And the non-annoying stubborn characters rant it is. I just finished writing about an annoying one, and was glad to wash my hands of him, so this is informed by much groaning at the stupid plot twists the stubbornness forced experience.
1) Show why the character’s stubbornness is important to him.
The reader needs a context for it, just as he does for a character’s courage or cunning or helpfulness or sense of duty. Of course, the writer can do the “He was stubborn from childhood” thing, but it helps to know why, and why he’s remained that way rather than modifying his stance. What does stubbornness gain him?
It must gain him something, especially if it’s extreme stubbornness. The more dangerous the character’s situation and the fewer allies he has, the more solid the justification has to be. A prince come young to his throne, with untrustworthy advisors all around him and only what political experience he’s gained from watching his parents and the court, can’t afford to be too stubborn. He might choose to be, on occasion, to avoid looking weak. However, if he goes too far, someone will probably lose patience and dispose of him, or come up with ways to work around the edges of his stubbornness. Worse, the reader might decide that he’s a spoiled child who won’t obey anything other than his own immediate impulses, just because he doesn’t want to, even to preserve his own life or his country’s safety. I know it can be attractive to write a character who resists every piece of advice, but it works better when the stakes are smaller. Stubborn rulers are better served by cunning or patience or the ability to compromise running next to the stubbornness.
Sure, a character might be young and stubborn and absolutely certain that he knows what’s right, so he sticks to his guns at all costs and all odds. But in that case, “all costs” have to descend on him. He’ll have to face people who are pissed off at him, learn that he made some mistakes—if you really do make him intuitively right about everything, you’ve got bigger characterization problems than the stubbornness—and work to fix the mistakes. If his opponents are also stubborn, then they have no reason to roll over and bare their bellies, any more than the lead does, because you want them to or because it would help the plot along. (See point 5).
2) Show the stubbornness varying with different people and different issues.
Unless you have Mr. “Reverse-Psychology-Works-On-Me-Every-Time,” who becomes a stereotype faster than you can say his name, then the character has no reason to oppose everything that someone else wants. Some issues he won’t care about. Others he won’t be involved in. Others will go along with his wishes. And he may be smart enough to realize that while he can get away with yelling in his mother’s face when she wants him to marry someone he hates, he’s not going to get away with yelling at the bandit captain to put him down and return his purse this instant. It’s a prominent character trait, but most character traits, exaggerated, lead to a form of idiocy. There’s no need to force the character into opposition just because he’s stubborn. He’s other things, too.
Should you have your character act stubborn in a conversation? Here’s a list of considerations:
- The power the other person has over him, whether it’s age, political power, physical power, or magic. This is linked to how miserable the other person can make his life, even if the protagonist does win this one battle.
- How close he is to the other person. As mentioned above, the mother will take the yelling better than the bandit captain.
- How important the issue is to the protagonist (not your plot). If he’s indifferent to his sister, why is he opposing her choice of husband? I don’t care how evil the husband turns out to be; you have to show me why it’s important now.
- How well these tactics fit with his anger style. There are stubborn people who will go quiet and cold and say, “No,” instead of yelling. There are others who will shrug and pretend to agree, then just go ahead and do whatever they want later. He doesn’t have to be openly stubborn.
- How the other person deals with anger. Even if he’s close to his mother, the stubborn character could still piss her off by disparaging a marriage she’s worked to achieve for months. “Close” doesn’t mean “automatically forgiving.”
- How many arguments he’s had with this other person before. Two friends might get along for years before having a serious disagreement, and only then discover that one of them has a stubbornness the other can’t break.
A more nuanced portrayal of a person is always good, especially if that person is the one you want the reader to share headspace and time with, and be interested enough to follow. You can, of course, make the reader interested to see the stubborn character die a nasty death, but it doesn’t have to be a goal.
3) Show the stubbornness as a flaw at least occasionally.
I am declaring “romanticizable” a word, so that I can say the following sentence: Stubbornness, like a quick temper or too much compassion, is a romanticizable character trait, so it gets romanticized. It lends its possessors the patience to bear through suffering and slavery. It gives characters the ability to refuse to collapse on the last legs of a long chase. It’s often the source of the surge of last strength that makes the mortally wounded character grab his opponent’s sword arm and stab him with his own blade (and hold on to life until a healer can get to him, of course). It leads to cool defiant confrontations with overbearing parents, siblings, Dark Lords, and minor nobles.
Stubbornness almost never gets called by other names: obstinacy, pigheadedness, stupidity, bloody-mindedness. Yet those aspects are all at least as applicable as the endurance, courage, and defiance that being stubborn lends. A character shouldn’t get to exercise only the positive aspects.
Imagine the situation I talked about in point 1, where the stubborn character happens to like getting his own way and also has a great number of people depending on him. He refuses the advice of a counselor who’s just a little bit too pushy. However, the counselor’s right, because she’s listened to the latest reports of the scouts rather than outdated information or her own sense of what’s right, and so the stubborn ruler rides straight into a trap that massacres most of his army (and him, hopefully).
Or imagine a stubborn character who comes into a situation in which he knows that another character is most likely a murderer, but as of yet he has no evidence. If he’s defiant and spits his suspicions in the murderer’s face, I wouldn’t predict a long life for him. Subtlety, cunning, and the ability to conceal his thoughts would serve him far better.
Or the stubborn character refuses to let his lover have anything she wants just because he immediately, and childishly, does the opposite of whatever anyone else suggests. When he comes home to empty chambers and a note informing him she’s taken up with a lord who loves her enough to let her get a word in edgewise, I’m not going to be sorry for him at all.
A stubborn character is not always right in his stubbornness. A character who wants him to do something else rather than his preferred course of action is not always wrong. And other people—and fictional characters who don’t exist merely to orbit the hero and fawn on him—have their own modes of being, their own concerns, and their own goals. They may decide that their own best course is not yielding to him in admiration; it may be trampling over him, ignoring him, or walking away.
4) A stubborn character makes certain character arcs harder.
Not impossible, but harder. Specifically, a lot of those that change the character, and those which are meant to correct certain flaws in him.
Why is a stubborn character going to be less stubborn in the matter of his beliefs? A stranger in a tavern might tell him that he’s wrong about elves being child-stealing monsters, but there’s no reason the stubborn character might not argue right back, fiercely. Does he have incontrovertible evidence staring him right in the face? No. Has he met this stranger before? No. (At least, I hope not, or I will start suspecting either author or protagonist of a vocabulary deficiency). Are there actual elves present to tell him that they’re not child-stealing monsters? No. In fact, they’re probably off stealing children right now. So there.
Inertia, complacency, a willingness to argue, and a fierce unwillingness to change one’s mind, perhaps even in the face of the obvious, are not unreasonable companions of stubbornness. You can use this to your advantage as far as moving the plot along goes. (Though I beg you, for the love of any deities that you worship, see point 5). But it does mean that it’s unreasonable to plop this character down in front of the first stranger with a different story and expect him to believe it.
The instant change of mind, as if the character were somehow stubborn about everything but his own beliefs—until the new beliefs get frozen in stone, of course—is part of what I call ‘flaw-scrubbing,’ the desire to remove a character’s undesirable traits as the story progresses. And ‘education’ is a favorite way of doing this. Supposedly, as soon as he learns that his people believed wrongly about the elves, the stubborn protagonist will repent and be just as fierce in his defense of the truth. I’d think a character who changes his mind that fast more likely to be a fair weather friend, actually, but the author doesn’t let that happen. And the character becomes annoying.
Point 3 again, really: When you give a character certain traits, you have to be willing to cope with the consequences of those traits. If you would find it intolerable to write a racist character, then you have to either place him in a non-racist culture or give him an excellent reason to change his mind about his racism. Not making him unspeakably stubborn would probably help with that second one.
5) Non-annoying stubborn characters will NOT give in just when the plot needs them to.
Along with being romanticizable—remember, it’s a word now—stubbornness tends to be convenient for a fantasy author. The character will keep going against impossible odds, up to and including the destruction of the world, because giving up is unthinkable. He’ll spit back bile at people who try and convince him to stop, because he’s more afraid of his own spirit’s condemnation than he is of theirs, and incidentally provide neat and plot-worthy confrontations. He’ll endure through trials both mundane and magical, and build up reader sympathy.
Then he’ll give up one piece of his stubbornness just when the author needs him to. He’ll compromise with his dearly-hated enemies because the author thinks portraying the slaughter would be unethical. Or he’ll go and talk to his lover when he was convinced that she was cheating on him and vowed never to speak to her again, because the author has gotten all the romantic tension she can out of their misunderstanding and is ready for the happy ending.
If you’ve gotten to the ending with a stubborn character and a plot intertwined and feeding on each other, don’t rip them apart now. Find an event of sufficient shattering potential to make the character compromise or change his mind. Or let the consequences of his stubbornness pile up and fall on his head.
I suppose it sounds like I’m reiterating the rest of the rant. In a sense, I am. But those tend to be annoyances that show up along the path of the story. Turning a stubborn character sweet and compliant to suit plot convenience severely irritates me, because it most often happens at the end, and because it often transforms a stubborn character who was not annoying into an annoying one, by showing that he’s a pawn of the author.
This is the reason that I prefer reading about stubborn characters who act in isolation or as part of a small group of individuals, with all of whom they have strictly platonic relationships. Romances rarely work, because the stubborn character has to change for it to work, and the induced change is not strong or soon enough. Stubborn rulers have all the problems I mentioned earlier, and tend to get exalted for what would be acts of stupidity and selfishness in any other character.
Really think, before you make the protagonist stubborn, what it’s going to cost your plot.
Speaking of potentially annoying character types, the genius rant is next.