Purposely-Flawed Characters. Or Not.

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.

Getting Sass From My Character

Sometimes when I can’t think of where I am going with a story, I talk to my characters. Sort of. My characters don’t take on a life of their own — I am always aware they are my creations — but sometimes when I begin to make choices for a character, the character seems to be determining her own fate. If a character has a particular daughter, a particular problem, a particular job, then all those things bind the character and make her act a particular way.

In the case of poor Amanda, the hero of my newest work in progress (the one that got its start as a NaNoWriMo project), her life is bound by a dead husband, a rebellious twenty-something daughter, and an online lover she’s never met. Once a preacher’s wife with an entire support system, she now has to deal with everything on her own. In addition, she’s going to have to leave the parsonage where she’s lived for the past fifteen years, and she barely has enough energy to get out of bed in the morning. All these problems bind the poor woman, creating more dilemmas than she can handle. Still, with all her trauma, she seemed boring to me, so I sat her down and tried to find out why I am having a problem with her. Don’t know if I solved the problem of why I find her so boring, but at least I got a better understanding of who she is and where to go with the story.

Bertram: I can’t get into writing your story. You’re nothing special, just a woman grieving. Boring.

Amanda: Sam thinks I’m special and unique.

Bertram: Who’s Sam?

Amanda: Don’t you know?

Bertram: Of course I know. I created him. I just wondered if you knew.

Amanda: I know he’s a special man. We met online at a support group for people whose mates are dying of cancer. His wife and David—my husband—were both told they had three to six months to live. Having something so real to talk about cut through all the usual crap people go through when the meet, even online, so we got to know each other very quickly. And we fell in love. Took us both by surprise. Neither of us were looking for that, and we didn’t know you could develop such powerful feelings without ever having met.

Bertram: What happened to Sam’s wife?

Amanda: She rallied. Is in remission right now. Still not well, but doesn’t seem to be terminal. Sam is staying with her. We want to get together, but he lives halfway across the country. In Ohio. I need so much to feel his arms around me. I am stunned by the depth of my grief for David. I thought I was over him—he took such a long time to die, you see. Over a year. I thought I’d finished with my grief and moved on, but when he died, it felt as if I were dying, too. If I didn’t love Sam, I couldn’t have gone on.

Bertram: I don’t understand how you can love one man while mourning another.

Amanda: I don’t understand it either. Sam says I’m a complicated woman. He says that there’s a part of me that will always belong to him, a part David never knew. Apparently I need to men to fulfill me. Yet here I am . . . alone. And grieving.

Bertram: What part belongs to Sam?

Amanda: The passionate part. I always thought I was a passionless woman—I’d have to be, being David’s wife. He wasn’t much for sex. I think it had something to do with his childhood, something that happened to shape his life, but he never talked about it. I’ll find out, though—it’s important to the story. See, when I find out that he’s different from the man I knew, then I panic and wonder who I am. For most of my adult life, I defined myself by my relationship with him. He gave my life focus and meaning. Which is why finding out the truth about Davis is important. I need to know who he is so I can find out who I am.

Bertram: And who are you?

Amanda: I don’t know. Isn’t that your job, to create me?

You can read the entire conversation here: Pat Bertram Introduces Amanda Ray, Hero of a New Work-in-Progress