Limyaael's Rants

Writing Flawed Characters

Written on 2003-06-25; Read the original post on LiveJournal

Inspired by some posting on flaws in both the Mary-Sue communities and others.

1. First, make sure that your character really has flaws, and not just traits that can be turned to advantage in a flash or might make the character temporarily unattractive to someone else. Is it really a flaw if your character is too unselfish, or if your character tends to step on her partner's feet when dancing? The first too easily turns into an excuse for the other characters to admire the lead. The second is small, unlikely to appear in a situation outside a dance, and most likely could be overcome with training...

2....which leads to this one. Make sure that your character's flaws do not disappear with a little creative problem-solving. Flaws are not problems. They're not solved the way that one might solve a logic puzzle. Even as people give their characters faults, there seems to be a tendency to provide ways to get past them. Perhaps the character "has a tendency to get upset," but "has a cool head when the chips are down." So she only gets upset when it's not important; in a real emergency, she would do the perfectly right thing and save the day. *snort* How convenient. The fault disappears when there's a chance that it might get in the character's way. Not the way it works. If someone has a tendency to get upset and scream her head off at the least little thing, it is extremely unlikely that she would react coolly if told, for example, that she was unable to get into the college of her choice, or that her boyfriend had broken up with her, or that her parents were getting divorced. She might react in a different way- shock instead of screaming- but probably not just nod and react in a way that would make everyone admire her. Don't let the story act as therapy for your character, so that she emerges on the other side all happy, smily, and shiny, with those nasty flaws just scrubbed right out of her. Flaws shouldn't vanish when the character needs them to.

3. Make sure the flaws play well with others- that is, with the other flaws you have assigned your character. Someone you describe as arrogant is unlikely to also be shy and insecure, except possibly on the inside where no one will know it for certain. If you really want a character to be flawed, pick the worse one of the pair and let the other go. If the character has to act in a certain way because of the storyline, then you may have to make her arrogant instead of shy, even if shyness would be the more crippling one, but it's hard to see how a person could be both at once.

4. Don't try to deliberately construct the character as a foil for someone else. If the character is quiet when she shouldn't be, overweight, and lies constantly, don't make the character who's her worst enemy talkative, thin, and an absolute truth-teller. Contrasts work better when they're not as absolute and the audience has to think about them a little.

5. Be careful not to give your character too many "weaknesses" as opposed to flaws; I've seen some character profiles that do this. I define weaknesses as something the character has no control over. If I see a character's flaws listed as "a weak immune system, allergy to the sun, and leprosy," then I'm going to snort, because those aren't things the character can be blamed for. Some authors seem tempted to exorcise their characters of all blame, which is silly; then you only have a perfect Miss Sucky. It's certainly possible to write a character who's wronged and with whom the reader emphsizes, but have her be right all the time, with people snapping at her only for things she was born with, and you're going to end up with some readers rolling their eyes and going away.

6. Speaking of blame, try having your character make devastating mistakes. Surely everyone can name at least one thing in their lives they regret bitterly and wish had never happened, and which was their fault, as opposed to someone else's. If your character has a flaw of constantly forgetting birthdays, which is a pretty minor thing in itself, have it happen with someone who had really hoped the character would remember his birthday. Written well, that can develop into a full-blown fight, which is probably about something else entirely, and show both characters in an entirely new light.

7. Also consider having your character have "unattractive" flaws. By this, I mean traits that are extremely hard to turn to advantage. Flaws like quick tempers, being a loner, having too much compassion, or being impertinent can turn to advantage, and often aren't presented as having any painful impact at all. But what about a character who doesn't keep promises? Who preaches constantly about his or her own way of life being right? Who tells other people "I told you so?" These are harder to change around and make attractive. Of course, they can also make an author not want to write about a character. But here's where the wonderful authorial double vision comes in. You can write from within the character's viewpoint, sympathizing with her, while at the same time being perfectly aware of what outside viewers (including yourself, perhaps) think of the action. You get to see both points of view!

8. And that leads into the next thing. The character is probably not going to think of her flaws as flaws; she may well make the kind of excuses and sidesteps that authors often do in their character profiles. The trick is not to present her as always right, any more than you would as always wrong. If she thinks that all her flaws are smoothed out and you manage to present that they're not, fine. If her perceptions seem absolutely to accord with reality and all her flaws get smoothed out, then what you have left is a cardboard cutout.

9. Finally, have other people react realistically to your character's flaws. If someone pouts and whines all the time, other people are probably going to snap at her, unless they have inhuman self-control or pity her greatly. If one of these latter needs to be the case, for story purposes, then perhaps show them in their thoughts rolling their eyes and thinking the things they'll never say out loud. I can't tell you the amount of times I read something a character did, expected the others to blame her, and saw them accept it instead- as long as the character was the hero of the story. Minor characters don't get so lucky, and often are excorciated by the people around them and even the author for the exact same mistakes the lead makes. If the reader is fundamentally opposed to something your character says or does, it can help to have other viewpoints in the story that agree she's not the Second Coming.

Whew. Done now.

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