Avoiding the Dinsmore Disease

I grew up on classic novels, most of which were Christian fiction. Most of the stories I read were fantastic, and developed my taste and appreciation for literature.

And then there were books like the Elsie Dinsmore series.

Elsie Dinsmore

You may or may not have heard of these books. They are tremendously popular among conservative Christians, because they embody Christian ideals like patience, honesty, and love. They are also infamous for the heroine, Elsie. She’s perfect. That’s all. She’s just perfect, and as such, is an imperfect character. But writers can learn a few things from her.

Don’t Write Idyllic Characters

Elsie Dinsmore is the ultimate idyllic character. She embodies a plethora of values, but I’ll focus on one: honesty. I distinctly remember reading the first book, and coming to a scene where she was in her family’s schoolroom, agonizing over an arithmetic problem. Eight year old Elsie already knows the answer, but insists upon worrying over the exact figures to ensure that she is perfectly honest. In a conscientious tween, this might have been realistic, but in an eight year old, it’s pushing it. The author let the ideal control the character.

There is a difference between writing a character with ideals, and writing an idyllic character. Avoid the latter. Characters with ideals leave room for flaws, while idyllic characters are quixotic standards that are so consumed by values that they have lost their realism along with their flaws. To avoid writing an idyllic character, pick a few flaws to contrast their positive qualities, and don’t let them become the ultimate personification of their positive qualities and ideals. The character should control their ideals, not vice versa.

The Truth About Undeserved Misfortunes

An undeserved misfortune is a widely used method of endearing readers to a character by creating sympathy. Oliver Twist and Tiny Tim are two widely known examples of this. It’s an author’s way of tugging on the reader’s heartstrings. They are wonderful tools, but they don’t always work, as in the case of Elsie Dinsmore.

Her mother died soon after Elsie’s birth, and her father didn’t know her until she was eight because he spent years touring Europe. These alone would have worked for the character, but the author added more. Elsie lives with her grandfather, his wife, and their children, all of whom despise her for no apparent reason.

To avoid creating another Elsie Dinsmore, keep the character’s undeserved misfortune moderate. If your character is orphaned and destitute, they already have the reader’s sympathy–you don’t need to kill off their best friend just to create more. Also, don’t ever provide opposition that lacks definable motive. No one despises someone else just because. They might not always voice it, but their motives (whether it be jealousy or anger rooted in past events) are always visible.

Mary Sues and Gary Stus

Elsie Dinsmore is what you call a Mary Sue. A Mary Sue/Gary Stu is a sit-in for the author’s idealized self. In the Elsie Dinsmore books, Mary Sue took the form of an eight year old role model. Elsie was a character who could be relied upon to demonstrate ideals like truthfulness, piety, and obedience. She’s also rich and beautiful. Those last two elements are two of the most base facets of the typical Mary Sue. However, beauty isn’t strictly a Mary Sue quality. When used in a Mary Sue character, there are always accompanying factors, like excessive talent (at everything), considerable intelligence, and some form of fame. This last element, fame, often comes in one of two extremes: either everyone is jealous of Mary Sue’s amazingness and therefore she’s treated with spite, or she has adoring fans that follow her everywhere. 

Mary Sue worked her way into my tween writing in the form of a fourteen year old archery prodigy in an oppressive fantasy kingdom where she (and only she) could save the people from certain doom. At age eleven, that was my idealized self. But you can’t write characters like that, because they lack realism. To keep from writing a Mary Sue, don’t focus on your ideal qualities while crafting characters. Give your characters pitfalls, and things at which they don’t excel. Also, if you’re writing someone who has a step-up in society (like beauty, wealth, or fame), be sure to include an undeserved misfortune to amp up the reader’s empathy.

Elsie Dinsmore was a great role model, but a poor character. The ‘Dinsmore Disease’ can be avoided if you just remember to write real. Avoid idyllic characters, a load of undeserved misfortunes, and Mary Sues. In short, write a real person.

The Three Building Blocks of Character

The five elements of literature are the foundation of good stories. Character, plot, theme, setting, and point of view must be executed well for readers to be involved. The first, character, is defined by three building blocks: internals, externals, and personality.

Internals are composed of backstory, motives, and values.

Backstory is more than the character’s life story. It’s not just genealogy or major events. Take a look at yourself. Why do you do things the way you do? I love dogs, but someone who was chased by a vicious hound when they were five might not feel the same way. In its simplest form, backstory is an explanation. Why your character’s personality is formed the way it is. (Note: backstory is not personality. We’ll get into that in a moment.)

Next on the list is motives. Everyone acts for a reason. Without motives, you might as well stop trying. No one believes a hero who acts only because he “feels like it.” While that might be true in real life, it doesn’t stand in fiction. Your hero must do things for something. This comes in with values.

Values are the last on the list of internals. They are the “what” to the “why” of motives. So your character must have motive… but what? A value. Something as simple as justice or as complex as true beauty, it doesn’t matter. Your character must have a driving force, something he believes with all his heart. The value makes or breaks the character. They’re not going to believe in whim or boredom. They’ll believe in love, hope, or courage. Something intangible and worth fighting for.

Let’s take a look at one of my favorite characters, the Doctor (BBC Doctor Who).

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The Doctor comes from a rough background. He nearly had to destroy his own race just to stop them from ripping the universe apart. He’s watched a lot of people, people he loved, die; some of those deaths were even his fault. And that shapes him into a determined, lonely man bent on helping others and trying to make up for the things he feels guilt over. That’s the Doctor’s backstory.

The Doctor doesn’t act on whim (unless he’s visiting a planet or constellation–but that’s not the area where motives are necessary). When his story incites, he finds something to fight for and he fights for it. Thus, the Doctor has motive.

His motive is determined by love and compassion. He doesn’t want to see someone hurt like he has, so he struggles for these values because he knows they’re worth it. He fights for love when he saves Earth (countless times), because Earth is special to him. He fights for compassion when he saved Cyril in The Doctor, The Widow, and The Wardrobe.

Next on the list are externals.

Externals are composed of physical appearance, social rank, and economic status.

Physical appearance is the most obvious. Height, weight, eye and hair colors–these are all elements of physical appearance that help readers form an image. When describing your character, don’t go overboard. Your readers don’t need to know insignificant details, so stick to the basics: hair, eye color, height, basic physical build, and any unique, defining features. But hold up–you can’t dump all that information on your reader at one time, or they’ll start snoozing. It’s best to let descriptions build over time. Hair color one scene, a chapter later, you can include physical build. Think of it as an onion: peel back your character in layers.

Social rank is next. Is your character royalty, or are they an orphaned street urchin? How does society view them? How do they view society? This will generally have a large impact on your story, so be sure to give it thought. A character who is viewed well by society will probably have a reciprocal image, and vice versa.

Finally, economic status is material benefits. Your character’s job, monetary wealth, and living conditions are all a part of this. This ties in with social rank: if your character is a king, he probably has access to a horde of wealth. However, if he’s struggling to make ends meet even though he lives in a dumpy apartment in the middle of the poorest part of town, he probably is poor.

For externals, we’ll look at Katniss Everdeen (The Hunger Games).

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She’s average height, with a strong build. In the book, she’s described as having olive skin and black hair (though that didn’t transfer in the movie). Suzanne Collins does excellent with descriptions of Katniss: we know basically what she looks like, but the details that are included are significant. Katniss is strong, which is necessary for her to win the Games. She has black hair and olive skin, the typical looks of anyone from District 12. Other than that, Collins allows the reader let Katniss come alive in their imagination.

On the ladder of society, Katniss is just a step from bottom. She’s inconsequential to those with money or power, until she enters the Games. Once she wins the Games, Collins pulls a fantastic flip. Katniss is now wealthy and loved by those in power, but she still adheres to her old life in District 12.

In The Hunger Games, Katniss starts at the bottom. She’s dirt poor, risking her life (by entering her name more times) just to feed her family. And then, in Catching Fire, another flip. She goes from poor to rich. Her job has changed–no longer does she hunt for her family’s needs (though it still occupies her free time). Her ‘job’ consists of playing it right for the Capitol.

Last, but perhaps the most important, is personality.

Personality is built on positives, negatives, and quirks.

Go examine your favorite character and make a list of a few positive character traits. Things like honesty, loyalty, and courage all fall under the category of positive character traits. They’re necessary, even to your bad-boy biker. Without at least one positive trait, a character seems irritatingly wrong. Every single person you meet will always have positive traits, even the meanest person you know.

Negative character traits are the polar opposite of positives. Whereas honesty is a positive, lying is a negative. Courage versus cowardice. (Wait, why are they necessary? Aren’t heroes supposed to be good?) Look around and pick out one person you know who never, ever displays any fault. Characters must mimic reality, and no realistic person is perfect. Positive and negative traits must balance each other out, or characters will fall flat. With positives and negatives, you can (if you’d like) create complexes that generate conflict. For example, if your hero’s positive is honesty, you can create internal conflict by giving him a negative of cowardice. So he loves being honest… but he’s terrified of offending others.

My personal favorite is the quirks. These are mostly superficial, like a slight tick or stutter. They give your character the final shade of realism. A quirk can be anything from a limp to social anxiety.

Finally, for personality, we’ll look at Rudy Steiner (The Book Thief).

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Rudy is my favorite literary friend. He’s just a good friend. His positives are loyalty and love. He’s loyal to Liesel, and loves her incredibly.

The negatives that balance Rudy’s positives are fairly numerous, but I’ll limit it to two: his chronic thieving and narrow focus. So, while he’s loyal and loving, he’s also addicted to stealing, and his irritatingly dogged focus means once he’s fixated on something, it is the only thing on which he can focus.

Rudy’s quirk is my favorite part of him. When I first read about the Jesse Owens incident, I had to put The Book Thief down so I could hold my sides and laugh. That’s Rudy’s quirk: his obsession with American athlete Jesse Owens. This quirk lends itself nicely to the story, creating both conscious and subconscious conflict: an Aryan boy obsessed with a black athlete is going to burn some throats on the way down.

When you drop Internals, Externals, and Personality into a bowl and mix thoroughly, a three-dimensional character will pop out. It won’t be easy, but that’s writing. These characters become real people, to both the author and the audience. Have fun with it.