On Creative Writing and the Bumbler: The Character Type I Avoid Writing

Enter the bumbler

Enter the bumbler

Every author knows that the novels we like to read influence what we write. I got to contemplating my favorite books (and tv shows) today, and realized there is one character type in particular I have never put in any of my five novels.

This character is the Hagrid character from Harry Potter. The Jerry (actually Gary) Gergich character from “Parks and Recreation.”

If you’re unfamiliar with Hagrid and Jerry, let me explain the character type they represent.

I’m talking about the well-meaning bumbler who always screws things up, though he means well. He is more of a hindrance than a help, and even the people who love and respect him resent him to some degree when he “pulls a Jerry.”

How many times do Harry, Ron, and Hermione get so exasperated with Hagrid they could scream? How many times do they resent getting into trouble while trying to clean up his messes?

Why I Don’t Write The Bumbler

Harry Potter was one of my biggest influences as a writer (as I describe here), and excluding C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and some middle grade fantasy novels, the first fantasy I ever read.

Yet, when I started writing fantasy, I never created a Hagrid character. This wasn’t a conscious decision; the need for such a character never hit me. He wouldn’t have fit in my world.

Psychologically, I think I avoid writing a bumbler because all my characters are extensions of me in some way or another, and in real life, I am terrified of being the bumbler amongst my group of friends. Of being always wrong.
1095398_right_or_wrongOne of my flaws is caring a bit too much what others think about me. It’s something I need to work on, and I do work on it, day by day.

Still, I worry that I am the bumbler. I can definitely pinpoint some occasions where I’ve screwed things up Jerry-style. Who can’t?

On top of that, reading about bumblers isn’t my favorite thing to do. Sure, I love Hagrid. He’s brave and selfless, and he has a beautiful child’s heart. There are many aspects of his character that all of us could do to learn from and to imitate.

Still, he’s at the bottom of the list of characters I connect with or like in JK Rowling’s wizarding world. Some of the things he does are completely nonsensical, and an adult should not be depending on school kids to help him out of his jams. Hagrid frustrates me to no end.

Of course, I could write a bumbler without having that character, like Hagrid, depend on children to bail him out of trouble. I could write  a Jerry Gergich-style bumbler. Half of what Jerry gets blamed for or called out for isn’t even his fault.

In fact, that’s one of the running gags of “Parks and Recreation.” (Jerry works for the Pawnee, Indiana Parks Department.)

  • When Jerry creates a beautiful picture mosaic of all the citizens of Pawnee as an entry in a mural design contest, his colleagues laugh him down because he says “murinal” instead of “mural” as he presents his work.
  • When Tom lets Li’l Sebastian, a famous miniature pony, out of its enclosure, he blames Jerry.
  • At a meeting, when Jerry is the only one to offer suggestions to solve a problem because no one else cares, Leslie, who is running the meeting, shoots him down and ridicules him.
  • Everyone ridicules Jerry’s art, even though he’s a wonderful painter and his landscapes are absolutely beautiful.

Jerry works as a bumbler in a different way than Hagrid. While they both have a pathos about them, Jerry’s is a comic, lighthearted pathos. Hagrid’s is heart-wrenching.

I understand, then, that there are multiple ways to write a bumbler. Many tactics you can use to personalize the character. Hagrid and Jerry both work nicely and fit nicely into the worlds they inhabit.

I just can’t bring myself to try to write a bumbler. And that’s okay: my stories don’t need them.

Well, I know character types in and of themselves are confining. They limit a deep character to one set of traits and one role to play. Still, we think in those terms, and such thinking can be helpful when trying to determine a character’s major role in a story arc before fleshing that character out so that he becomes much more than a caricature.

Is there a specific character type that you love or don’t like as much? How do you feel about bumblers? About knights in shining armor? Damsels in distress or warrior princesses? The lady’s man (like Sam Malone from “Cheers” or Joey Tribbiani from “Friends”)?

Is there one type of character you avoid putting into your stories?

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47 responses to “On Creative Writing and the Bumbler: The Character Type I Avoid Writing

  1. I wonder if maybe you’re undermining the value of the bumbler (particularly Hagrid).

    Out of all the characters in Harry Potter, there is none more consistent than Hagrid. He forms a sort of gauge against which to measure the growth of other characters. He’s a moral center, if not an intellectual one, and his presence reinforces one of Rowling’s greater messages in the series: looks, appearances and even intellect are secondary to kindness, love and honesty.

    Hagrid also plays the role of introducing Harry (and the presumably younger reader) to the world of magic. In other books, this is often achieved through narration. The Lord of the Rings comes to mind, since much of what we learn about Middle-Earth comes from Tolkien.

    With Harry Potter, the world is unravelled for the reader at the same speed as it is for the protagonist. Without Hagrid, this would have had to be done by the ‘wise old man’ character, and that would have stolen away from the mystery and aloofness of Dumbledore’s character.

    Dumbledore is more inclined toward riddle than revelation.

    One other point about the bumbler… When artfully used, a character like Hagrid brings some breathing room into a story that might otherwise feel very heavy. Imagine Star Wars without C-3PO for example. When poorly done, you get Jar Jar Binks.

    • The word ‘undermine’ was probably a poor choice on my part. Underplaying is a bit closer to my meaning.

    • So sorry I didn’t see this until just now! It was stuck in my archives, ugh! Forgot to check that this morning. Thought (as I mentioned to you on Twitter) I had gotten to all the comments!

      I completely agree with everything you say here. Hagrid is definitely a measuring stick and a moral center. He is a great character and definitely demonstrates some qualities–many qualities–I wish I could say I possessed in a greater degree than I do.

      I particularly love (and agree with) what you say about Hagrid introducing Harry to the wizarding world and allowing Dumbledore to stay a mysterious, and lofty, intriguing presence. I had never considered it that way before!

      • Haha no worries 🙂 WordPress can be a tricky and unintuitive bugger sometimes.

        You know, it might be a good idea to write (for fun) a short story about a bumbling character.

        You may never use the character, but the process might give you a little something extra to play with in future stories.

  2. I don’t think I could create a bumbler that was realistic.

    • that’s a fantastic point I hadn’t touched on. I don’t think I could either. Hagrid is realistic for his world, but that world by definition is fantastic. Jerry Gergich wouldn’t make sense in the real world. I don’t think I could craft a bumbler who truly felt genuine. That would be an amazing accomplishment to anyone who could pull it off.

  3. I think I made my hero a bumbler in order to evolve him out of that. I really like that character type as a beginning because it’s such an endearing, humor-filled type. I can always see how a bumbler can grow into a confident character.

    I do avoid the ‘perfect’ character. That one with intelligence, bravery, beauty, humility, and never makes a mistake. I like my characters to have some obvious personality flaw, so a character that is a beacon of perfection has no appeal. If I use someone like that, they’re brutally killed or beaten within the chapter they debut in.

    • that is a FANTASTIC point, Charles. Having a bumbler who grows more confident and into his own person as the story progresses is something we can all relate to.

      Once a bumbler, not always a bumbler (necessarily). Perfect characters are no fun at all, I totally agree.

      • I like that phrase. Maybe there’s a way to evolve a perfect character into an imperfect one. Most times it doesn’t seem possible because infallibility is sewn into their structure. How can a character grow if they can’t fail?

        • The only think I can think is to throw a “perfect” character into a completely new situation, one he or she has never experienced before and has no clue how to handle. New location. In fantasy, new kinds of beings. That might shake him or her up a bit!

        • Hopefully. I’ve seen people do that and the ‘perfect’ character doesn’t bat an eye. Admitting something is new and beating it into the ground without a care is rather lazy. It’s like the author is saying ‘these creatures are badass and so is the hero’ without trying to prove it.

        • ugh, yeah, I agree. That wouldn’t be fun to read at all. Or write,I don’t think. I wouldn’t have fun writing that! Tension, struggle, challenges, and doubts are what’s fun about writing characters.

        • Exactly. I think the mentality that creates such characters is the same one that thinks ‘I have to win’ in a team game. When I played Dungeons & Dragons, there were players who thought it was a competition. They refused to be ‘weak’ in any area even though it’s a game of groups. The ‘perfect’ hero reminds me of that, but I am noticing that such a character is becoming rarer and rarer. Maybe one day, the ‘perfect’ one will be no more.

        • That’s a great comparison. I love RPGs and luckily when my friends and I played WarHammer, we all had weakness. Made things lots more fun! I was a halfling rogue 🙂

        • Nimby! I was in a game where the gamemaster demanded that everyone have a negative stat. One guy wasn’t too thrilled, but he grew into it. I blamed a halfling sorcerer with the common sense of tree bark.

        • hahaha! that about describes me in real life! 😛 (except the sorcerer part. But my common sense isn’t great. And I’m barely five feet tall.)

        • 5’5” and most of my friends are 6 foot plus.

  4. The character I’m currently working on is indeed a bumbler, however, it is due to the fact that he is a child. The child is inept in comparison to the other children within his tribe and as a result, he feels the emotional repercussions of said ineptitude. When he grows up, he will be a warrior.

    However, one character I sorely try to avoid is a Mary Sue. Yes, I understand she is a literary pariah, but I try to avoid even hinting at her within my stories for the sake of realism. If ever I notice a female character with a significant role within the story, I examine her closely: is she both beautiful and intelligent? Is she rich as well? Is she funny and loaded full of quips? Can she single-handedly defeat a platoon of well-trained men? GARBAGE. Ugh, my knuckles ache just thinking about it.
    Instead, I make her more believable; if she is funny, it’s probably because she has thick skin due to emotional trauma. If she is courageous, it’s probably because she had to be at one point or another. If she’s beautiful, her priorities may start to digress. If she’s everything and more… well, then, she’s not in my story.

    Great article!!! 🙂
    Best wishes to all fellow writers out there.

    • Love, love, love, your idea of a bumbler child who gains grace, strength, and ability both inside and out. That’s wonderful!!! I think we all feel like bumblers as kids to varying degrees. That’s why childhood is for: making mistakes as we feel the world out and our place in it.

      I love what you say as well about examining WHY a character has the traits he or she does. What happened in life to create that wittiness, that courage, that lifeview? I’m not a fan of Mary Sues myself. They hold no interest at all. You tips are GREAT for fleshing out a character and avoiding making him or her perfect. I love it! Thanks!

  5. I avoid (pardon the language) The Bitch. Not that my characters can’t be horrible to each other; I mean that I avoid the capital-B one. The gorgeous, sexy, popular cheerleader who’s almost always the love interest’s girlfriend, the female character who exists solely to torment a main character and make her/his life miserable. If she’s got motives, an arc, and/or a larger role to play in the story, sure. But if a character exists only to make me pity the MC or to make the MC look good in comparison, I don’t want to deal with her. Or him…

    Almost wrote one once. She got scrapped pretty quickly. 🙂

    • YES. Fabulous point!!! I avoid the “Bitch” too. That character is pretty much the exact opposite of Mary Sue. She’s so horrible, even if she’s got some things going for her, that she’s unbelievable and one-sided and trite, trite, trite.

      I think with character types, it all comes down to avoiding the trite, even if some aspects are conventional.

      • Exactly. Have a character be a complete and total jackass to your MC, but DO something with it! Make it mean something, make it part of something larger, give that person a purpose other than “complicating factor.”

  6. Hi, Victoria. Thank you for following my blog! 🙂
    I couldn’t agree more about reasonable motivation making a character believable. But I struggle with the idea that we shouldn’t write about “Bitches”. In my WIP I have one as an antagonist, and her bitchiness will not be explained and made more understandable until the last third of the novel. Does this mean readers will lose interest long before they find out what motivates her? I mean, there are these types in real life, why wouldn’t there be one in fiction? I am trying not to make her stereotypical and trite, but perhaps I need to rework her character somewhat so she isn’t a cliché. Your thoughts?

    • That is always a tough one. How much is too much before change/explanation comes? One tip would be to give a hint, a glimmer that something more is going on there. For instance, maybe she has a very troubled home life and suffers a lot. More than other students realize. A glint of that would be revealing some sign of abuse without explaining it right away.

      Mainly, if you’re worried about this, I would make sure to use lots of beta readers and ask them, point blank, after they read your book what they think about that character and if there is too much outright antagonism before an explanation comes. Pick their brains for suggestions.

      If there is a problem, one option would be to scale back her role. Another would be to move some piece of her backstory, the depth of her, farther up.

      I hope that helps, Jennifer!!! I’m so glad we’ve connected on both our blogs 🙂

    • don’t know if this will help…. it kind of rehashes what I said above…. but a Bitch is a stock character, and I have a post from October about stock characters you might find helpful. I do think stock characters and be a lot of fun and be useful, as long as put an individualistic twist to them.

      In case you want to check it out: http://crimsonleague.com/2012/10/12/on-stock-characters-in-your-novel/

  7. Another great article! I haven’t used a bumbler in any of my works and, like you, I just don’t see a place for them anywhere. Plus even if I did put one in, it would probably be for just one book and then I’d have them move on to another place.

    • Glad you liked this one!

      Bumblers can be great characters. Hagrid’s definitely awesome!!! I just haven’t felt, like you a say, “a place for them” in my specific stories. Maybe someday. It would cool to have a character with some bumbler tendencies!

  8. I don’t mind Bumblers except in one instance–when it’s a woman who is capable in her career, but a “bumbler” in just about every other aspect of her life. It’s not that I don’t believe there are people like that, it’s just used SO often, particularly in movie romcoms.

    I also don’t mind the Bitch–except when her bitchiness exists solely to keep the heroine apart from the hero. If she’s tough and ruthless and even merciless, that’s O.K., because that’s interesting. But just to exist as a plot device–no.

    • Oh my gosh, such fabulous points here!!! The problem with rom-com stereotype, as you point out, is inconsistency. It doesn’t make sense that a competent business would be so incompetent elsewhere. She couldn’t make it at work if that were the case.

      And the point that character traits cannot be plot devices, or at least mainly/solely plot devices: dead on. I agree completely! 🙂

  9. I can’t bring myself to write about needy girls. I was raised by a single mother, and I’m very independent, so I just can’t wrap my mind around them. Consequently, my characters typically end up being strong female leads 🙂

    • I love realistic, strong female needs 🙂 They are the best. Like Hermione Granger. She’s not technically a lead, I guess, but she’s Harry Potter’s number two. And while she has her insecurities and doubts, she is strong and uncompromising where her values are concerned. She’s fantastic!

  10. I tried to write a character as a slight bumbler, but he quickly turned into a hero, I’m not sure if it was because he was narrating (its in first person), or just because I wanted to write as a hero instead, also bumblers with swords don’t seem to survive very long in the books I read.
    I promised myself I’d never write anything with a character being a writer, but now I find myself doing just that, I didn’t want to, but the whole plot revolves around a sci-fi writer.

    • You made me laugh! Bumblers with swords definitely don’t tend to last very long 😛

      I love what you say here about how your character evolved and you listened to him tell you who he really was. That’s how I try to write. I think that’s the only way to write something believable. Glad to see I’m not alone in putting character first!

      I’ve had academics/writers as characters in my fantasy world, but I don’t focus on their writing, if that makes sense. I focus on their adventures.

  11. Now that I think about it, I don’t think I have a character like Hagrid in my book, though one character has the potential to be a bumbler if I increase his part in the story.

    I don’t write bullies well. I was bullied as a child, so I can’t write a bully convincingly. Too painful. So I’ll probably never write a school bully story.

    • Ooh, I hear you! I could never write a bully either. I was blessed in that I was never bullied, but still…. bullying is awful. So awful. And to think that children are the victims…. it’s hard to contemplate. I wouldn’t want to write about that.

  12. Wow, I hardly ever read that people are frustrated with Hagrid as well. He is a lovable character, of course, and I think the books would be a tiny less charming without him, but the more often I read Harry Potter novels, the more painful the Hagrid scenes seem to me, especially in the later books.
    I also don’t write complete bumblers, for the reason you named as well: They don’t fit into my worlds. But I have one or two characters who have slight bumbler tendencies, I guess 🙂 However, I like to give these characters other strengths, because even if one is a bumbler, that is not the only trait.

    A type of character I dislike and avoid is the crosspatch wannabe-edgy girl/heroine, who unfortunately is mostly an annoying brat (like Kitty in Bartimaeus). I really don’t mind bitchiness, I LOVE edgy, independend, unconventional female characters, especially outcasts, but I don’t like it when this extreme bitchiness is used as THE main tool to characterize a heroine as anti-girly-girl or strong. Especially if the character lacks a softer side which could redeem the “edgyness” in appropriate moments. There are many, many other ways to write great women characters (Christopher Paolini created wonderful female characters in Eragon) who are unconventional, independent and strong. And I think this is very important because sometimes I think that there are too many stereotypes when it comes to female characters.

    • I totally agree with what you said about Hagrid, and the books being less charming without him. And I love the concept of a character with “bumbler tendencies.” (It makes me think of me!)

      Good characerization–like you definitely get–comes from a mix of traits and tendencies, not ONE defining characteristic. Even Hagrid is much, much more than just a bumbler.

      I also agree that a bitchy character who entire strength comes from bitchiness is not fun. At least, not for me.

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  15. Interesting thoughts in this blog article. I can’t stand the bumbler character, and Hagrid annoys me to no end.

    But then I started thinking about one of my favorite shows, How I Met Your Mother. Barney is my all-time favorite character, and he’s a bit of a bumbler. But he has this knack for, despite his hare-brained ideas and bumping into walls, ending up winning, even in situations that he is being a jerk for. He’s complex, even though he seems shallow. Maybe that’s a key to writing good characters. 😉

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