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.