Creating Characters Who Burst From The Page Into Readers’ Hearts

Yesterday I wrote about The Flaw Of Flawed Characters and how the oft repeated advice to create flawed characters is itself flawed. The best characters are not flawed, but are those facing terrible dilemmas who are forced to work against their strengths. If they have a lot of knowledge, they are most compelling when they need to act without being able to use the knowledge, perhaps using logic, intuition, or snap judgments instead. If they have armed services experience or strong physical skills, they are most interesting when forced to use their minds and wits. If they tend to be serious, they are most fun when forced to rely on their humor, or vice versa.

Besides having characters work against their strengths, you can make characters real by taking their positive character traits to the extreme. For example:

Caring about and caring for other is a positive trait, but taken to the extreme, such characters could become bossy, thinking they know what is best for those they care for.

Confidence is a positive trait, but taken to the extreme, the character could have a hard time acknowledging another point of view.

Creativity is a positive trait, but taken to the extreme, the character could be impractical, or the character could be insensitive to others’ needs when they are focused on creation.

Being outgoing is a positive trait, but taken to the extreme, the character could be flighty or superficial.

Being introspective is a positive trait, but taken to extremes, the character can become self-absorbed.

These extremes are not flaws. They are simply different shades of human behavior. What about your characters’ negative traits? Turned on their head, such traits can become positive. For example:

Fear is generally considered to be a negative trait, but fear can be turned into caring if the character is fearful for another.

Anger is generally considered to be a negative trait, but anger can be used to propel a character to accomplish great feats, particularly if the character is trying to right an injustice.

Even if negative traits can’t be turned into positive ones, they can be used to raise the stakes for your character. For example, a timid character who overcomes his timidity to accomplish a daring feat is much more real to us than an adventuresome character who takes such feats in stride.

The important thing to remember when creating characters is that there is a broad spectrum of human behavior to choose from. You do not have to rely on superficial, trite, or boring flaws to create a character who bursts from the page into readers’ hearts.

The Flaw of Flawed Characters

I cringe every time I see authors brag about their “flawed characters” as if that’s a good thing. Apparently, somewhere along the line, writers were told not to write perfect characters but to give them flaws, and so writers everywhere are assiduously flawing their characters. Well, they are wrong.

There is no such thing as a perfect character. If a character can do everything, meet every challenge the first time, and do it all without damaging a single hair on his/her head, the only thing perfect about that character is that it is perfectly boring, which makes it far from a perfect character. Adding flaws to such a character only compounds the problem, making the character not only boring but trite. Aren’t you sick of the cynical detective struggling with a drinking problem? Or the overextended single mother struggling with the rebellious teenager? Or the lonely person struggling to find love but who is too stupid to see the love disguised as a friend or even enemy? Well, you might not be, but I sure am.

The best characters are not flawed characters, but those facing terrible dilemmas who are forced to work against their strengths. If they have a lot of knowledge, they are most compelling when they need to act without being able to use the knowledge, perhaps using logic, intuition, or snap judgments instead. If they have armed services experience or strong physical skills, they are most interesting when forced to use their minds and wits. If they tend to be serious, they are most fun when forced to rely on their humor, or vice versa. Anything else is just cheap.

One thing most people say about my main characters is that they are real. And guess what? There isn’t a flawed character in the bunch. Not a single character drinks too much (okay, Kid Rags in Daughter Am I might tipple, but he never gets drunk or lets his drinking get in the way of business). Not a single character cheats on his or her spouse. Not a single character is mean. Not a single character makes stupid mistakes. Not a single character is self-absorbed. (Well, Jeremy King, the world-renowned actor in A Spark of Heavenly Fire is focused on himself, but that isn’t a flaw but the personality trait that makes him a great actor.) Not a single character gets into fights just for the sake of proving how flawed they are — all the fights are to protect themselves or others. Every character acts to the best of his or her ability at all times, and if the best isn’t good enough, they get better.

Instead of flaws, my characters have character traits. For example, in Daughter Am I, at first the hero Mary Stuart tends be a bit of a pushover, going with the flow because she simply doesn’t care enough about the outcome of any situation to fight over it. When she makes the decision to find out who her grandparents were and why someone wanted them dead, she becomes almost obsessive in her quest, even going so far as arranging a meeting with a notorious hit man and various other shady characters. And when she finds something to care deeply about — the octogenarians who accompanied her on her journey — she becomes steely in her determination to protect them at all costs. Are these traits indications of flaws? Of course not. They are indications of a true-to-life character grabbing her destiny with both hands and going along for the ride. Flaws would only get in the way.

Does Curiosity Automatically Create Conflict?

In an online writing discussion the other day, someone asked if curiosity automatically presented conflict. I had to think about that. If the curiosity isn’t at odds with the character in any way, if nothing is stopping the character from following their curiosity, there is no conflict. Curiosity, in that case, is about doing what comes naturally, going with the flow. And going with the flow is not conflict. Conflict is going against the flow.

Curiosity can lead to conflict, of course, since curiosity can get our characters into trouble, and trouble does present as conflict. Or perhaps the character is tempted to follow his curiosity but he needs to resist since his curiosity always gets him into trouble, and that temptation/resistance is conflict. In fact, curiosity is a great reason for a character to get into trouble, which moves the story along (especially if you’ve shown that your character is apt to follow his/her curiosity no matter what.)

As a plot driver or as a motivation for your character’s actions, curiosity may not have the emotional power of love, hatred, vengeance, anger, fear, but it has a power all its own. This drive to know new things, to find out about life’s mysteries, both major and minor, is one we can all understand. If we find a locked box, don’t we all want to know what is inside? If the box belongs to our spouse, do we have a right to open it? Do we look for the key? Do we open it? In real life, we might resist the urge out of respect or loyalty, but if we read a book where the character finds the box, we sure keep reading to find out how the character satisfies his/her curiosity . . .  and ours. For that is the crux of a story — as readers, it is our curiosity to find out what is going on that keeps us turning pages. If we didn’t care, if we had no curiosity about what is happening in the story world, we’d toss the book aside and find other things that arouse our curiosity, such as what’s on television, or who’s online.

So, even though curiosity doesn’t automatically create conflict, it might lead to conflict, and for sure will keep us reading.

Oddly, curiosity can also bring peace, which is the direct opposite of conflict. If a character has suffered greivous trauma, if the character as no other reason for living, their natural curiosity might give them a reason. Sometimes all one has to hold on to is curiosity as to what the future holds. And that realization brings peace of a sort. At least, it does bring peace until you start throwing more trauma at your character, because peaceful characters are not necessarily compelling characters.