Friday, July 30, 2010

She Thinks She's a Ten

Her t-shirt, a skimpy tank that left nothing to the imagination, declared, “I’m a 10.” Oh yeah?

The small Alaskan town I live in holds a rustic little festival each summer called the Bear Paw Festival. The festival activities include Running with the Bears (a patent rip-off of Pamplona’s Running with the Bulls), with a course that is only 300 yards long because after 300 yards “running just isn’t fun any more.” There’s the Chalk-a-Palooza sidewalk chalk drawing contest, the dog and owner look-alike contest, a teddy bear picnic and a rubber ducky race among other amusements. The carnival rides and parade draw big crowds from the surrounding wilds and suburbs alike.

It’s fertile ground for a writer who loves to people-watch. The bottle-blonde blessed with a healthy dose of self-esteem crossed my path several times that afternoon at the Midway and while my boys whirled through the air on the carnival rides, I had time to ponder the woman and the message on her shirt. Was the shirt a joke? Was it a gift from her love-blind boyfriend? Did she honestly think she was a ten? If she did, what were her standards, and God forbid, what did a three look like on her scale of attractiveness?

As the boys pulled cottony puffs of spun sugar from an over-priced bag of cotton candy, the woman once again crossed our path. She was having a riotously good time by the looks of it, completely oblivious to the little white lie on her chest. (I would have said huge lie, but her chest wasn’t that big.)

No matter. She got me thinking. Maybe it was just a sugar rush from the cotton candy, but I began to see how this wonderfully clueless woman was a metaphor for nearly any character a novelist could create.

She was memorable, which is the first rule of creating a good character. But why? Because she was perfect? Or because she was imperfect? Well, neither. It was because she was so blissfully unaware of her imperfection.

Much has already been written about character flaws in fiction. Flaws are human, we all have them and so should our characters. With flaws, a character becomes multidimensional or “real,” and so much more interesting. Flawed characters are catalysts to conflict and tension. More importantly, imperfect characters have room for growth.

I could talk more about character shortcomings, but what struck me about Miss T-Shirt wasn’t her imperfection, but her unawareness of it. How often do we have a character with a flaw that he is completely unaware of? Other characters see it. Readers spot it. But the character might go on his merry way through much of the story unaware that this flaw either causes a great deal of humor for others, or causes himself much grief, or gives him away when he least wishes to be found out.

Barbara Rogan at Compuserve's Books and Writers Community recently hosted a writer’s exercise in undercutting. Barbara’s premise is that in real life we constantly judge people, particularly by their own words. We don’t necessarily take them at face value and we don’t always accept their own assessments of themselves. The same is true of characters we encounter in a book. She says, “To a discerning reader, a character will often reveal more about themselves than they intended.” In short, some flaw, some blindness to self, can add depth to a character and provide a richer tapestry in which to weave your story.

I challenge you to take a look at the characters in your own writing. Do they unintentionally reveal themselves? Do they know they’re imperfect, or suspect they are? Do their flaws create tension in just the right places? Have you given them room for growth, for revelation, for redemption? Perhaps they’re even like the woman at the carnival, completely, blissfully unaware of their own imperfection. If so, you may just have a “10” in your story.


  1. This would make a great exercise Susan! Not just undercutting, but trying to get your characters to act insouciantly. Mine are usually pretty deliberate, always thinking about their motivations and so on. It would be nice to let go of that a little.
    I can't believe there's a market for "I'm a 10" type shirts...

  2. Fantastic post, Susan- your observation is one of those things that seems obvious once you think of it, but when you dig a little deeper it's quite complex. The flaws themselves are the story, and the inability of the character to see them is the conflict.

  3. Excellent post, Susan! Gives me lots of food for thought.

    I've been working on "going deeper" with my characters of late, but coming at it from a slightly different angle; instead of unawareness of a flaw, I've been pondering how a character's lack of self knowledge, a character's failure to understand what it is that makes them tick and what it is they really need - not what the *think* they need - can add richness and depth, and give lots of potential for conflict ...

    BTW, that t-shirt sounds like it was full of awesome. *g*