Limyaael

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10:18 am: Rant on flawed characters (again)
Characters in most novels, of course, have to have flaws. Novels exist where they don’t, but often the character is either boringly idealized or part of a historical and cultural context that doesn’t exist in most twenty-first-century Western countries any longer. (Characters like Herman Melville’s Billy Budd and George Eliot’s Eppie are also meant to serve a specific allegorical purpose that’s rare for modern fantasy novels). But it’s also possible to make a character too flawed, or to add only “charming” quirks that don’t actually impact a character’s life in any discernible way. I’m sure you can think of at least one protagonist whose only fault was being too generous, or too kind-hearted. (I will never get back the hours of my life which I wasted reading The Wayfarer Redemption).

Here, then, are some (more) ideas about adding flaws to characters and what to do once you have them.



1) Realize not everyone is going to see the character the same way you do. This goes first because, although it’s not about adding flaws to characters as such, it might prevent you from entering the Reader-Reining Game.

What is the Reader-Reining Game? The attempt to fling a bridle around the reader’s neck and lead her only to conclusions you want her to come to. In this particular case, those conclusions are about characters. She “must” see the heroine as charming, the hero as noble, the villain as absolute evil, the girl who’s jealous of the heroine as petty and misguided rather than possibly having a point. Why? Because otherwise the book won’t work, of course!

Never mind that readers handled with reins (and whips, and spurs) are as likely to buck the writer off as anything else.

If you can accept that people will have widely-ranging reactions to even the most carefully delineated and flawed character—that someone will always find your heroine unsympathetic or too perfect, just as other people will fall in love with her—then you can spare yourself a lot of worry. This doesn’t completely ease the sting of getting the “wrong” reaction, of course. But it can give one a fascinatingly different perspective on one’s own writing. And it will prevent you from attempting the impossible, anticipating and countering every reaction, and filling your narrative with the sort of annoying authorial prods that are meant to steer people on one path and one path only as regards liking or hating or pitying the characters.

2) The part about “everyone not seeing the character the same way you do?” That applies to the other characters, too. One thing that bothers me lately, much more than it used to, is when the characters in a novel act like readers--as if they knew everything about the protagonist, the plot, or the villain that the readers of the book do, and always react with appropriate sympathy, anger, shock, or nausea. This is when I know that the author has either begun to let the characterization on the less “important” people go to pieces because she’s too enthralled with a few aspects of the story, or never had that characterization in the first place.

Yes, your secondary characters might be less important to the plot, the theme, and the major confrontation, but on the other hand, they can make or break your story, or keep someone reading for whom the protagonist is not interesting. God knows that I wouldn’t have stuck with Robert Jordan as long as I did if I wasn’t interested in the people who didn’t “matter.”

So. When your protagonist makes a mistake because of one of her character flaws, consider that the other characters might be inclined to react with less than the complete patience and understanding you want from the readers. If they’ve been dealing with this flaw for a long time, they might take the chance to storm and rage about it, or at least say, “I told you so.” One of the sources of total frustration I get from stories with teenage protagonists is how few I’ve seen where people who suffer because of an adolescent’s misplaced confidence or her selfishness ever get angry about it. Sure, the reader might know that she’s going to grow up and become totally awesome because they’ve read so many of these stories before, but to people on the ground who’ve just lost a battle because an untrained teenager decided that she could command troops like a seasoned general, I don’t think the story type will matter as much as the immediate, unrepentant asshole.

On the other hand, they might be inclined to be overly indulgent, too. The readers, privy to the protagonist’s interior monologue, could know that she blames herself, and she might have a lot to blame herself for. But her parents, or her best friend, or the person who’s in love with her, could cluck over it and reassure her that it’s not her fault, even when it is. And as long as this is natural to their characters and has reasonable consequences, I would be totally interested in seeing it! It’s only the too-knowledgeable, perfectly-calculated reactions I want to get rid of.

3) Try not to repeat and repeat again redundantly. In real life, of course, people often make the same mistake over and over again because they can’t cure their character flaws in a snap of the fingers. But fiction is not real life.

Balance things between having your character learn the perfect lesson from every mistake and having her do the same thing on page 3 and page 10 and page 14 and page 145. This is where having more than one flaw, or a variable one (see point 4), helps. Maybe the protagonist is on guard against making the same mistake again, but she isn’t paying attention to this other character trait that is also a nuisance. Therefore, she’s not perfect, but she also isn’t running in a tight circle of the same actions that will make the reader roll her eyes in those same tight circles and put the book down.

How to balance? Compare and contrast scenes you’ve written. In how many of them does the character say and do the same exact things, or almost the same things with only a bit of variation? If it’s several, consider cutting some of them, or—this is one of my favorite tactics—have the character start whining about a mistake or start committing one, and then have the plot interrupt. After all, why should the enemies stand around waiting for Miss Oh-Woe-Is-Me-For-I-Have-Sinned to finish her interior monologue?

(“I know you’re getting impatient to commit mindless mayhem, soldiers, but we have to wait three more minutes until the whining dies down.”)

Also, if the character makes a commitment or a promise to shape up and start watching her temper/her smart-ass comments/her recklessness/her selfishness, show her retreating from that commitment or promise, but not fully. I understand what authors are trying to do when they show the protagonist breaking such promises, but seeing them broken again and again provides too little forward momentum, in the same way that seeing endless scenes of brooding on flaws or the same mistake being made provide too little forward momentum. You can have verisimilitude if the protagonist breaks the promise, has an “Oh, shit!” moment, and immediately apologizes instead of dragging it out and refusing to admit she was wrong as she did before. Then, the next time, she can be a bit better about catching herself, and then better again the time after that. This, I think, provides a reasonable compromise between the demands of psychology and the demands of fiction.

4) Choose variable flaws, or flaws that you vary. Here you have a character. We will call her Helena. Helena sometimes thinks she was born angry. She loses her temper at the drop of a hat, talks back to people with the power to throw her in dungeons, says “witty” things that make her companions clap their hands over their eyes, and gets in a huff with her friends in a way that makes her stomp off and miss the major battles/discussions/moments of glory. (Note here that this character development requires treating a quick temper as a flaw, instead of an endless source of “wit,” which is an all-around bad idea. Most authors: Not As Witty As They Think They Are). Helena doesn’t hold grudges, but since she spends a lot of her time yelling at the same people, most of her victims don’t believe that. She makes her little sister, who’s much shyer and less confident, cry a lot. She feels sorry about some of these things, but she doesn’t like apologizing, so, when told to apologize, she sulks.

Those are different consequences for the way she gets angry. If the only one ever shown was that Helena got “witty” (seriously, how many eloquent and funny things do you say when your temper is on fire?) and people stood around slack-jawed, imagine how boring she would be to read about.

I firmly believe most flaws can be made to vary if they are simply worked on the right way. The problem is that authors fall in love with one way of expressing the trait—or, worse, change it so that the flaw never is a flaw (see point 5)—and, while you can certainly argue that the protagonist isn’t perfect, she is still boring to read about. I enjoy stubborn characters who get stubborn in different ways and for different reasons, not just because someone doubts their perfection. I enjoy reckless “spunky” characters who go dashing into danger and then get hurt or get others hurt, not simply come out covered with glory. I enjoy gossipy characters whose gossip makes other characters regard them as ill-natured, instead of coming back to bite them on the butt in the exact same way each time. Variation is the key to interest here.

5) Avoid “interview flaws.” I’ve made this point before, but I don’t think it can be emphasized enough. Try not giving your characters flaws that are only of the kind you would claim in an interview: “Oh, I’m too warm-hearted.” “Oh, I’m too much of a leader.” “Oh, I’m too responsible.”

Why? Because characters who have only these sorts of flaws are, of course, never treated as less than perfect by the author. There are ways that these things can turn around and bite them in the ass. The responsible person can take over responsibility from someone who resents her doing so, or make a hash of things because she’s trying to do too much at once. The warm-hearted character can be too indulgent to someone who doesn’t deserve the indulgence, or be duped and betrayed easily. The leader can thrust herself annoyingly into every leadership role available, ignoring the fact that she’s fit for exactly one of them, or grow arrogant when demanding obedience from others.

That you so rarely see these things with interview flaws is not an indication that the downsides don’t happen, of course. It’s simply an indication that the author gets lost in admiration for the character and/or doesn’t think that a certain quality can ever be bad. I assure you, in excess everything is.

6) Overloading the character with flaws does no good, either. Occasionally I see someone who’s gotten nervous, maybe because beta readers have told her her protagonist is too perfect, and decided to do everything from dumb down her character to make her ugly and clumsy. (Honestly, I don’t think ugliness and clumsiness count as flaws; I consider flaws things the character can help, rather than things she’s born with). The thing is, there’s no guarantee that a character will be loveable simply because she has a lot of negative qualities, either. You must resign yourself to people not loving your character. (Stencil Point 1 on the back of your eyelids if you must).

Besides, if your character literally has no good traits and yet the people around her adore her anyway, you’ve already failed a crucial test. Minor characters’ reactions to the protagonist should make sense, not be manipulated for the sake of the plot.

Try to strike a normal, human balance. Your protagonist can have an abundance of good traits, as long you don’t spend the book acting as her chorus of praise and screaming at the top of your lungs, “See? See? Everyone should fall at her feet!” She can have lots of bad ones, as long as you show them affecting her and the world around her with some psychological realism. And she can be pretty much an ordinary human being who has some flaws and some good traits, knows about some of these and never notices others, and spends her life doing what she needs to do to get by, with some flashes of cowardice and grace under fire.



A rant on loyalty is probably next.

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Comments

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From:[info]beccastareyes
Date:December 18th, 2009 04:10 pm (UTC)
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One thing I found to help with 'interview flaws' was to phrase them as flaws, rather than as neutral attributes or 'too *virtue*'. So stubbornness becomes pig-headedness, and 'too trusting' becomes naive or ignorant. It's easier to write a flaw when you have it phrased as a flaw.

It also makes me think prospective writers should check out fandom, especially a big one, like Harry Potter. No matter how bad the villain is, he'll have fans, and someone will have woobified him, or decided he's the main hero of the series. No matter how virtuous the hero, someone hates his guts. Many of them have a point, but there's a few that make everyone else wonder what books they were reading. Even if JK Rowling was the best writer in the world, she couldn't make all of her fans love Harry (or Ron or Hermione or Dumbledore or Ginny) and all of them hate/love-as-a-villain Voldemort, Fenrir or Umbridge.
From:[info]jack.dreamwidth.org
Date:December 18th, 2009 06:12 pm (UTC)
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I'm thinking of Fitz in Robin Hobb's farseer trilogy. He's often self-centred and stubborn and hot-tempered, but when you're reading him doing something that turns out to be stupid, you don't think "agh! don't do that" you think "yes! that's exactly what I wanted to do! oh :(" :)
From:[info]saturnaliac
Date:December 18th, 2009 09:51 pm (UTC)
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Thank you for this! I always seem to have problems with finding the "right" sort of flaws for my characters, if that makes sense.
From:[info]vatchmebeebil
Date:December 18th, 2009 10:21 pm (UTC)
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I've always tried to have characters with real and believable flaws.

My protagonist was married once. . . it didn't end well as such he's screwed up so badly that he has a really casual attitude towards relationships and has sired several kids who hate his guts because he was such a jerk to them, granted he was so burned that he was to afraid to be with them, but it doesn't change the fact that he's complete jerk-off.
From:(Anonymous)
Date:December 18th, 2009 10:24 pm (UTC)
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Here you have a character. We will call her Helena.


I like this characterization, and I think it's part of a greater point. Setting up realistic flaws and responses can actually do a lot of the work of thinking up the interactions between the character and her companions later on.

Like Helena. As you said, people think she gets angry at the drop of a hat, and holds grudges - and she's too proud to apologize. This naturally leads to greater speculation and depth to her character (for example, is she constantly getting in trouble by shooting off her mouth, and so forth?), and flows into various situations (such as accidentally getting herself beaten up because she couldn't keep her damn mouth shut when the local strongman made a snide remark). It also probably leads to other bits of characterization - is she one of those people who seem immune to consequences (the types of idiots who run red lights and repeatedly rack up tickets)?

Sorry if that sounds kind of incoherent.

She can have lots of bad ones, as long as you show them affecting her and the world around her with some psychological realism.


Oh yes. The character I'm thinking of here would be Cersei from GRRM's books - she's clever, but impulsive, inclined towards cruelty, impatient, and not the type to step back and examine the greater consequences, which gets herself and others in trouble. You can get a lot of mileage from a character whose main flaws are they're careless, or ignorant-but-don't-care-about-it, or impulsive, and so forth.
From:[info]blunderbuss
Date:December 19th, 2009 02:44 pm (UTC)
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You're doing more rants! Hooray!

I really love this rant, because creating flawed characters and doing them well is probably THE most important part of writing. Number 4 is especially great.

1. I'd like to tattoo this onto the back of the hands of every movie-maker in existance. I can't count how many times a movie has been ruined for me because I was supposed to support or dislike a character but I did the exact opposite, and then I sat and sizzled on how glorified/unfair their treatment seemed in the movie.

This, I think, ESPECIALLY applies to villains. You can still have an unlikeable hero but it's nearly impossible to have an intimidating villain when you think they're, well, likeable and seemed quite justified.

2. I'd also add that if a character does NOT regard the character the way they're 'supposed' to, it does not make them MEANIEZ.
From:[info]drashizu.livejournal.com
Date:July 8th, 2011 03:49 am (UTC)
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Really? I can't read a book unless I like the villain. Not sympathize, per se. But like: I need to think that they have a 3-dimensional personality, that they're realistically portrayed, that they consider themselves the heroes of their own stories and aren't just evil for the evilz.

I often still get intimidated by these villains. If I like the hero, too, then the villain threatening what they love is pretty much automatically intimidating.

But a likeable villain will keep me reading even if I don't like the hero, so I'm not intimidated by his actions. Usually I like laughing at the ways the stupid hero gets his butt kicked by the villain, and I'm sad when the idiot finally "wins."

But unless the hero is one of those amazing characters you just can't let go of... if I don't like the villain, I generally get bored and stop reading. Usually around the halfway mark.

So I don't think likeability and intimidation are mutually exclusive.
From:[info]blunderbuss
Date:July 8th, 2011 06:09 am (UTC)
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Well, it depends on what you mean by 'like'.

For example, I like the Joker as a villain in Batman Returns; he's a really interesting, engaging character. I sure as hell do not like him as a person, but for being a villain, he's gold. So you're right, likeability and intimidation aren't mutually exclusive.

But what I meant in my original comment was a villain being likeable because they were a likeable person who actually had very good motivations. I can't really fear anyone if I think they're in the right.
From:[info]krynnmeridia
Date:December 23rd, 2009 05:20 pm (UTC)
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This is awesomely helpful!

May I add you? <3
From:(Anonymous)
Date:December 24th, 2009 04:29 pm (UTC)
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Longtime lurker who's glad to see you back and might as well start chiming in:

I think maybe there's something to be said for rejecting the whole "flaws/virtues", because they usually go hand in hand: a postive trait in a certain situation, or in moderation, can easily become a negative one. "Interview flaws" are irritating when not realistically applied, but I think they can be good for challenging the commonly held standards of behavior or morality.

You seem to have already covered most of what I want to say here, but I remember when I was first starting out I was terrified of creating some sort of Mary-Sue character, so I would come up with flaws for characters. I ended up with an otherwise relatively saintly person who for some unknown reason had a "temper" and would suddenly begin to berate his friends and family members. Flaws have to be carefully considered so that they're cohesive with the rest of the character, his life experiences, his backstory, ect., or it's pointless.

Eh, I'm rambling at this point. Thanks for posting these rants, they've helped me more than I can say!

-Kit
From:(Anonymous)
Date:December 28th, 2009 09:58 am (UTC)

Thank you, Limyaael

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Thank you for another excellent entry. Your journal rants are unique - I can't find any others like them - and that's an amazing accomplishment considering the volume of content on the web.
I've read every entry and made a back-up on my Hard Drive - they are incredibly inspirational. Thank you :)
I am looking forward to the rant on loyalty.
From:(Anonymous)
Date:January 3rd, 2010 04:49 am (UTC)
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Is it true you're also Lightning on the Wave who wrote the Sacrifices Arc? I've been a fan of Sacrifices since the sixth book (not as long as many of yours, I know) and a fan of your rants even though I only discovered them last year when you weren't updating, and it'd be awesome if that was true.
From:(Anonymous)
Date:April 13th, 2010 09:32 pm (UTC)
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She is indeed. Does anybody know where she archives her original fiction now? Ever since Sacrifices and Shadow, I've been looking but I can't find any of her recent original fiction.
From:[info]slimshadowen
Date:January 24th, 2010 06:26 pm (UTC)

I love reading your rants.

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Just reading them makes me think of things I could do better, and things I've written that live up to your entirely-reasonable standards.

I think my favorite flaw to write for a certain type of character is capriciousness. It's not quite a "character can be nice except when you think it would be more dramatic for them to be cruel" card, but it opens up a world of possibility.
From:[info]kaiseki-x.livejournal.com
Date:January 28th, 2010 03:18 pm (UTC)
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Hey, I really enjoy your rants, and I would like to read the friend locked entries (if they're also rants).

My username is Kaiseki_X

Thanks,

Kaiseki_X
From:(Anonymous)
Date:February 6th, 2010 01:16 am (UTC)

rants

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I really like your rants. I have been reading all of the old ones for a long time. I never saw one about having a child as a protagonist. Teenage protagonists and children as non-protagonists, but never little kids as the main view point character. Can I request this as a someday rant?

Miah
From:[info]sinande.livejournal.com
Date:February 6th, 2010 07:50 pm (UTC)

Re: rants

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Can I second that?

After loyalty, of course. Loyalty sounds good.
From:(Anonymous)
Date:October 20th, 2010 03:36 pm (UTC)

Re: rants

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I know this was written a while ago, but, thirded. Or a rant on fantasy aimed at children, that would be awesome :)

~J
From:[info]ebullere
Date:May 11th, 2010 09:07 pm (UTC)
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I, too, would like to be your IJ friend. I stumbled across your rants way back in 2006, then forgot about them for a while, and now I've found them again and suddenly realized that a lot of my ideas about writing came directly from your rants. I'm actually just now reading through the Pretentious Pentad. I really like it.

Anyway, I hope you haven't quit journaling. :/
From:(Anonymous)
Date:March 12th, 2010 10:14 pm (UTC)
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in rgds: Point #2, this was actually touched upon in a JRPG called Tales of the Abyss. There's a lot of build-up, but to simplify it: Our Hero character discovers he has a strong affinity with some of the magitech keeping the world in order. The Bad-Guy-In-Plain-Sight encourages him to alter one of those machines... with the end result that Our Hero actually destroys an entire city and everyone in it. (There's a particularly horrific scene of a little kid drowning.) All the other Player Characters then take the opportunity to smack him upside the head and call him an idiot. At this point, the player doesn't know what to think, because Our Hero (justifiably) has total amnesia--like, had to relearn how to walk--and Bad-Guy-In-Plain-Sight has been a mentor figure to him for, literally, longer than he can remember. Of course, he's also a whiny, self-indulgent jerk, which doesn't help his case; even if "But I didn't know the machine would kill everybody" is the truth (which it is), he sure doesn't say it well. It's a big mess. (Especially since one of those other Player Characters knows why Luke has total amnesia, but has kept that knowledge from him up until now. If you keep playing, though, Like's about to find out.)

Long story short, the hero has committed a massacre, and his teammates are responding appropriately. ...And some of us players resent them for it! (Of course, others of us just think Luke was a total moron. The one thing the Tales series knows how to do is create interesting, complex characters that players respond to.)
From:(Anonymous)
Date:March 26th, 2010 02:29 am (UTC)
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(stencils point 1 on the backs of eyelids) I needed this one.

I've been reading this blog for quite some time and it's helped immensely. I was wondering if you have done (or would do) a rant on characterizing through dialogue? Because it's something I completely suck at.
From:(Anonymous)
Date:May 4th, 2010 06:26 pm (UTC)
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What the hell is taking you so long for the next rant???????????????

But all in all these are awesome rants though XD :)
From:[info]sinande.livejournal.com
Date:May 5th, 2010 03:25 pm (UTC)
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I imagine she has a life ;]
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From:(Anonymous)
Date:June 15th, 2010 02:28 pm (UTC)
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And you do Sinande? shut up you ^_^ lmao
From:[info]mrinitialman
Date:June 19th, 2010 05:52 pm (UTC)
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I friended you mostly because of your rants on Livejournal.

Good point on flaws. I've started working on a story where the teenage protagonist (yes, I'm using one) is easily disgusted with his family, knows that the "child of his virginity" (that is, the first time he has sex, he will have a kid and it will be important; if he tries to get around this, there will be hell to pay. He's the son of his father's virginity, and so on down the line) so he has to stay a virgin until the right time. Meanwhile, his brothers can sleep around, and it pisses him off to no end.

Considering your old rant "are your characters sane today?", I decided that the reason he goes on the Quest is because the person who is taking him on this Quest has the attitude of "I have authority, I expect to be obeyed, I don't have to listen beneath me." That attitude comes back around to bite everyone in the butt.
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