Most writers are aware that if their main character is going to change, they have to set them up as incomplete, or flawed, or in need of something.
But I see a lot of manuscripts where they’ve gone too far. The MC is so abject, feeble, whiney, wussy, miserable, dysfunctional or even bonkers it’s a wonder they ever acquired a bipedal stance.
And that usually makes them hard to tolerate.
First impressions count
In the first few pages of a book, we’re deciding if we want to spend time with the characters. Although flaws can definitely be humanising and endearing, creating a character like this is such a fine balance. If they’re too draining, we’ll quietly put the book down.
Yes, there probably are people like this in real life. But do you seek them out? Be honest now. You let voicemail take their call.
The faithful friend solution
Often the writer senses the character is not likable enough. So they give them a faithful friend who is always looking after them, and hope this persuades the reader that something about them is adorable.
This friend has endless patience for the MC’s feebleness, unreliability and bad behaviour. They may even give a tough-love pep-talk from time to time. Personally I either want them to take centre stage as they have the more interesting life, or I want to give them a slap too.
But flawed, damaged, incomplete characters can be quintessential drivers for a good story. So how do you build them?
Don’t make the flawed character helpless.
Ask yourself: how do they cope? Presumably they need to earn a living, manage a family or keep up with schoolwork. Even people with quite serious problems manage a juggling act where they keep it under control – just about.
Show that. Perhaps they are keeping a high-powered job in spite of being blitzed on cocaine. Or pouring Darjeeling demurely at the vicar’s tea party while being tormented by horned demons. Or playing the romantic lead in a drama despite being abused by their real-life husband. Or trying to please their parents who want them to be accountants, but sneaking off to circus practice because that’s where their heart is.
People who really have problems paper over the cracks and carry on as if life is normal. Readers love to spot the holes – and they love the plucky, the brave, the fighters. Make them show their hero qualities by what they are already having to cope with – and the reader will love them.
Thank you, Freya Hartas, for the pictures – more of her work can be found at her fab blog Carl Has The Funk
Who are your favourite flawed characters?