Today’s topic might feel basic, but it’s probably the most important concept you need to grasp if you want to succeed as a writer. There’s a fairly well known mantra that is often beaten into the heads of writers: Don’t write a perfect or overpowered main character. This might feel a little obvious, but I can tell you through first-hand experience that when you begin writing, you will probably write a main character that you identify with. Because of this, it’s very likely you will write this character so they have no personal faults, are incredibly smart, athletic, well-loved by all, and are everything a normal person is not. These kinds of characters are really hated. Publishers won’t go near them, and neither will readers. So before you start your story you need to take a close look at what your character is like.
A lot of books that talk about characterization and writing novels assure you that you can fix your too-perfect character by giving them a flaw. Just one. That is the biggest load of hogwash I have ever read. Your character needs several flaws and a slew of weaknesses because he/she should be a reflection of real-life people. I have never met anyone who possess only one flaw. Furthermore, you need to give them a doozie of a flaw that they have to face throughout the book, not a little one that rarely comes into play. (So you can’t have a story in which the main character is good in everything, except for perhaps one sport which she is only a little good at, and it never comes up.) It doesn’t mean your character can’t still be clever and fun, or really good at something, it just means you need to look for balance. Often a flaw is accompanied by several personality defects, and usually a character’s strength ends up becoming a weakness. I’m going to draw on a few literary examples to show you this.
Let’s start with the classics: Elizabeth of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. For starters, Elizabeth is not the prettiest out of her sisters–but she is the smartest. Her fatal flaw is her prejudice. As we all know she is prejudice of Mr. Darcy, and dislikes him for the first half of the book. BUT, it doesn’t stop there! If Elizabeth’s only flaw was prejudice she still could have befriended Darcy, or noticed how he was interested in her and decided to accept when he proposed. (The book would have been a total BORE.) Instead, Elizabeth’s cleverness gets the best of her and she openly scorns Darcy and treats him with disdain. If she had been as kind as Jane that wouldn’t have happened. Do you see how the balance of her character works to create a wonderful story? She is pretty and clever, but her cleverness is a double edged sword thanks to her prejudice. Balance makes it possible to picture her as your next-door neighbor.
Another example: Sherlock of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s books. Sherlock was incredibly clever, but not the most handsome guy. He was so brilliant he could catch crooks with very little work, and he is obviously a genius. However, Sherlock is not the smartest man in Britain. His BROTHER is. (Talk about an excellent opportunity for emotional conflict!) Furthermore, he had a drug addiction, wrestled with depression, and because of the curt way he acted he wasn’t exactly well liked. Many say John Watson looks stupid next to Sherlock, but I think Sherlock’s social ineptitude/stoicism is amplified by Watson’s kindness. (You can see this in modern adaptions, like Sherlock BBC, and the Great Mouse Detective.) Sherlock’s genius and prowess is balanced with his emotional and social issues, and while they might not play a role in the crime he has to solve they play a HUGE role in his life.
How about an example from my work: Gabrielle from Puss in Boots. I chose this one on purpose because Gabrielle–unlike many of my heroines–is absolutely beautiful. Hands down she is the most gorgeous princess from Timeless Fairy Tales. However, several things counter her beauty: 1) she doesn’t value it and sees it as a flaw 2) she misjudges people because of her past experiences 3) she willingly takes orders from a cat. By the end of the book Gabrielle is much more comfortable with herself, and she’s become more gentle. She understands she was wrong in the way she would verbally act out in her hometown, and Puss has helped her become more independent. (She wouldn’t have taken on the ogre alone at the start of the story!)
This brings me to a big point. Your character must start the book negatively unbalanced–though they most often shouldn’t know it, or they see it as something that is only natural. By the end of the book, they should be a better person (better, not perfect) and have grown because of the challenges and obstacles they faced. You can see it in all my heroines. In the little Selkie Dylan is prideful and doesn’t want to ask humans for help, but by the end of the book she requests their help and marries one. In C&C Cinderella overcomes her deeply held hatred of Erlauf, and becomes queen. In King Arthurs Britt started as a very unwilling king and didn’t care much about ruling, but she’s maturing and is being forced to let her knights mature, so she can become a leader who could rule Britain in her own right.
Your goal should be to tell a good story, not to live out your fantasies through your main character. That might sound harsh, but it’s a painful lesson I had to learn that I would like to spare you. My first book was a sci fi story, which will never see the light of day because it cannot be salvaged. I got too attached to the main character, and I made her perfect in every way. If I ever feel like I’m getting a little prideful, I go back and read that story, and it sets my teeth on edge because now I loathe that very same character.
If you need practice in drawing balanced characters, try examining the people in your life. Who do you really know and love that would be a fun main character? What kind of flaws does that person have? We’re not looking to be critical, we’re observing truth. Usually the smart, quiet, perfectionist people can be a little socially awkward or they will feel overwhelmed because they don’t live up to their own standards. The social butterfly who is an absolute blast to hang out with might have a hard time organizing herself so her life is a little messy. None of this is because these people are terrible or evil, it’s because everyone has strengths and weaknesses. Your main character must reflect this, or your story will never go anywhere.
Gah, there’s so much more to talk about–how character flaws play important roles in plot, how your secondary characters should have strengths and flaws of their own, etc–but this is already a huge post so I’ll have to cut it off here. Can you think of your favorite novel and identify the character’s strengths, weaknesses, and flaws? Leave a comment and get some discussion going! In the meantime, thank you for reading, Champions, and I hope this gets you thinking.