As writers, we love our protagonists. We can’t help it. Spending so much time with someone, going over every possible scenario and adventure they could get themselves into, we get to know them better than we know even our closest friends.
But spending so much time with a character can lead to some problems, namely idealisation.
Spending so much time with characters means that we have to like them. And that means that we don’t want them to do anything that might make us admire them less.
This happens a lot in fan fiction. So much so that we’ve got a name for those type of characters: Mary-Sues (Or Gary-Stus for guys who are too manly and awesome for the name Mary). Mary-Sues are characters that waltz into the story, are the best at everything and have everyone who claps eyes on her fall in love with her. Gary-Stus are the ones who prance (the manly form of waltzing) in and save the day all while everyone comments on how manly they are in everything they do.
Sometimes, these characters will be given a token flaw. Something that doesn’t really affect their desirability in any way but that the author can point at and reaffirm to themselves that they didn’t create a perfect character. That flaw can be something like, say, clumsiness.
But characters aren’t binary. They’re not either Mary-Sues or tragically flawed. There are a lot of levels in between. And that’s where a lot of authors fall down (myself included). We know enough to make sure that our characters are not amazingly perfect, but we still want to make them heroic and likable. People that we want to spend time with.
But some of the most fascinating characters out there have huge flaws, ones that would make them not our friends. And that’s fascinating.
Flawed protagonists feature in a lot of my favourite books. For example, Lyra Belacqua (later Silvertongue) in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials Trilogy, FitzChivalry in Robin Hobb’s Farseer books and, my latest obsession, Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games. All of these characters are flawed and that makes their stories all the more interesting.
Let’s look at Lyra first, shall we? Lyra is twelve years old; she’s stubborn, brave, selfish and is a compulsive liar. Because of her age, she often lacks foresight and any kind of strategic planning. Her selfishness gets her into trouble on many occasions, even leading to her betraying someone close to her, hurting him in a way that will never heal properly. But, balanced against these flaws (flaws that would make her a very difficult person to be friends with, mind you) she’s also got bravery and determination, two traits I do admire. And, what’s more, it gives her a place to grow. At the end of the novels she does something that’s completely selfless at great cost to herself. And she does it because she has grown over the course of the story.
To look at another, even more flawed character, we can look at FitzChivalry. Now, unlike Lyra who has many qualities I do admire, FitzChivalry is a bit I-want-to-punch-you-in-the-face-for-being-so-dumb-ish.
FitzChivalry is also selfish and short-sighted. He also lacks a backbone, preferring to do things and blame others than to take responsibility. But he’s also got that inexplicable quality that makes you want to shake him, slap him upside the head and send him back out into the fray while you cheer for him. He feels like someone who makes bad choices sometimes but who ultimately has good intentions.
Finally, we come to Katniss. She possesses all the qualities you’d expect of a heroine. She’s brave and determined, has mad skill with a weapon and is smart to boot. But she’s also a little… emotionally stunted. Katniss has grown up in a place where you have to be tough in order to survive. No one has ever really shown her kindness (except for that one time…) so she doesn’t give it and doesn’t know what to do with other people’s emotions, let alone with her own. One of Katniss’s main conflicts (apart from the whole surviving a gigantic, televised teen-on-teen battle to the death thing in the background) is in dealing with others when they expect an emotional response from her and she doesn’t know how to give it. That element makes many of her actions ambiguous and makes her a much more memorable character than if she was simply an action girl heroically killing a whole bunch of people.
And, ultimately, that’s what giving your characters flaws does: It makes them memorable. Making a character who’s selfish or cowardly or flawed in some other major way gives them something to work towards and gives them a character arc that moves away from ‘They got the thing they’ve been working towards’ or ‘They learned something valuable’ and straight into ‘They became better people’.
It’s hard giving your babies serious character flaws. We want to like them and we want them to be our ideal heroes. We want them to be the ones who will save the day at a moment’s notice without any thought about how much they’d rather be in bed eating bacon and eggs with a supermodel beside them. It’s hard writing characters who don’t always take the morally ‘right’ path.
But that’s when characters that you love become characters that your readers love and remember as some of their favourites.
- Creating Flawed Characters (writingtomarketing.wordpress.com)
- Perfect Characters are Boring (theaatkinson.wordpress.com)