What our authors say…
That is the key: creating high stakes for your flawed characters that force them into moving forward or remaining as they are, and the price they must pay for either choice. -Sharron Riddle
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Characters in most novels, of course, have to have flaws. Novels exist where they don’t, but often the character is either boringly idealized or part of a historical and cultural context that doesn’t exist in most twenty-first-century Western countries any longer. (Characters like Herman Melville’s Billy Budd and George Eliot’s Eppie are also meant to serve a specific allegorical purpose that’s rare for modern fantasy novels). But it’s also possible to make a character too flawed, or to add only “charming” quirks that don’t actually impact a character’s life in any discernible way. I’m sure you can think of at least one protagonist whose only fault was being too generous, or too kind-hearted. (I will never get back the hours of my life which I wasted reading The Wayfarer Redemption).
Here, then, are some (more) ideas about adding flaws to characters and what to do once you have them.
1) Realize not everyone is going to see the character the same way you do.
This goes first because, although it’s not about adding flaws to characters as such, it might prevent you from entering the Reader-Reining Game.
What is the Reader-Reining Game? The attempt to fling a bridle around the reader’s neck and lead her only to conclusions you want her to come to. In this particular case, those conclusions are about characters. She “must” see the heroine as charming, the hero as noble, the villain as absolute evil, the girl who’s jealous of the heroine as petty and misguided rather than possibly having a point. Why? Because otherwise the book won’t work, of course!
Never mind that readers handled with reins (and whips, and spurs) are as likely to buck the writer off as anything else.
If you can accept that people will have widely-ranging reactions to even the most carefully delineated and flawed character—that someone will always find your heroine unsympathetic or too perfect, just as other people will fall in love with her—then you can spare yourself a lot of worry. This doesn’t completely ease the sting of getting the “wrong” reaction, of course. But it can give one a fascinatingly different perspective on one’s own writing. And it will prevent you from attempting the impossible, anticipating and countering every reaction, and filling your narrative with the sort of annoying authorial prods that are meant to steer people on one path and one path only as regards liking or hating or pitying the characters.
2) The part about “everyone not seeing the character the same way you do?” That applies to the other characters, too.
One thing that bothers me lately, much more than it used to, is when the characters in a novel act like readers—as if they knew everything about the protagonist, the plot, or the villain that the readers of the book do, and always react with appropriate sympathy, anger, shock, or nausea. This is when I know that the author has either begun to let the characterization on the less “important” people go to pieces because she’s too enthralled with a few aspects of the story, or never had that characterization in the first place.
Yes, your secondary characters might be less important to the plot, the theme, and the major confrontation, but on the other hand, they can make or break your story, or keep someone reading for whom the protagonist is not interesting. God knows that I wouldn’t have stuck with Robert Jordan as long as I did if I wasn’t interested in the people who didn’t “matter.”
So. When your protagonist makes a mistake because of one of her character flaws, consider that the other characters might be inclined to react with less than the complete patience and understanding you want from the readers. If they’ve been dealing with this flaw for a long time, they might take the chance to storm and rage about it, or at least say, “I told you so.” One of the sources of total frustration I get from stories with teenage protagonists is how few I’ve seen where people who suffer because of an adolescent’s misplaced confidence or her selfishness ever get angry about it. Sure, the reader might know that she’s going to grow up and become totally awesome because they’ve read so many of these stories before, but to people on the ground who’ve just lost a battle because an untrained teenager decided that she could command troops like a seasoned general, I don’t think the story type will matter as much as the immediate, unrepentant asshole.
On the other hand, they might be inclined to be overly indulgent, too. The readers, privy to the protagonist’s interior monologue, could know that she blames herself, and she might have a lot to blame herself for. But her parents, or her best friend, or the person who’s in love with her, could cluck over it and reassure her that it’s not her fault, even when it is. And as long as this is natural to their characters and has reasonable consequences, I would be totally interested in seeing it! It’s only the too-knowledgeable, perfectly-calculated reactions I want to get rid of.
3) Try not to repeat and repeat again redundantly.
In real life, of course, people often make the same mistake over and over again because they can’t cure their character flaws in a snap of the fingers. But fiction is not real life.
Balance things between having your character learn the perfect lesson from every mistake and having her do the same thing on page 3 and page 10 and page 14 and page 145. This is where having more than one flaw, or a variable one (see point 4), helps. Maybe the protagonist is on guard against making the same mistake again, but she isn’t paying attention to this other character trait that is also a nuisance. Therefore, she’s not perfect, but she also isn’t running in a tight circle of the same actions that will make the reader roll her eyes in those same tight circles and put the book down.
How to balance? Compare and contrast scenes you’ve written. In how many of them does the character say and do the same exact things, or almost the same things with only a bit of variation? If it’s several, consider cutting some of them, or—this is one of my favorite tactics—have the character start whining about a mistake or start committing one, and then have the plot interrupt. After all, why should the enemies stand around waiting for Miss Oh-Woe-Is-Me-For-I-Have-Sinned to finish her interior monologue?
(“I know you’re getting impatient to commit mindless mayhem, soldiers, but we have to wait three more minutes until the whining dies down.”)
Also, if the character makes a commitment or a promise to shape up and start watching her temper/her smart-ass comments/her recklessness/her selfishness, show her retreating from that commitment or promise, but not fully. I understand what authors are trying to do when they show the protagonist breaking such promises, but seeing them broken again and again provides too little forward momentum, in the same way that seeing endless scenes of brooding on flaws or the same mistake being made provide too little forward momentum. You can have verisimilitude if the protagonist breaks the promise, has an “Oh, shit!” moment, and immediately apologizes instead of dragging it out and refusing to admit she was wrong as she did before. Then, the next time, she can be a bit better about catching herself, and then better again the time after that. This, I think, provides a reasonable compromise between the demands of psychology and the demands of fiction.
4) Choose variable flaws, or flaws that you vary.
Here you have a character. We will call her Helena. Helena sometimes thinks she was born angry. She loses her temper at the drop of a hat, talks back to people with the power to throw her in dungeons, says “witty” things that make her companions clap their hands over their eyes, and gets in a huff with her friends in a way that makes her stomp off and miss the major battles/discussions/moments of glory. (Note here that this character development requires treating a quick temper as a flaw, instead of an endless source of “wit,” which is an all-around bad idea. Most authors: Not As Witty As They Think They Are). Helena doesn’t hold grudges, but since she spends a lot of her time yelling at the same people, most of her victims don’t believe that. She makes her little sister, who’s much shyer and less confident, cry a lot. She feels sorry about some of these things, but she doesn’t like apologizing, so, when told to apologize, she sulks.
Those are different consequences for the way she gets angry. If the only one ever shown was that Helena got “witty” (seriously, how many eloquent and funny things do you say when your temper is on fire?) and people stood around slack-jawed, imagine how boring she would be to read about.
I firmly believe most flaws can be made to vary if they are simply worked on the right way. The problem is that authors fall in love with one way of expressing the trait—or, worse, change it so that the flaw never is a flaw (see point 5)—and, while you can certainly argue that the protagonist isn’t perfect, she is still boring to read about. I enjoy stubborn characters who get stubborn in different ways and for different reasons, not just because someone doubts their perfection. I enjoy reckless ”spunky” characters who go dashing into danger and then get hurt or get others hurt, not simply come out covered with glory. I enjoy gossipy characters whose gossip makes other characters regard them as ill-natured, instead of coming back to bite them on the butt in the exact same way each time. Variation is the key to interest here.
5) Avoid “interview flaws.”
I’ve made this point before, but I don’t think it can be emphasized enough. Try not giving your characters flaws that are only of the kind you would claim in an interview: “Oh, I’m too warm-hearted.” “Oh, I’m too much of a leader.” “Oh, I’m too responsible.”
Why? Because characters who have only these sorts of flaws are, of course, never treated as less than perfect by the author. There are ways that these things can turn around and bite them in the ass. The responsible person can take over responsibility from someone who resents her doing so, or make a hash of things because she’s trying to do too much at once. The warm-hearted character can be too indulgent to someone who doesn’t deserve the indulgence, or be duped and betrayed easily. The leader can thrust herself annoyingly into every leadership role available, ignoring the fact that she’s fit for exactly one of them, or grow arrogant when demanding obedience from others.
That you so rarely see these things with interview flaws is not an indication that the downsides don’t happen, of course. It’s simply an indication that the author gets lost in admiration for the character and/or doesn’t think that a certain quality can ever be bad. I assure you, in excess everything is.
6) Overloading the character with flaws does no good, either.
Occasionally I see someone who’s gotten nervous, maybe because beta readers have told her her protagonist is too perfect, and decided to do everything from dumb down her character to make her ugly and clumsy. (Honestly, I don’t think ugliness and clumsiness count as flaws; I consider flaws things the character can help, rather than things she’s born with). The thing is, there’s no guarantee that a character will be loveable simply because she has a lot of negative qualities, either. You must resign yourself to people not loving your character. (Stencil Point 1 on the back of your eyelids if you must).
Besides, if your character literally has no good traits and yet the people around her adore her anyway, you’ve already failed a crucial test. Minor characters’ reactions to the protagonist should make sense, not be manipulated for the sake of the plot.
Try to strike a normal, human balance. Your protagonist can have an abundance of good traits, as long you don’t spend the book acting as her chorus of praise and screaming at the top of your lungs, “See? See? Everyone should fall at her feet!” She can have lots of bad ones, as long as you show them affecting her and the world around her with some psychological realism. And she can be pretty much an ordinary human being who has some flaws and some good traits, knows about some of these and never notices others, and spends her life doing what she needs to do to get by, with some flashes of cowardice and grace under fire.
A rant on loyalty is probably next.