Flawless Characters

Everyone who knows anything about writing or reading novels knows that you have to start with a flawed character. Well, everyone but me. I don’t believe in flawed characters, just characters that come alive.

Tell me honestly, except for a few physical attributes that you might not like about yourself, do you think you have flaws? No, of course you don’t. You think you have problems. You laugh about your quirks. You are beset with internal conflicts. You might even have a list of traits that you try to work on, such as trying to be kinder or more disciplined, but you don’t have flaws. You are who you are. All the parts, good and bad (and who is to say which is which) make up your character.

To me, the character flaw is like the Persian Flaw. The Persian rug makers purposely put a flaw into each of their rugs supposedly because of their belief that only God can make something perfect. That speaks to me of arrogance, to believe you are so absolutely perfect you have to create a flaw to make yourself less than perfect. It’s the same with the character flaw in writing. If you create a realistic character, there is no flaw, just a character wyahabibi5ith a mixture of admirable and not so admirable points. To add a flaw on purpose takes away from the realism of the character. At least to my way of thinking, and now I have proof of sorts.

I am writing a novel about a fictitious death in my dance class. I began using all my classmates as characters, but gradually I have been camouflaging them by changing names and creating omnibus characters — combining two or three classmates into a single character to avoid hurting anyone’s feelings. And I had to create a couple of wholly fictitious characters because a mystery is primarily about unraveling the back story to find out why the victim was killed and why the killer was so motivated. I didn’t want to create fictitious backgrounds for my classmates because when it comes to murder, there are no innocent folk, or at least not often. The victim — and the red herrings — usually has done something to set the whole thing in motion. And it’s those “something”s I worried about attributing to people I meet every day. Who needs that kind of pressure?

I started out with myself as the unreliable narrator, and when I blurred the edges of the others in my class, I kept the real me as a character. If I had known how easy this made writing a novel, I would have done it long ago! I don’t need to create a character. Don’t need to do psychological profiles. Don’t need character arcs or family trees. It’s all here, in my head. In me.

And especially, I don’t need to create flaws. I don’t particularly consider myself a flawed character, though I do have some character traits that are less than saintly. And I have a few other traits that come from lapses.

For example, I tend to believe my memory. Whenever I have gotten into a he said/she said or she said/she said argument, I can often find some sort of corroboration for my side, such as in a text or an email, which adds credence to my belief. Also, in dance class, I often remember steps when others don’t. However, there are a few steps from a dance we performed eighteen months ago that are completely gone from memory. Erased. I watched a video of that performance to see what the steps in question were, and even though I could see myself doing the steps, I have no memory of them. Is this memory lapse a flaw? Not particularly. It’s just a . . . lapse. Is the insistence on the accuracy of my memory a flaw? No. That’s also just a lapse.

The best part of using myself as a character is that I never have to worry about creating a conflicted character. Every page illuminates my internal conflicts about death, finding my place in the world, trying to do the right thing and failing, dancing to a different beat. (I think that’s why I like dancing so much — for once in my life, I get to do exactly what everyone else is doing without the conflict of having to choose between being out of step with the world or being out of step with myself.)

So there you have it — proof that you don’t need flaws to create a good character. You just need realistic traits.

Note: Please don’t leave comments telling me that there is no such thing as a perfect character, that they need flaws to be realistic. I’ve heard all the arguments. You believe what you want. I know the truth. Oops. Did I just show a character flaw?


(Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.”)

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.

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.