Would you cross the road to avoid them? A problem with flawed characters

Characters with major flaws aren’t always endearing. Here’s how they might scare the reader away

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?

The actual, real solution

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?

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  1. #1 by Dominic de Mattos on April 18, 2011 - 10:33 am

    The very best observations are those that make perfect sense, which the reader already knew intuitively but somehow had never truly articulated, even to themselves. This is one of those light bulb reflections that are so illuminating, and, I realise, why I gave up on an otherwise very well written book over half way through.
    Thanks for sharing. Off to take a good long look at my antagonist!
    Dom @ his blog

    • #2 by rozmorris on April 18, 2011 - 11:04 am

      Thank you, Dom! This is an incredibly easy mistake to make, as the writer is usually so caught up in showing the flaws that they forget to see the character from outside. Sorting it out can make a huge difference. Glad to have helped!

  2. #3 by erikamarks on April 18, 2011 - 12:43 pm

    Hi Roz–I feel like I’ve been considering this question lots lately with my WIP’s protagonist. (I think I even voiced it at the last chat you and Victoria shared.)

    One favorite flawed character who comes to mind: Quoyle from Shipping News. It is his over-riding devotion to his daughters that overshadows his frequent bouts of self-pity and keeps the reader in turn devoted to him (THIS reader, at least)

    • #4 by rozmorris on April 18, 2011 - 1:00 pm

      Hi Erika! It was at Victoria’s that I got the idea for this post. I mentioned it in a quick comment there and realised it needed to be explored in more depth.

      Interesting point about The Shipping News – self-pity is a particularly difficult trait to balance, but great if you can pull it off because it’s very true. I couldn’t actually get very far through The Shipping News because the pace didn’t suit my reading mood at the time…

  3. #5 by Deanna Schrayer on April 18, 2011 - 1:48 pm

    Great post Roz! You’re so right about us overlooking the good side of such characters, we’re usually so busy piling on the conflicts, (which naturally brings out their bad side), that we make ourselves blind to their good qualities.

    I’m reading The Help right now by Kathryn Stockett (am about halfway through so please no one give anything away) and these characters are superbly written! It’s difficult to believe this is her first novel, considering how well fleshed out the characters are.
    I also love Adriana Trigiani’s characters, in all her work. She is incredibly gifted at showing us all sides of every one of them.

    Thanks very much for this inspiring post!

    • #6 by rozmorris on April 18, 2011 - 2:03 pm

      Thank you, Deanna – and those book recommendations sound very tantalising. Might well have to check them out!

  4. #7 by Jim Thayer on April 18, 2011 - 3:28 pm

    Kindness, even a meager measure–can make the reader root for the most irredeemable of characters. Sometime the faithful friend can be dog. The adopt-a-dog technique usually works. In Gene Wolfe’s science fantasy masterpiece, The Shadow of the Torturer, the protagonist, Sevarian, is a member of a guild of torturers and executioners, and he spends a goodly amount of the novel doing just those things. But Wolfe nicely adds an injured dog, Triskele, who Sevarian nurses back to health for no other reason than it should be done. We like Sevarian, despite his career choice.
    Adopting a dog is an old trick used by novelists to generate sympathy. In A.B. Guthrie’s Pulitzer Prize winning The Big Sky, protagonist Boone Caudill—who has just killed his lifelong friend and hunting mate Jim in a jealous rage, and who is not too likeable in any event—adopts a hound, Blue, by stealing the dog from its abusive owner. Sometimes readers will like the dog more than the character.

    • #8 by rozmorris on April 18, 2011 - 8:04 pm

      Ah Jim, I could probably write whole posts on the uses of dogs in fiction! But to confine myself to your very interesting example… yes, terrificdevice, almost as though the dog is the character’s good side.
      It reminds me also of the film Leon, where an assassin reluctantly shelters an orphaned teenage girl. At first he resolves to kill her because she’s inconvenient, but finds he can’t do it. So she lives with him and gradually awakens his hidden human side. Great film.

    • #9 by Dave Morris on April 18, 2011 - 8:16 pm

      I like it – save the cat, even when the cat is a dog 🙂

      • #10 by rozmorris on April 18, 2011 - 11:17 pm

        Although really it’s a slightly different point being discussed here. Certainly it’s important to try to give an unlikable character a redeeming quality of some sort. But what made me write this post was a different problem – the MC being rather abject and pathetic. The sort who wouldn’t dare go near the cat.

  5. #11 by Jeffrey Russell on April 18, 2011 - 7:48 pm

    In my story the protagonist is in need of rescue, and it’s up to his lover to save him. His dilemma presents her with all sorts of obstacles to overcome, which she does. My problem is in finding the right sort of internal obstacles for her, so that she too is a character the reader roots for. I swear I could finish this draft in a week if I could just get her fleshed all the way out!

    My favorite flawed character is Gollum, in The Lord of the Rings. Not ‘favorite’ in the sense that I like him, but the way he was written was masterful. If my reading experience was typical then most other readers were constantly on edge about him too. Wondering if his long, evil past could somehow make the transition to good. I never once expected it, but Tolkien’s writing kept me hoping he would, nevertheless.

    • #12 by rozmorris on April 18, 2011 - 8:07 pm

      Jeffrey – this is an interesting point. For the obstacles to seem significant, they have to present her with choices – which we know will be a struggle. Otherwise, if they are simply ordeals like having to cross a ravine or wrestle a gun from an assassin, we know that the author can decide to make that work out the way they want – no matter how much they try to hide it with long fight sequences etc. Good luck!

  6. #13 by Dave Morris on April 18, 2011 - 8:26 pm

    The main thing you’re saying is don’t make the character so spineless and weighed down by flaws that they’re abject. A character can be “a vain, greedy, cruel boy, full of arrogance and stupidity”, but if he’s the God of Thunder and completely defiant about his flaws then he’s cool and aspirational and we’re rooting for him to shape up. The aspirational bit is essential in stories that take a heroic form (whether fantasy or not) because we have to want to go on that journey with them. Humble but honest farm hands – yawn; badly behaved pirate captains – yay.

    • #14 by rozmorris on April 18, 2011 - 11:18 pm

      Don’t you start aping the badly behaved pirate captains…

      But yes, you got it. Spineless characters are very hard to like. We want to see a fighting spirit!

  7. #15 by R.A. Evans writes... on April 19, 2011 - 1:58 pm

    Wonderful post! Creating believable and sympathetic flaws are an imprtant element in character development. I actually have a series of 100 questions I use for character development anf flaws are a vital part of that list. Thanks for posting

    • #16 by rozmorris on April 19, 2011 - 7:38 pm

      Thanks – and to round out a character we need strengths as well as weaknesses!

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