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 allowing them to 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 heroes with a drinking problem, have been done so often they have become nothing but cardboard cutouts. 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 often enthralled with the idea of flawed heroes, that they are missing the point. They don’t have to give their heroes obvious flaws. 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, and if she didn’t grow during the course of the story, if she didn’t learn from her setbacks, the obsession could have 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.
To be real, a character must have strengths and weaknesses, but it’s not enough simply to assign a special strength or weakness to a character—the quality needs to be tested. You can do this in one of two ways—play on the strength or play on the weakness. For example, if a character is smart but lacks physical strength, you can either place the character in a situation where the character’s intelligence saves the day or you can put him in a situation where he is forced to rely on physical abilities he doesn’t have.
Strengths are arbitrary and can easily become flaws. Independence can become an inability to depend on others, an ability to cope can be seen as indifference, high ethical standards can become intransigency. Which is great for a book—the resulting misunderstandings can cause conflicts among characters allows the plot or subplots to thicken. And your characters become even more credible.
This article is anthologized in the Second Wind Publishing book: NOVEL WRITING TIPS AND TECHNIQUES FROM AUTHORS OF SECOND WIND PUBLISHING, which was the 100th book released by Second Wind.
“As someone who constantly evaluates novels for publication, I was astonished at the breadth and clarity of the wonderful advice contained in this handbook. It addresses concerns as grand as plot development and as simple but essential as formatting your submission. It offers crucial advice on literary topics ranging from character development to the description of action. Virtually every subject that is of great concern to publishers — and therefore to authors — is covered in this clear, humorous and enormously useful guide.” –Mike Simpson, Chief Editor of Second Wind Publishing
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.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.