Tag Archives: character building

Psychological Writing Series: Loyalty

Loyalty: the last character trait and personality quirk I’ll throw at you–for now.

As I child, our frequent moves resulted in me being the “new kid” more often than not.  Because of this, I learned to leave friendships with relative ease.  It was a survival skill that has a backlash into my adulthood.

Don’t get me wrong, I adore my friends.  Relationships are extremely important to me and I enjoy the company of others.  I’m a people person in many ways.  I would do anything within my power for my friends and would suffer their greatest woes if I could.  However, when it’s time to make the next move, I can disconnect so completely that it’s downright scary.

I hate to think this quirk, forced on me by childhood events to protect myself from the pain of loss, makes me less loyal than individuals who grew up in diapers alongside another. 

So what is loyalty?  By definition, it is a feeling of attachment, responsibility, devotion or duty.  It is the state of being loyal.

But what, exactly, does this mean?

In literature, we adore loyal characters and feel betrayed when our beloved literary friends walk out on one another.  We tend to view them as having no virtue.  Yet nowhere in any definition of loyalty did I find a stated length of devotion, attachment or sense of duty. 

In dictionaries across the web (and even the huge, hard-bound, blue one of my childhood) loyalty is defined in terms of intensity rather than duration.

Christopher Robin is a devoted, loving and supportive friend to the Hundred Acre Wood crew–until he grows up and leaves behind his make-believe world.  The fact that he eventually leaves behind these friendships does not diminish the intensity of his loyalty at the time.

On the flip-side, Pooh would have given every last bit of fluff for Christopher even after CR left the woods.  Pooh’s devotion extended above and beyond his friend’s need.  Yet both of these characters would be considered loyal almost to a fault. 

In THE HUNGER GAMES, Peeta is fiercely loyal to Katniss and puts himself at great risk to keep her safe.  Katniss, on the other hand, is driven by her will to survive and keep her promise to her little sister–the one who own’s Katniss’s loyalty.  As much as I adored Katniss in this book, she was not loyal to Peeta.  Not emotionally, anyways. 

She cared about and for him, but Peeta never earned Katniss’s unfailing emotional devotion.  Instead, he incited her strong sense of responsibility based on her own guilt.  By definition this is still loyalty and yet it feels sullied to me.  Not pure.  Maybe because there was motivation behind her sense of duty and love.

Dissecting the relationship between Peeta and Katniss makes me question the reasons behind our friendships and the way we attach meaning to loyalty.  As readers and writers, we extend our own values onto another’s intentions.

We declare that someone can’t possibly be loyal if they walk away.  But what if walking away is the right thing to do to best protect and love the one we are devoted to?  We diminish an individual’s value as a loyal friend if they hurt us in some way.  Yet I’ve never read anywhere that hurting someone breaches loyalty.  In fact, I’m sure I hurt my Dear Hubby every day and I’m fiercely loyal to him.  In the same way, we brush away loyalty that comes out of necessity and not love.

But loyalty is how an individual feels.  Not always how those feelings manifest themselves physically.  At least in my humble opinion.

What is yours?   Does the reason behind loyalty matter?  How does the duration of a relationship impact the sense of loyalty one feels?  Are there degrees of loyalty based on the type of relationship people share?  Is one motive more acceptable than others?

Curious minds want to know.

Chemically Balanced: building even characters

We have a pool.  It’s refreshing on hot days, fun when the kids want to hang and a great way to get exercise.  It’s also work.  We have to clean it (amazing how much dirt and leaves get in the water even with a cover) and maintain the chemical levels.

Chlorine is the biggy.  If this level is off, it doesn’t even pay to try to balance the ph.  Often, successfully perfecting the chlorine to water ratio is enough to pull the other levels into balance.  Yet Chlorine can’t keep the pool clean solo. 

Sounds a bit like our MCs, doesn’t it?

As writers, we must balance the development of our characters.  If the super fabulous MC ends up with a wimpy best friend or love interest, readers will mutiny.  As a whole, characters must be a good fit, but not necessarily in obvious ways.

They must complete each other like puzzle pieces. 

MC has an Achilles heel.  Counterpart must somehow make up for that.

Sounds easy, right?  Logically, yes.  Execution-wise?  Not so much.  Balancing our characters is a nuanced process.  Readers are tired of the cheerleader falling in love with the science geek because he treats her better than the quarterback.  That kind of nerd-gets-awesome mentality is so 80’s.

Get creative with your chemistry.

I recently beta read an amazing novel about two science geeks.  The MCs were balanced, yet complementary.  The power inequality wasn’t there, as is so often the case in work by aspiring writers.

In my opinion–whatever that’s worth–here’s a few common traps to avoid.

  • Poor meets rich and all is well.
  • Social geek woos social goddess.
  • Big and buff protects fragile flower.

I understand that readers need to root for their MCs, but I’m inclined to enjoy a more balanced union between characters that doesn’t feel so against-all-odds-underdog-comes-out-on-top just because it makes for good conflict. 

In real life, we don’t buy into these relationships.  Those that form because it’s cool and exciting usually fade to nothingness in a short time.  Unless, of course, there is something more.  Relationships must be realistic, even in fiction.  Each partner must give and take.  Each counterpart must fulfil a need for the other half.  And each need must be something more than having the rich dude, the super goddess or the quarterback.

Having a super strong MC who outshines all supporting characters is a bit like dumping a gallon of bleach into a pool when the ph level is off.  It is not refreshing, fun or helpful in any way.  It simply throws the balance so far out of whack, as to make the pool–our stories–unusable.

Readers, are you tired of one-sided relationships that feel more fantastical than a sci-fi novel?  What kinds of relationships do you like to read about?

Writers, how do you balance your characters to keep the end relationships realistic and satisfying?