Interesting characters make interesting stories, not the other way around. An author develops interesting characters by putting them under pressure, giving them much to lose, and letting them change because of their experiences. And the author makes these characters at least a bit larger than life. Who wants to read about characters who sit around watching television all the time or who repeatedly have the same tiresome argument with their children or who can’t resolve their problems? We deal with that every day. We don’t need to read about it. On the other hand, if the traits are too idealized, characters come across as comic book silly.
Depth of character is revealed in the choices a character makes while at risk. Without the element of risk, there is no real story, only a string of episodes. Think what Superman would be like without Kryptonite — totally uninteresting and flawed in his perfection. But Kryptonite is a purposeful flaw, put there to make Superman more interesting, which makes him seem even more of a comic book character. Oh, wait. He’s supposed to be a comic book character!
To offset the problem of idealized characters, many writers try to create a purposely-flawed character, such as a boozing cop or a mother who can’t communicate with her teenager, but this seems an unnecessary distraction unless, of course, it is a vital part of the character’s motivation. So many flawed characters, particularly the hero with a drinking problem, have been done to death. I know there is a long tradition of hard-drinking detectives, but there has to be a more creative way of giving characters flaws. Or not. Writers are so enthralled with the idea of flawed heroes, that they are missing the point. They don’t have to give their heroes obvious flaws. Writers are flawed. By making their heroes realistic, the heroes are automatically flawed.
A character must lose occasionally or make mistakes. Where is the suspense if every time a character attempts to do something she succeeds? And in that loss is a shadow of the flaw, because the setback must be realistic. Did the character lose because of arrogance, assuming she knew what to do when she didn’t? Did the character lose because she wasn’t physically fit or knowledgeable enough? Did the character lose because she didn’t plan correctly, because she was unfocused, because of her inner conflicts? Such losses force a fully realized character to change so in the end she can succeed.
In the beginning of Daughter Am I, twenty-five-year-old Mary Stuart has no real direction, no purpose, but when she learns she inherited a farm from her recently murdered grandparents — grandparents her father claimed had died before she was born — she becomes obsessed with finding out who they were and why someone wanted them dead. She drives halfway across the country with a feisty crew of octogenarians, friends of her grandparents, and even though she discovers they all had ties to the mob, she doesn’t let her good sense override her obsession. This understandable obsession is her flaw (though I did not write her to be a flawed charater), and if she doesn’t grow during the course of the story, if she doesn’t learn from her setbacks, the obsession could become a fatal flaw. Fatal or not, flaw or not, Mary’s obsession makes her real, makes her a bit larger than life, and makes her interesting.