenge. If you've ever watched Burn Notice (SUCH a great show) a very similar thing happened to the main character in that show. Toward the end of the show his agenda- which was a noble one- began to put everyone he cared about in jeopardy, and they couldn't help becoming concerned about his growing obsession.

Another simpler version of this can be seen in kids' shows, like Boy Meets World for us 90's kids, and Girl Meets World for OUR kids. In these shows, the writers take the most endearing trait of the main characters- their innocent good intentions- and demonstrate how that innocence, when mixed with the right situation, can become a fault that causes conflict.

So the first question for you is this: Can you drive your character development by taking a character's positive trait and intensifying it to the point that it becomes detrimental and creates conflict in the story? In the examples above I cited dedication => obsession and innocence => naivete. Here are few more ideas for you:

kindness/helpfulness => doormat
bravery => recklessness
teachable => gullible
gentleness => cowardice
confidence => conceit
friendship => total dependence

Now the real trick: How can you use other plot elements to bring your character full circle? As Bones went on, Agent Booth learned that he could be a powerful force for justice without obsessing. Corey and Riley both learned/are learning that they can be kind and helpful in a mature and accepting way.

How will your character learn to be brave while still staying responsible? Gentle and still courageous? Confident yet still humble?

One more aspect to consider with this sort of a character development strategy is point of view (POV). With a television show it can be pretty clear when a character is starting to cross the line from healthy behavior to unhealthy, damaging behavior: the other characters exchange looks, express concern, and so on. With a third person POV like this you can usually see the switch coming, you can see how it affects others, and you can feel its repercussions more.

With novel writing, however, we get the added interest of possibly writing this sort of thing first person, which I find to be one of the most fascinating ways to write such a character flaw, because, if you do it well, the reader might be so totally invested in the main character that they might not even realize when the switch happens from the good behavior to the dangerous. 

I was reading "Twenties Girl" by Sophie Kinsella (oh how I love her books) and something like this happened: the main character started to go a little over the edge, but I didn't even realize it because I was in her head, and all of her thoughts and actions seemed perfectly reasonable to me at the time. By the time I realized the path she was (we were?) going down, I was just as surprised as she was! That's how you know it's well written.

Last question: How could changing your story's POV affect the way the reader experiences this sort of story arc? Would one POV be more effective than another? (You might even want to consider writing it both ways as a writing exercise just to better understand how it affects each character.)

After I mulled over this good-characters-gone-bad idea I ended up finding a really great arc for one of my secondary characters (a love interest) who had been very 2-D before. I decided that he was going to take a noble, diplomatic point of view about a particular situation, which is great, until the situation gets to the point that my MC can't stay in diplomatic territory anymore- she needs to act (without giving him all the reasons why). This creates tension between them, and he has to choose whether he is going to stick to his principles or if he is going to trust her enough to be on her side. When he finally chooses to trust her, it will help to cement their relationship.

Hope these ideas help you as much as they've helped me... now go turn some good characters bad!



  1. Enjoyed your post. It's a new angle to character development I hadn't thought of.

  2. I hate it when a good character goes bad, sometimes you can get it why they do but still I don't like it



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