Have you ever read a story where the character seems too good to be true? I actually can’t recall too many off the top of my head. I suspect it’s because within a chapter or so of reading the character I’ve dismissed the story as crap and moved on. Honestly, I can only think of one character who was without faults (as we mortals know them anyway) and the book he appears in is FULL of flawed characters.
Anyway, preaching aside, my point is, for a character in a story to actually be interesting (in my opinion, at least) the character or characters must have some flaws. “But why?” you might ask. “Why MUST a character have flaws to be interesting?”
I suppose one good argument would be to make the characters most relatable. After all, there aren’t too many of us that approach perfection, let alone attain it. How could the average reader relate to the hero who has perfect hair, perfect teeth and be the perfect warrior? Whenever I think about a character like that, I immediately remember Prince Charming in “Shrek”. At least for appearances sake, he was perfect. But underneath that, he was a momma’s boy, spoilt and self-centered… and a lot more fun to use as a villain.
Now think about iconic heros like Superman. Fast, powerful, honest and trustworthy. In many respects, the perfect man. But beneath that heroic facade, a being filled with pain: the pain of a lost world and family, unable to truly open up to those he loves because of the vast array of enemies looking for any weakness. In many respects, his great power only amplifies his weaknesses and makes him more human.
In both my examples above, the characters exhibit both strengths and weaknesses. They are, in essence balanced. Neither completely good, nor completely evil. And that is what makes them interesting. And it is that balance that I think is critical to having good, solid, believable and, most importantly, interesting characters.
It allows you, as the writer, to add more depth to your stories. The richest setting can seem wooden and dull if the people inhabiting it are 2-dimensional, stereotypical beings.
“But Mike. How do I make characters flawed and interesting?” you may ask next.
Easy. Remember how I talked about people watching as an important skill for the writer? Here’s where that practise pays off. Let me give you an example.
The other day, I was out and about with my son when I saw a rather attractive, young woman pull up beside us in the parking lot. She was well-dressed, seemed to be driving in a safe and responsible manner and had a very confident manner. That whole image evaporated as she tried to coerce her brother to get out of the car. Her voice turned shrill and she got the ugliest look on her face that I’ve seen on anyone in quite a while.
Is she a bad person because of what I saw? Unlikely. All of us have certain individuals who can push our buttons and get us to display our ugly side.
Was her brother a bad person? Also unlikely and for the same reason as above. Brothers and sisters are notorious for annoying each other.
Not a big deal, but still it demonstrates how characters can have flaws hiding under the surface waiting to come out.
Your next question might be, “But how does a flawed character add depth to my story? I don’t understand.”
I want you to think about that in this way. You have two characters going from point A to point Z. They have a few adventures in the middle and your story is done, right? Maybe not. Did either character change in any way? Did they learn any valuable lessons as they went through their quest? Those are the details that will really pull your readers into the story. It’s not just the story itself, but how “human” and relatable the characters are in it.
Probably my favorite example is the series of books by Elizabeth Moon, “The Deeds of Paksenarrion”. I’ve read the entire series so many time that I almost have to replace the books (and I’m EXTREMELY careful with my books, just so you know).
Paksenarrion is a sheepfarmer’s daughter who runs away from home when she is about to be forced to marry a pigfarmer. Now, there’s nothing wrong with pig-farmers, but she’s always dreamed of becoming a warrior with a big horse and a magic sword.
Over the course of the books, she joins a mercenary company and becomes an accomplished warrior and later becomes a palladin candidate only to be damaged psychically to the point where she becomes a cowardly drudge. From there she regains her senses and becomes a palladin, is tortured to the point of death and is saved by a thief. Eventually, she restores a king to his throne and goes off into the pages of history. And trust me when I say, I’ve left a LOT of her story out.
Her story is about growth and rebirth and she’s one of the most vivid characters I’ve ever read about… and still one of my favorites.
Our challenge is to make our characters equally compelling.