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.”)