Flawed characters

'we're all going to hell' by Jessica Hagy

'we're all going to hell' by Jessica Hagy

For some reason, I’ve been running into a lot of discussion about flawed and non-flawed characters lately. Probably it’s always been out there and I’ve only noticed it because #feministSF twitter chat discussed feminist characters last Sunday and I attended a feminist forum about heroines in YA literature on Wednesday.

Anyway, the one thing that seems to enjoy universal consensus is that a character has to be flawed. I can’t remember where I read my favorite example of it, an anecdote from a writer whose hero wasn’t grabbing her audience until someone suggested giving him a limp — I like that because it is such a straightforward, unconcealed, marketing ploy.

Flaws are interesting. I don’t mean that a limp makes a character more interesting to me — I mean that the concept of flaws is interesting. Because what are they for? Are they like ornaments we hang on our characters after they’re constructed?

It’s my opinion that if you have to sit down and ask yourself ‘what’s this character’s flaw?’ it is already too late for that character. Because if you can pick a character up, snap off one of his legs, and put him back on the board, is he real or plastic? If you can simply add low self-esteem and myopia to your heroine and have her still doing the same things she was doing before, were you really writing about her to begin with?

But maybe that’s just me.  The fact is, I never think about whether my characters have flaws.  I’m told by readers that they do, and sometimes it comes as a shock to me.  Because to me, they just have problems.  At the beginning of almost every project, I fill a pile of notebook pages asking ‘what’s this person’s problem?’  ‘What’s his issue?’

My characters have problems like:

  • ‘The socialization of a starving badger’ (a quote from one of my favorite reviews)
  • defining themselves by their superiority to all around them
  • hating the world
  • lack of confidence
  • being doormats
  • refusing to admit they want love
  • self-hatred
  • fear of aging
  • being oblivious prigs
  • vanity
  • terminal frivolity

I think all these could be labeled flaws. But that’s not the role they play in the stories. They’re not add-ons meant to round out my characters; they are the main issues in the stories. Not only would the characters be different without them, the stories would probably not exist without them.  I write – and read – to explore these kinds of issues.

When I read articles about how characters need to have some flaws or they turn into ‘Mary Sues,’ I become disoriented.  I look at my characters through a different lens and ask myself, ‘is it too much to have her be an expert in spellcraft and have a magic stove? Even when on the other hand, her apartment is a mess and she kills someone by mistake?’  I start making lists, as if each of my characters needed a vita and an antivita of equal lengths.

In the end, though, it’s an irrelevant project.  One reason the character exists because I wanted to explore her vanity.  All her other attributes, from the dust bunnies under her couch to the front-page interview in the local newspaper, are just situations she and her vanity need to negotiate; sometimes successfully, sometimes as abject failures.  Sometimes her vanity shines forth as fully justified.  Sometimes it takes a big hit and has to be patched with transparent justifications. Sometimes it gets knocked completely down and spends months licking its wounds, but it will be back.  It’s not a flaw. It’s a character.

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