I’ve been writing lately about emotions and their role in fiction as part of character development. One emotional state that is important in fiction (at least to me, when I read) is conviction. If there is one thing I cannot stand, it is a wishy-washy character who cannot make up his or her mind about basic things.
You’re likely familiar with the adage, “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll for anything.” It’s an adage for a reason. Now, maybe I don’t like characters who are wishy-washy (especially as protagonists) because they remind me of my own frailty and weakness. I don’t generally find it easy to commit or to make a big decision. Whatever the case, I find I most enjoy reading about characters who are sure of and committed to SOMETHING beyond themselves.
- Maybe they are committed to a value system.
- Maybe they are committed to promoting something they believe is good. This thing doesn’t have to be religious in nature; some great villains and even heroes are committed to promoting and protecting things like magic, or technology, or a company they started: things that aren’t evil necessary.
- Maybe they are committed to saving or protecting their family or their nation.
- Maybe they are committed to improving their lives one step at a time by changing themselves, confronting their fears, and learning from their mistakes.
This conviction, I have found upon reflection, is important for me as a reader. I need characters who are committed to something, and to something that takes them out of their own selfish contemplations and desires (at least to some extent).
Again, this is not necessarily a formula for a heroic or likable character. It’s a formula for any character who can be engaging. Darth Vader is committed to the Empire. Lord Voldemort is committed to promoting himself and seeking endless life for himself, which is why I personally have never felt him all that compelling as a villain. His supporters are much more interesting characters.
Anyway, I guess you could say the whole point of this post is the danger of having wishy-washy characters, especially main characters. However, it’s important to consider what constitutes wishy washy.
Now, I can only speak for myself here. This is, in many respects, a matter of opinion. I think most readers would say they don’t like weak, wishy-washy characters, even if they would disagree to some extent about what “wishy-washy” means.
WHAT WISHY-WASHY DOESN’T MEAN (FOR ME)
- Wishy-washy doesn’t mean “a character must have a clear idea how to serve that to which he is committed.” Many times in life, we have a clear ideal or a set purpose, but feel unsure how best to reach our goal. This is not the kind of “wishy washy” I am talking about. This is just being human. If a character has a clear devotion to something, and a clear purpose, then I as a reader can readily understand the questions and doubts that arise from a desire to fulfill that purpose.
- Wishy-washy doesn’t mean “a character cannot have a change of heart.” Even the best-meaning characters will make mistakes. Respectable people, when realizing they were wrong, will make adjustments accordingly. That might mean changing “sides,” if you realized you were supporting evil and didn’t know it. That might mean having known all along that you were doing wrong, but now, making a decision to change. This is the definition of a redemption story, not “wishy-washiness.”
For me, being wishy-washy doesn’t mean changing a commitment made in error or not knowing how best to demonstrate the depth of one’s conviction. Wishy-washyiness is the failure to commit to something (beyond ourselves) in the first place. Commitment solely to one’s self is just as off-putting to me when I read as a character who can’t decide which convictions to hold.
So, what do you think about the role of conviction in fiction? How important is it to you, personally? How do you strive to show that your character is committed to something? Which kinds of actions are most effective at doing this? I think sacrifice for something is the truest and purest way to show conviction and commitment (thought not every story makes stark sacrifice necessary or plausible).
Victoria Grefer is the author the Herezoth trilogy, which begins with “The Crimson League” and has new editions coming out this Fall. She also has a writer’s handbook out, titled “Writing for You: A Novelist’s Guide to the Craft of Fiction.”