MBM: Creating Flawed (But Likable) Characters, by A.L. Sowards

Welcome to the tenth day of MARCH BOOK MADNESS!

Today, A.L. Sowards is here discussing characters. She’s the author of Espionage, a Whitney Award finalist this year, set in France during World War II. The sequel, Sworn Enemy, is due out this April. (Click the covers to read the synopses.) When A. L. Sowards agreed to guest post for March Book Madness, I was thrilled. Especially because she’s discussing something I struggle with — something many authors struggle with.

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Cover_FRONT_Sworn Enemy_lr

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Sowards

Creating Flawed (But Likable) Characters, by A. L. Sowards

The words stung a little because I knew they were true. One of my friends just emailed me her thoughts on an early draft of my second novel.

About the protagonist, she said, “I like him . . . but that’s all. I feel like I should have a crush on him, or want to be like him, or he should remind me of someone I admire, but I don’t feel any of that.” In another note, scribbled in red ink 2/3 of the way through the manuscript, she pinpointed the problem:

My protagonist was too perfect.

He didn’t start out perfect, but I’d used the same main character from my first novel, and he’d already overcome his big challenges during that novel, leaving him . . . too perfect. (Don’t worry—I fixed that. He has some internal struggles now, and I show how obnoxious he is as a hospital patient.)

Why are perfect characters bad?

  • They’re unrealistic
  • They’re annoying
  • They’re hard for readers to relate to

The most powerful books involve change for the better. If your character is already perfect, where can they go from there (other than downhill)?

Characters need strengths, flaws, goals, desires, fears, and everything else real people have. I could probably write a blog post about each of those things (maybe next year, eh, Rebecca?), but for now we’ll talk about flaws.

Why flaws?

Real people have flaws. All real people. I can think of one exception to that rule, but unless you’re going back to New Testament times, your character needs flaws. Otherwise, most readers won’t be interested.

So what flaws work well?images

Bad habits, insecurities, weaknesses (think kryptonite or an Achille’s heel, although I think Achilles had some other flaws too).

Why do these things work?

They’re familiar. They’re understandable.

Chances are, your reader can relate to your character’s Diet Coke addiction because your reader just opened another Diet Pepsi or opened another bag of M&Ms. Does your character have a hard time getting out of bed in the morning? Who can’t relate to that? Does your character spend too much time on Facebook? Maybe your reader does too, or if not them, their roommate or sister or someone else they know and still love. Does your character get nervous talking to people of the opposite sex? If your reader survived junior high, they can relate.

Balance flaws with strengths

Of course, you don’t want to go overboard. Readers need to like your character, so give your hero some likable qualities too. Readers want a reason to cheer for your imperfect character despite whatever flaws you’ve given them.

It’s kind of a balancing act, and depending on your audience, you may lean more toward the likable character with some minor problems, or more toward the dark, deeply flawed individual.

Look at Jean Valjean as an example.images (1)

He’s a thief and a hardened criminal. But what reader can’t forgive him stealing a loaf of bread so he can feed his sister’s starving children?

  • Flaw: crime. Balanced with: really good motivation. 

Or take Shrek. He’s rude and crude and, well, he’s an ogre. But he’s funny, so we like him.

Show flaws in a way that won’t alienate readers

The protagonist for my first three novels has a swearing problem. (He picked it up at boot camp.) Yet my audience is primarily LDS readers who pick up books published by Covenant so they can avoid the profanity often found in national market books. So while my character swears a few times, none of the words are actually written out, and it’s usually during a tense moment where it seems justified. I think most of my readers can forgive him, because they aren’t actually seeing what he’s saying (I leave that to their imaginations), and they probably know someone (maybe themselves) with a similar habit.

Let’s go through a few other examples.

  • Maybe your protagonist is a shopaholic, and maybe she’s even putting financial strain on her family because of it. Perhaps she’ll even overcome this problem by the end of the story (or work really hard and land a job that supports the habit without the financial strain). A lot of readers can relate to a desire to shop—either because they love a good deal too or their mom or aunt or best friend does. But you might not want to have your character go to the store with the family’s last $5 and have her buy lipstick instead of the milk and bread the sickly toddler is waiting for.
  • Perhaps your hero has a temper. He may even learn to control it by the end of the novel, but first you need to show how much of a problem it is for him. You should probably have him beat up on someone his own size, not on some poor defenseless kid.
  • Does your character butt heads with his or her mother? A lot of readers will too, but they also love their moms, so you might not want to make your character’s mother a candidate for parent-of-the-year. She might need to have a few flaws too.

Weave flaws into your story

Flaws can be fun. Want to take your novel to the next level? Have the character’s weakness figure into the plot.

  • Perhaps your heroine is obsessed with having perfect nails, and while she’s touching up her two-day old manicure, she misses a call from her romantic interest, or lets down her best friend who really needed her right that second. And maybe as part of the climax she has to do something she knows will result in a broken nail, but the trade-off will be worth her sacrifice.
  • Or does the villain in the novel know your character has a lead foot, or a weakness for raspberry sherbet, or really bad aim with his left arm? Can the villain use your hero’s weakness against them, or somehow force your character to overcome their flaw just in time to save the day?

Flaws can be great places to look when you need plot ideas.

Speaking of overcoming those weaknesses…

Djfittuwufdz6ttwjo any of these scenarios sound familiar:

  1. Can Luke let go of his dependence on technology in time to destroy the Death Star?
  2. Can Indiana Jones let an archaeological find like no other disappear forever—before he follows it?
  3. Can an average romance heroine swallow her pride and apologize before she loses the man of her dreams?

.See, I told you flaws can be fun.

A.L. Sowards

Bio:

A.L. Sowards grew up in Moses Lake, Washington, then came to Utah to attend BYU and ended up staying. She wrote most of Sworn Enemy while her twin toddlers were sleeping and did most of the revisions while they were supposed to be sleeping, but were really using their crib mattresses as trampolines.

OTHER MARCH BOOK MADNESS POSTS:

 

Rebecca:

Thanks for the post, A. L. I’ve already penciled you in for next year. ;) Jean Valjean has to be one of the greatest characters of all time, especially coupled with Javert. (My hubby and I went to the movie expecting to be disappointed. We weren’t. It was very well done.) As I think about it, even the best super heroes have their flaws. Oooh, and some of the best villains have a good side.

I had the same experience as A. L. where a friend read through one of my manuscripts and said, “Eh. She was okay.” I wanted to shout, “What?!!! But I love her! Don’t you realize that (*insert everything she’s been through and how incredible it is that she didn’t quit).” But obviously I hadn’t shown enough of her flaws or strengths.

I’ve written six books. Because some are in a series, there are only three sets of characters. As I read through this post again, I’m going through my characters one by one. It’s been interesting to think if they are flawed enough or strong enough.

In this current book I’m writing, it’s a definite no — at least on one of the main characters. Time to tweak. On another character, I’m thankfully on the right track. Her flaw ends up getting her in a heap of trouble, which changes her entire future.

Today I’m going to make a list of the top five characters in each book and their strengths and weaknesses. A good practice for here on out.

Thanks again, A.L. for the great examples. Lots to think about. Good luck with the Whitneys on May 11. (Wish I could be there for it!)

What about you? How do create flawed (but likable) characters? Any tricks you’ve learned?

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Next up on MARCH BOOK MADNESS

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If you’re new to March Book Madness, it’s an excuse for me to discuss everything about writing, editing, and reading books with some amazing authors and readers. Fun, fun, fun!

Here’s the schedule:

The collective talent listed above . . . Wow! If you’ve missed any days, make sure to catch up. It’s been awesome..

Check out last year’s MARCH BOOK MADNESS here.

Related Post: 4 Steps for Creating Great Character Flaws

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Author: Rebecca Belliston @rlbelliston

Hopeless romantic and author of CITIZENS OF LOGAN POND, SADIE and AUGUSTINA. Music nerd and composer of RELIGIOUS and CLASSICAL-STYLE music. I live in Michigan with my husband and five kids.

17 thoughts on “MBM: Creating Flawed (But Likable) Characters, by A.L. Sowards”

  1. Great post, Amanda. I do love flawed characters; they are fun. (And I am so excited for Sworn Enemy to come out next month. Yea!)

    Like

  2. I was fascinated by the whole idea of creating characters because my material is all non-fiction. Several people I admire have suggested that I write a novel to tell my family story to reach a larger audience. I’m toying with the idea but really have no idea how to go about it. I really enjoyed his post.

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    1. Fiction is a lot of fun because you have more control of the outcome. If you decide to give it a try, there are many, many, many resources to get you started. Your library will have tons of books on writing. Good luck!

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    2. Judy, as Rebecca said, there should be some good books on writing fiction at your library.
      One of the things that makes your blog so compelling (in my opinion) are your real-life characters. They come across through their letters as believable and likeable. If you do decide to turn your family’s story into a novel, you’ll have a head-start because your characters are already so life-like!

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    1. Rebecca, when I was reading your blog earlier this month, I thought I should just copy and paste your post and send it to the other Rebecca! Good luck with your Emma project (I’m sure you’ll figure it out and make it wonderful)!

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    1. Thanks for your thoughts. I wasn’t kidding about next year. :) I can’t wait to read your book, too. Spring break is around the corner, and I’m hoping for some good reading time. It looks awesome.

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  3. I don’t care about the character being relatable. I’m reading or watching ABOUT whats happening around them. All I care about is that they have an interesting personality and a backstory. I hate gary stus because they bore me the hell outta me because they’re like an object. When people debate over a character being “likeable” they usually do have “likeable” qualities (like a pervert who cares about their friends. has flawed but likeable traits) and criticize them for having those “flaws” despite the fact thats what makes them interesting, but then criticize a character for being perfect. What fascinates me about batman is that on the surface he appears all dark and macho. But underneath that machoness is someone who is so clinged to their ideals they never consider what others say to him about them, making him flawed.

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  4. If I make a story I want to make the main character have qualities that I dislike. Like an opposing ideal. I was writing about a college student going into a hospital thats haunted by patients who suffered and want to take their anger out on innocents. A normal person would say that those patients are victims of what happened to them and are thus, innocent. But the main character instead believes that no matter what kind of negative environment somebody grows in how you turn out overrall depends on if you let the past and negativity take over you, making it an ideal that an average person would disagree.

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  5. I’ve researched and learned about some games or tv series where the main character is designed to be almost pure despicable but in a way which comes off as likeable because of their unlike ability.

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