“What I say is that, if a fellow really likes potatoes, he must be a pretty decent sort of fellow.”
Have you ever peeled a potato?
If you have, you may have noticed that under the skin, you’ll find dark blemishes. The otherwise creamy flesh has been speckled by round black spots, like ink splatters that sunk beneath the surface. Sometimes, with a flick of the wrist those little blemishes can be removed with a few thin layers of skin, leaving an edible, ready-to-cook potato.
Now and then, it takes some hearty swipes with your peeler before the blemish is gone. Worse yet, you may have to pull out your paring knife and dig it out. What happens when the blemish becomes a rot and cannot be dispelled with a good stroke or jab of the knife? You can lob off a section of potato and it might do. In a potato-worst-case-scenario, you might lose the entire potato. Bye-bye, Spud. I knew you well.
I was standing over the sink, swiping away at my starchy-love, and found myself thinking of writing. (Yeah. When am I NOT thinking about writing?) Many characters are like potatoes. Some of them have superficial flaws that are done away with by a quick insight into their true selves. Some of them have some deeper, harder to reach pits of darkness. It takes a little work to see past the “rot” to the smooth, unblemished skin of their souls. Some villains are rotten to the core yet even then, there are patches of “clean” skin.
Every character is like this. Just as there are many spots on a potato (good luck finding just one!) there are many different character flaws in the people we write. Clint Johnson said during his class on Conflict & the Mechanism of Story (a great class btw,) “We admire people for their strengths but we love them for their flaws.”
I suggest that when developing our characters, don’t rush to “clean their potatoes” too fast. Understand and examine the depths of their “spots.” Concentrate on the method of removal for those spots. Is it easy? Is it painful for the character? How far is that flaw rotted through and will it need to be cut out? Just as people do, I believe characters have “rot spots” in varying degrees. It’s the discovery and treatment of these blemishes that bring characters to life.
However, unlike fiction, I believe rotten potatoes are rare. There are some. Mostly though, we haven’t peeled away enough layers. Often, we meet someone or think we know a person and see the “rot.” We don’t focus on the rest of the potato. We haven’t plumbed the depths of the rot spot. It might only be a layer deep. It might be deeper than that but rarely is the entire potato rotten.
Just like I can use most of my potatoes, people have more to offer beneath. We’re all spotted and blemished, some of us more than others, but if we take the time to look under the skin we find a pure core, a soul worth loving.
As for me, the next time I come up against a rot spot in someone else’s potato, I’m going to try and remember that they’re not all bad. There’s plenty of tato left for the mashing. Hopefully, someone else will see the same in me. =]
All my best,