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.
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.
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?
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.
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…
Do any of these scenarios sound familiar:
- Can Luke let go of his dependence on technology in time to destroy the Death Star?
- Can Indiana Jones let an archaeological find like no other disappear forever—before he follows it?
- 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 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:
- What’s in a name? 6 Ways to Choose Great Character Names
- 7 Editing Strategies
- Using Repetition to Improve Your Book
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?
Next up on MARCH BOOK MADNESS…
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:
- Tue, Mar 5: Weeding Your Words, by Charissa Stastny
- Wed, Mar 6: Know Your Audience–Even the Subtle One, by Cindy Piper
- Thu, Mar 7: Beating a Dead Horse, by Julie L Casey
- Tue, Mar 12: Why Everyone Should Be a Writer, by Sharon Belknap
- Wed, Mar 13: Reading in the Digital Age, by JoLynne Lyon
- Thu, Mar 14: The Art of Accepting Criticism, by Mary Bateman-Mercado
- Tue, Mar 19: Pinterested in Books, by Sarah Belliston
- Wed, Mar 20: The Power of Storytelling, by Christopher Rosche
- Thu, Mar 21: Never Pity the Adverb, by Anthony Mercado
- Tue, Mar 26: Creating Flawed but Likable Characters, by A.L. Sowards
- Wed, Mar 27: Priorities and Choices for Writers, by Braden Bell
- Thu, Mar 28: Premise vs Plot – Which Do You Have? by Janice Hardy
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.