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Pulling an Alex P. Keaton - aka Creating Flawed but Enjoyable Characters

If you've read my books, you could probably guess that I have thing for Michael J. Fox. Two out of my three books reference his work.  In A Midsummer's Nightmare it's Back to the Future and in The DUFF it's Family Ties.  It's not so much that I have a crush on Michael J. Fox. More that I find him inspirational and, since childhood, I've been drawn to his work.  But this post isn't about Michael J. Fox. It's about Alex P. Keaton, his character in the 1980s sitcom Family Ties.

Now some of you may be too young to have seen Family Ties. Technically, I'm too young to have seen it, but growing up as part of the Nick at Nite generation, I saw reruns growing up, and it's still one of my favorites.  If you've never seen the show, all seven seasons are up on Netflix.  It's full of cheese and easy-to-fix-in-one-episode angst where there's always a moral, but you know what? I love it. And you know why?  Alex.

Alex P. Keaton is not the type of character I tend to cheer for. He's conservative, greedy, somewhat sexist, and he loves Richard Nixon. As a feminist whose political views lean towards the hippie side, you can imagine how much issue I would take with the character. And I do. I disagree with nearly everything out of his mouth. And yet, he is one of the most memorable, enjoyable characters I've seen on television. I find him much more enjoyable than most television characters, even ones whose views align more with mine. I think that's partly a credit to Michael J. Fox, and partly to the writers.

So why am I talking about Alex P. Keaton on a YA writing website? Because there's something we can all learn from him as writers. Now, I don't think every leading character has to be likable. As long as they're interesting, I'm down to read a book. However, sometimes I do want to read or write about a character I just find thoroughly enjoyable. That doesn't mean they're sweet and shy and innocent. It doesn't mean I want to be them or be with them. But what's the fun in cheering for a bland, perfect character? Personally, perfection isn't my thing.

Flaws can make a character more endearing. Would people still remember his character if he'd been an average Joe who did everything right? I'm doubtful. Now, I'm not saying the key to an enjoyable character is making them a right wing extremist who worships Richard Nixon. I'm saying that giving them traits that aren't usually considered "positive" will make your characters more rounded, more real, and therefore more memorable. 

One thing that made Alex so fun to watch was his conflict with those around him. His parents were ex-hippies whom he seldom agreed with. The fact that they remained close and loving, made you like Alex. It's also interesting that all of his serious girlfriends were more liberal - he fell for multiple feminist characters. Through these relationships we see him grow and change.  A character's conflict and reaction to the people around him because of or in spite of their flaws is often what makes them  someone to cheer for.

So, when writing lead characters, it's important to think about characters like Alex P. Keaton. Give your characters flaws. Make them full, not-always-lovable people. Then show us why we should cheer for them through their interactions with those around them. This will help you create memorable, enjoyable, and believable characters.

Now, I'm going to return to my Family Ties marathon on Netflix.  Happy character creating! 
Kody Keplilnger

Kody is the NYT bestselling author of The DUFF, Shut Out, and A Midsummer's Nightmare, all from Little Brown/Poppy, as well as Lying Out Loud, Run, and the middle grade novel The Swift Boys and Me, from Scholastic. Born and raised in Kentucky, she now lives in NYC.

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6 comments:

  1. Great post and I completely agree. I read to enter other people's lives and those people don't have to be those I like or would want to live - but that have to interest. Fabulous example in Alex!

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  2. Lots of good points here. Perfect characters are boring.

    I would like to add that while greed, foolishness, and mild sexist leanings certainly are character flaws, conservatism, strictly speaking, is not. It's an opinion. :)

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    1. You're correct. It's not so much his conservative that I meant to be a character flaw, it's the extremeness of it. I'd wager that even most conservatives now a days don't think Nixon was a saint. LOL.

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    2. Haha no...saint he was not. ;)

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  3. Family Ties was my favorite show growing up and I was watching the premieres because I'm THAT old. He was the perfectly flawed, lovable, yet irritating character who always managed to grow, despite not wanting to at first. He was passionate about what he loved, even if many people couldn't agree with him, and I think that's why he worked so well as a character.

    Great post and I agree completely. These flawed but sympathetic character types are my favorites.

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Item Reviewed: Pulling an Alex P. Keaton - aka Creating Flawed but Enjoyable Characters Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Kody Keplinger