Wednesday, February 13, 2013

83 Problems

There's an old Buddhist story I think about a lot. It goes (more or less) like this.

A farmer was having a hard time of things: his crops were failing, there was a drought, etc. Desperate, he went to ask Buddha what he should do. When he got there, though, Buddha told him he could not help.

"What do you mean?" asked the farmer. "You're supposed to be a great teacher!"

"All humans have 83 problems," Buddha replied. "Even when you resolve one, something new rises to take its place. In the end, no matter what you do, you'll always have 83 problems."

"But what's the good of all your teaching if it can't solve my problems?" the farmer cried.

"My teachings can not help with your 83 problems," Buddha said. "But maybe I can help you with the 84th."

"Which is?" asked the farmer, crossing his arms over his mud stained chest.

Buddha gave him a kind smile. "That you don't want to have 83 problems."


I read a lot of books. I did this before I was an author, but now that I can write them off on my taxes, I read a LOT of books. In fact, I'd say the only thing I read more than books are the book blurbs I go through trying to figure out what to read next.

I mention this now, because if there is one sentence I've read in blurbs more than any other (especially in YA) is "Character X had a perfect life."

I see this all the freaking time, but I have never understood why. What is up with all these characters having perfect lives that proceed to fall apart? First, perfect lives are booooooring, good only for wrecking so the real action can begin. Second (and the reason for this post), is that perfect lives don't exist.

One of the things about trying to write characters who are also people is that they suffer from universal human complaints. One of these, as the story above illustrates, is that everyone has problems. Even people who appear to live perfect lives--the famous, beautiful, fabulous people eternally adrift on a sea of family money so vast they can never spend it all--have problems. In fact, the problems of the rich and famous are the most well documented of all.

It's easy to write these complaints off as First World Problems, which indeed they are, but the fact still remains that even these ostensibly "perfect" lives are riddled with annoyances and frustrations. Everyone has things that annoy them, things they consider problems to be fixed or eliminated or ignored. The reason you only hear about perfect lives in fiction is because the very idea of a "perfect life" is the greatest fiction of all.

This isn't to say a character in hardships can't remember the life he/she lost as perfect. Romanticising the past is a character trait. But when an author declares, "this person's life was perfect until X happened!" I declare, "Bullshit."

The point I'm trying to make here is this: if you are an author, and you want to start your main character off in a sweet spot so that they can have a precipitous fall into the main plot, that is totally cool. That opener is a classic for a reason: watching a fall is almost as enthralling as watching a rise. But please, please don't ruin it by describing things, or worse, having your character describe their own life while they're in it, as perfect.

If a character is a person, they will find something in their life that annoys them. It's human nature. No one describes their own life as truly perfect unless they're talking about a foggy romantic memory or they're trying to impress you. To that end, even a character who starts a novel in a "perfect" life should be entirely consumed by their 83 perfect life problems. Maybe their private chef never cooks their eggs the way they like, maybe their insanely rich parents don't love them like they think they should be loved, or maybe their unicorn ate all the clover and now there's a bare patch on the crystal palace green.

To whit, the character who resides in arguable perfect should still be annoyed about SOMETHING, and this annoyance can actually be a huge source of character development once the real plot kicks in. You thought the unicorn thing was bad? HA. You would kill to have unicorn problems now, wouldn't you, kiddo? That sort of thing.

I mean really, which sounds better? "Caroline had a perfect life, lead role in the high school musical two years running! But it all came crashing down when zombies invaded her small town." VS. "Caroline thought her biggest problem was keeping the lead role in her high school musical for an unprecedented third year in a row, but when the zombies show up to auditions, she has to choose between making the final cut and making it out alive."

Okay, so those are really dumb examples, but you get the idea! Everyone, even characters leading ostensibly perfect lives, has 83 problems. It is our nature, our super power. We can literally bitch about anything, no matter how petty or mundane. And when that basic humanity is not reflected in a character's situation, those scenes can't help but come off as flat and unrealistic.

So please, fellow authors, if you must have perfect lives, fill them up with First World Problems before you smash them down with Real Plot Problems. The fall from grace will still be horrible and engrossing, only now the person tumbling down the mountain will be far more believable.


Wyndes said...

I think a character can plausibly think, "I have a perfect life," but it almost has to be followed by "So why am I so miserable?" That disconnect between looking at your life and thinking, "I ought to be happy, look at how good I have it" and actually feeling not at all happy seems to be a pretty common experience.

Rachel Aaron said...

@Wyndes that's a good point. Still, there's a difference between this sort of in character wondering and an author pronouncing a character's life "perfect" only to set up a fall. One is excellent character development, one is a blatant ploy to play up sympathies. :D

the superhero princess said...

THANK YOU. I am so, so tired of reading "I live in a perfect world and I'm perfect and I feel terrible for being so perfect AHHH MY LIFE IS FALLING APART!!!" (read: Elsie Dinsmore. I lectured my mother as a child for holding Elsie up as a role model. I detested her.)

Also: have you read the Chaos Walking trilogy by Patrick Ness? I would *love* to hear your thoughts on it.

Lynn Rainey said...

Good post. I think, when I read the 'I have the prefect life' bit, author does not know their characters. Because like you said everyone has something, maybe just one thing, but something about their life that they cannot stand. By not giving their characters that bit of human they are cheating their characters, the story and the readers out of a more in depth everything.

Laura Stephenson said...

I actually just realized this with my work in progress. I'd written the first draft, even edited it once, before realizing the MC wasn't all that sympathetic because she didn't have any real emotions at the beginning (because her life was too perfect and plastic-feeling). So I went back and added in some feelings of loneliness that she's trying to deny at the beginning and suddenly she's a whole lot cooler (in my opinion).

Anne-Maree Gray said...

I suppose... but it is actually a standard story arc - you know the one 'in the Beginning of a story the main character, being human (even if he or she isn't), will resist change (inner conflict). The character is perfectly content as he is; there's no reason to change. The first plotpoint is that something happens to push them out of that moment.' But yeah, I hate the word perfect too.