Up until recently, I found it very difficult to write flawed characters.
I fall deeply in love with my characters, so I really want other people to like them as much as I do. This makes showing others my work a terrifying event. It feels like bringing a boyfriend home for my parents to meet. Will they like him? Will he say something dumb that misrepresents who I know he is? It turns me into a ball of nerves; I’m sure something catastrophic will happen that will leave them despising each other.
It got me so worried, in fact, that I wouldn’t give my characters real flaws. My characters used to be idealized people: my perfect idea of a boyfriend, or my idea of the perfect girl.
But perfect characters aren’t perfect reading material!
My characters may have stayed polished and flawless if it weren’t for my fear of Mary Sues. As I’ve written about before, claiming a character is a Mary Sue is practically a death-sentence for that character’s popularity. So I wanted to avoid it at all costs by proving that my characters weren’t perfect. I had to slap some flaws onto them, quick!
To this day, I giggle thinking about the “flaws” I tried to throw onto Jaranin, the protagonist of The Victor’s Blade. Messy hair, clumsiness (which never negatively affected him). The only flaw that really had any bearing on the narrative was his naivete. Back then, I wasn’t trying to develop real flaws; I was just tossing out random quirks. I didn’t understand that flaws have to be something that cause problems for the character in ways that matter.
I didn’t want to give my characters genuine flaws because I was scared it’d make them unlikeable. If Jaranin were boastful, who would want to root for him? If Isalaina were whiny all the time, why would anyone want to read about her?
Character flaws are a balancing act. If a character is too flawed, it can be hard to root for them. But a character without flaws is annoying, even if no one says they’re a Mary Sue.
I still struggle with character flaws to some extent, but I’ve found a trick that makes it easier to find that sweet spot between flaws and redeemable qualities. My secret? I sprinkle my own flaws onto characters. It sure helps me to relate to the characters, and it gives more nuance to a character rather than artificially giving them an abstract, big ol’ seven deadly sin to wrestle with.
For instance, Prince Aeron struggles with pride, a flaw I wrestle with daily. On the surface he may seem like a stereotypical pompous overlord, but there’s more going on under the hood than that. There are reasons he is the way he is. For one, he’s been raised in a country that has thrived off nationalistic racism for thousands of years. He’s been groomed to believe people from the next-door nation of Hoarnaest are lesser due to their lack of education and their base culture compared to his own politically-nuanced people. His pride comes from the near-godlike status his people bestow upon royalty, giving him a superiority complex. He doesn’t even realize how stuck-up and ignorant he is until he finds himself drawn to a servant-girl who’s from Hoarnaest. Only after building that relationship and having her confront his behavior does he realize what a jerk he’s been all along… and that he’s not, in fact, better than anyone else around him.
Putting my own flaws into characters not only helps me relate to them better, it helps me get into their heads. Understanding how a character thinks helps me write them more realistically, enabling their flaws to drive their decisions.
One of my favorite flaws to work with is cowardice and fear. People will go to great lengths to avoid things they fear. How far will this character go to prevent their greatest fear from happening? What crimes would they commit? What loved ones would they push away? What tragic events would they initiate? Not to mention it creates great dramatic tension when a character is forced to confront their fear at last.
I’ve found putting my own flaws into characters also helps keep them likeable even despite them being flawed. I think it’s because it helps keep them grounded and vulnerable, human. It’s easier to show their reasons for why they act on these flaws or how much they struggle with them. For instance, showing a character loathing their flaw and wrestling with it almost always makes them more likeable. We naturally want to root for them, want them to win and become better people.
It’s tough to write a character with flaws without alienating the audience. And sometimes, alienating some audience members is unavoidable: what some readers can forgive, others will find unforgiveable. But writing isn’t about pleasing the biggest number of people; it’s about writing the best story you can for your ideal audience.
I’m glad my characters have grown along with me, but the fight to write more realistic, multi-dimensional characters is never quite done. I’m excited to see how much further my characters will grow with me in the days going forward!