Maybe you’ve heard it said that your main character should be flawed. But why? And how do you make your hero flawed without looking as if you tacked some nasty trait on at random?
A Perfect Character
Remember Nancy Drew? She fascinated me when I was young. She could ride horseback and scuba dive and speak several languages. I think the only time she met a task she didn’t already know how to do was playing the bagpipes.
When I was a kid, I wanted to be Nancy Drew. I wanted to be that competent. I also wanted to have her kind of money, so I could randomly decide to fly anywhere in the world at a moment’s notice. She was perfect.
And that – in a stunning twist of irony – was her only flaw.
Now, far be it from me to cast a shadow over the great Nancy Drew. But when I draw up my list of All-Time Greatest Characters of Literature … she isn’t among them.
A Flawed Character
Top of that list of favorite characters is Alan Breck Stewart from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped. Alan, a Scotsman exiled from the Highlands after the overthrow of Bonnie Prince Charlie, is excellent at both the sword and the bagpipes (sorry, Nancy) – and there end his virtues.
After he and main character David Balfour fight off an entire ship’s crew, Alan promptly sits down and writes a song – about himself. Though his fine blue coat with silver trim is tarnished from dodging Redcoats through the Highlands, he’s quick to remind anyone who maligns him that he comes of kings and bears a king’s name – the Royal House of Stewart. In addition to all that pride, he has a frighteningly sketchy set of morals.
So why did Alan – who’s as flawed as they come – make my list of top characters, and Nancy Drew – Miss Perfect – didn’t?
Because he’s flawed. Because we can relate to those flaws.
All Your Favorite People Are Imperfect
Now think about the best people in your life. Are they perfect? Nope. Draw up a list of all their flaws, and I’ll bet I can predict your reaction. You’ll smile and shake your head and think how weird and wonderful it is that you love them so much anyway.
In many ways, you like them because of their flaws. Admit it. You do. In a certain way, their flaws make them … endearing. Maybe it’s because we know we aren’t all that perfect ourselves … and that our true friends love us anyway, exactly the way we are.
Why We Like Flawed People
The reason is pretty simple. We prefer people who are clearly going through what we’re going through. Someone who isn’t happy with their job. Someone who shouts at the kids when they didn’t mean to. Someone who can’t seem to keep the weight off. Heck, we’d be happy to see a Ferrari with a flat tire … with an accompanying millionaire using a car jack.
We like flawed people because we have something in common with them. We sympathize with them. They’re real, because they’re going through what we’re going through. We see a little bit of ourselves in Alan Breck Stewart … and not so much in Nancy Drew.
How to Flaw Your Character … Naturally
Sometimes, it feels as if an author picked a flaw out of a hat and tacked it onto a character. It feels forced, as if the author only did it because she knew she was supposed to. How do you avoid that?
My advice may help some of you and not others, just depending on how your writer’s mind works. It’s my hunch (to use one of Nancy’s favorite words) that most of your characters subconsciously represent some conflicting idea you’re trying to sort out in your own life. Some problem with which you’re not at peace. If this is true of your characters, the conflict will naturally develop into a flaw, if you let it.
For instance, in my WIP Tiffany, the title character represents my struggle with the problems that develop when parental love is a condition of performance. Tiffany’s fatal flaw is based squarely on the conflict of performance-based love. She’s bossy as all get-out. She throws absolute fits of temper. Aside from anger, she refuses to show emotion, including concern for other people. The fact is, she has no idea how to love or be loved. Intellect and performance were valued in her upbringing … so it’s all she knows.
If you can identify the underlying conflict in your character’s life, you won’t have to search much farther for the character’s flaw. It can develop quite naturally out of the sore spot in your character’s life.
What is your advice for creating flawed characters naturally?