Have you ever noticed how amazing some main characters can seem at first glance? From the moment you see them, they strike you as likable, capable, and well worth the attention. The most obvious example of this, of course, is in heists, where the main characters seem perfect and the story still works. For instance, Ocean’s Eleven. Danny Ocean walks onscreen wearing his tux, cracking jokes, slipping parole, and planning the heist of the century. Of course, he also just got out of jail, probably for trying to pull a different heist of the century.
Dom Cobb, from Inception, also walks onscreen rather capably. He’s in the middle of an operation, smoothly infiltrating minds without alerting them to his presence. The operation goes wrong, but he handles it smoothly, ditching the project and disappearing. Of course, he was doing that job for a big corporation who now wants his head since it went sour.
Every episode of NCIS or NCIS: LA begins with the main characters engaging in light banter as they arrive at work. They mess around for a little, tell a few jokes, create some fun promises that don’t really have to be fulfilled but would be nice. They don’t seem to have a care in the world, and by the clips during their theme song, we know they’re very capable. Of course, someone just died a few minutes ago, which they will undoubtedly have to investigate.
What do these things have in common? It might be obvious to you: the caveat.
As I explained each one of those opening sequences, I had to add an “of course”. The characters are funny, yes; they’re capable, yes; but they always have a shadow of doom over them. Danny Ocean has already landed himself in jail– he could easily do it again, if his operation goes bad, or even if someone finds out he’s broken parole. Cobb is being hunted by someone faceless and nameless, but undoubtedly much bigger than he is. If he fails this job, he’s as good as dead, and what about his family? The NCIS guys are capable, yes, but someone just died. They aren’t capable enough to keep that death from happening– only capable enough to pick up the pieces.
These writers are walking a fine line. On one hand, they might overstate the doom and gloom and make the characters unlikable through depression or something– or the characters might seem casual about all the bad things that have happened, as if they don’t care. That too will make them unlikable. On the other hand, the writers face the possibility of making their characters too perfect, in which case they also won’t be likable. And if the character is unlikable, there can be no suspense.
It’s a difficult concept to master, but it’s key to creating capable and interesting characters without making them seem perfect. But how does it work, exactly? You can’t just stick a perfect character into a bad situation– they try that with Superman every couple years, it seems.
The first step, I think, is to make sure the problem exists, and can come back to bite them if they aren’t careful. For instance, in NCIS there is never a murder without a second murder about to happen– their task is to stop that second murder. With Ocean’s Eleven, you can feel the threat of jail hanging over the team. It’s never absent. But if the big threat is something silly that can be easily avoided, or accepted without fear, it would be a lot less effective.
That’s close to the second step– never make fun of the threat. As I have previously posted, humor can destroy suspense. I messed this up a little in my latest novel, Stakes. One of the threats hanging over the main character is the possibility of being imprisoned, much like Ocean’s Eleven. However, instead of treating it like a terrible thing, I had my main character be imprisoned early on, which was a one-night thing that I quickly skimmed over, and all the later threats of being arrested I laughed at. I made a joke out of my big threat. It would have been great to have my character feel as awesome and capable as Danny Ocean, but I botched the suspense.
Here’s another thing that I find difficult to explain, but might help: try to have the character be capable within the bounds of the big problem. This is kind of obvious with the hero’s journey plot archetype: the hero is on one level, the villain is on another. The hero can’t simply charge in and behead the villain– he has to work his way up through a series of smaller actions, all within the frame of this big threat. Ignoring the threat will cost him, so he has to keep it small. But this is also true for instances when the character is to blame for the threat hanging over his head. For instance, Han Solo didn’t pay his debt. That was his fault. But he isn’t able to fix that problem immediately; instead he has to take one step at a time to figure that out. His ultimate goal is to undo his mistake. His individual steps, however, and where we see him be the most capable, are smaller.
I want to be able to write capable characters, but I don’t want them to be perfect. Character flaws and limitations come into this discussion at some point, I know, but you can remain flawed and limited when there’s no consequence to it. Suspense requires a threat. Create it.