The title of this rant refers to a process that happens to characters who start off genuinely flawed—usually the heroes, but sometimes villains or random minor characters who need to learn a lesson. The author scrubs them throughout the book, turning every flaw or possibly murky incident into its best possible interpretation, and insisting that some other things that made the character who he was change completely. Now, I’m all for character arcs, but only if they don’t produce a shining, flawless stereotype at the end.
1) Don’t scrub away every prejudice.
Ladybirdsleeps remarked to me once that fantasy authors have more fear of writing a character as a racist than they do writing him as a murderer. I think that’s true.
Racist characters are damn rare in fantasy in the first place, but there are characters who hold other kinds of prejudices. They’re sexist, or speciesist, or afraid of magic, or whatever. In some cases, the prejudice makes more sense than the open-mindedness of other people (I have to admit to snickering at any number of cosmopolitan peasant brats who have never seen elves, are surrounded by other people who fear and mistrust them, and yet somehow inherently know that Elves Are Good). But the character is not allowed to remain prejudiced. Oh, no. Authors can write a hero who kills right and left, or leaves his best friend to die if it turns out that the best friend acts hostile to his newfound love interest, but gods forbid that they write a bigot!
The problem is, the changeover is very rarely done right. Many fantasy authors seem to take the simplistic view that the character’s prejudice comes from never “knowing” a member of the group in question, and that all they have to do is introduce one who is so goshdarn amazing that the prejudiced character just can’t retain his beliefs. This is a common source of stupid comeback scenes in fantasy. The prejudiced character makes some remark, the goshdarn amazing outsider retorts, and the prejudiced character is left slackjawed. Most of the time, these remarks are not genuinely witty, and there’s no reason they should take the other person aback the way they do. Prejudice does not correlate 100% of the time with a lack of intelligence or conversational flair. Some very smart people, and some very good speakers, have believed some very stupid things.
Another problem is speed. The author wants the prejudiced character to give up a lifelong belief in a week? A month? Two months? Yes, of course that must happen, because that’s how long the fantasy book covers, and the prejudiced character must become a flawless stereotype before then. Really, people, it needs longer than that.
And finally, the journey is almost invariably portrayed as one from ignorance to warm-happy-everything-love. Forgive me for being cynical and looking at some of the people I’ve known, but my feeling is that people who do change deeply-held ideas they were fanatical about are often at least as fanatical about the new ones. Why would a character who has been convinced not to hate elves not look down on the people who still hate elves? Why does he become at one with the universe, instead of a fanatic for the other side? One aspect of his personality has altered, not the whole thing.
If you really use prejudice as a flaw, show how the character changes from it. Don’t just scrub it off like dirt under the fingernails.
2) Don’t change every murky incident into a Misunderstanding.
This is the problem in stories where the heroine is supposedly a slut, and then it turns out that she’s a maligned virgin, or in the stories where the hero has a badass reputation and it turns out that he really just lets his “victims” loose with a stern warning.
Let people not shine all the time, please.
Sometimes there’s a weird thing that happens in fantasy stories where authors let their characters make mistakes. It still doesn’t happen to the hero, but instead everyone else in the story is mistaken about him. They think he’s a coward, and lo, he is not, he is The Most Awesome Warrior Ever. They think he betrayed his country, and of course he didn’t, he was framed. They think he married the wrong person, and of course not, they just didn’t understand the eternal purity of their love.
Gossip is harder to deal with than many authors think. (This goes back to prejudice again). Even if shown incontrovertible evidence that what they believe is not true, many people may go on believing it—because they don’t accept the evidence, because it suits their purposes, whatever. The stain or shadow on a character’s reputation of things half-heard or half-seen can be much harder to get rid of than an outright act of good or evil. And it should be half-heard or half-seen, not simple truth or lies. If there wasn’t any doubt at all, and everyone who was anyone knew the truth all along, how did the hero’s reputation stay stained?
Let the murk linger. It can give characters depths and shadows that they won’t get if the author reveals that they were wise and perfect and noble and badass from the day they were born. Or consider revealing the truth—that no, the character didn’t betray his country like everyone said, he did something even worse. That kind of reversal isn’t often used, and may add to your story tremendously if it’ll fit.
3) Don’t ennoble everyone’s motives.
You know this one. It might be more frequent than the smog that the author disperses at a moment’s notice. The hero did kill someone else, but it was self-defense, not murder. He does rob people, but only to give the money to the poor. She did sleep around, but she did it under compulsion, because otherwise the bad guy would have murdered her true love. (I will now declare my eternal hatred for that plotline). She did kill the child, but the child was actually the source of all evil in the world.
And yea verily, I say unto thee, “The wisest of people make mistakes. Show them doing it, and show them doing it for the wrong reasons, too.”
Redemption is possible in a fantasy story. It matters much less, however, if it turns out that the character really didn’t have anything to be redeemed of, and was just beating himself up over nothing. That’s flaw-scrubbing, showing that the character always acts for the right reasons. Desperation, helplessness, honest ignorance? Never! The character is always acting in the name of the Greater Good or the Higher Light or to save the world.
This doesn’t mean you have to make all your characters into mercenaries. The motives I mentioned above can make a person do stupid things, and yet they’re eminently understandable. But they do make your character into a real person, not a shining paragon.
Note to flaw-scrubbing fantasy authors: This is something to be valued, not run from.
4) Don’t take away flaws because of a prophecy.
If your princess is spoiled and a brat, she shouldn’t become a better person just because she’s the object of a prophecy. If your peasant heroine is awkward and earthy and makes inappropriate decisions about men, she shouldn’t suddenly move like a dancer and have good table manners and only choose the one man who will really love her back just because the Wise Old Mentor has informed her she’s the Moon Child of poetry.
This seems to happen more often with prophecies than just with simple saving the world, probably because of the odd idea that if a bit of doggerel predicted your coming several hundred years before, you must be more important than someone who’s probably going to be great. Prophecies do weird things to people’s brains, I swear, both in and out of fantasy. The Moon Child can have no flaws, so, decides the author, the heroine (who may have been normal and likeable up until then) can have no flaws, either.
Remember that a prophecy is, in the end, poetry, usually written with all the skill and subtlety of someone banging on piano keys with a sledgehammer. It by itself can’t convey greatness, and can’t insure that a person always does what is right. Don’t change your character into the person she’s predicted to be without going through the intervening steps. Prophecies predict the future, after all. Why not move her through a dangerous and awkward present first?
5) Don’t take away flaws by blinding the other characters.
This is possible if the author isn’t writing strictly or solely from inside the heroine’s head, but also from the minds of sidekicks, love interests, secondary heroes, etc. The author can cheat and declare that, well, maybe Amalathistia really isn’t perfect, but her lover sees her as the most flawless thing to walk the earth, so she must be!
We’ve discussed this before. Yes, love can and does change people’s perspectives on each other, but it very rarely reaches into the other person’s chest, grabs their heart, and turns everything there to shining light. Amalathistia’s love interest might care for her enough to ignore the way that she tries to shift her problems onto other people’s shoulders. When the author returns to Amalathistia’s viewpoint, however, she should not have suddenly stopped doing that—especially if her love interest has never talked to her about it. Decisions reached or perspectives taken in other characters’ minds do not magically make people better. If the author wants to do her character arc, she has to do it from within the character as well as record the changing perceptions of her from outside.
6) Don’t change flaws without making the change cost something.
And this, really, is the heart of flaw-scrubbing, what makes it different from a “simple” character arc or a person really growing and changing in a story. The author makes the character go through nothing more traumatic than a mere bath, when she should have nearly drowned.
You’ve seen these:
- the cowardly character who ends up feeling his fear vanish just before he faces his worst enemy.
- the heroine deathly afraid of her magic who realizes that it will come to her call, and is really no more dangerous than soft fluffy bunnies.
- the hero who worries about ruling a kingdom, only to realize that it’s no problem because he’s not a peasant, he’s the son of ancient kings, and people will follow him automatically.
- the heroine whose irrational hatred for the hero dissolves when, aww, he rescues a drowning puppy! Wookit! He’s wonderful because he wuvs wittle animals! (That last sentence was physically painful to write, just so you know).
What does it cost? Nothing. What does the character gain? Everything.
Character arcs resolving take investment and struggle and shaping and introspection, damn it. Not some candy-cotton “epiphany.”
This ties in with redemption stories, but so often the hero really has nothing to be redeemed from; the author just thinks he does, because my gosh, he’s not Mr. Perfect yet, and winds up blotting out all the shadows that actually make him human.