Last week we talked about the importance of using heroic qualities to build likable characters. Obviously, our characters can't be perfect. Unless your character is meant to be practically perfect in every way, it simply isn't believable to develop one without any flaws.
How do we, as authors, avoid turning our readers off when we incorporate character flaws?
I want to give you an example of a recent book that I agreed to read and review, but simply couldn't get through. I won't name names or give titles because the author is talented and this isn't a smear campaign.
In the beginning of the book the author uses the prologue to introduce a young woman-let's call her Jane-who has a shady job, uses drugs, and invites a good-looking stranger home to her house. The stranger just happens to be a serial killer, and in the process of fighting for her life, she accidentally shoots and kills her five-year-old son. In the hospital she finds out she will have to fight to keep custody of her daughter, and prove that she is a fit parent.
Chapter one starts several years later. Jane has cleaned her life up, has recently acquired a job in a respectable field after several years of study, and is faced with this serial killer all over again. This sounds like the set-up for a great book, but I just couldn't get past the prologue.
As a mother, I couldn't immediately be introduced to the messed-up version of Jane who was drugged and inviting strange men to her home with her children present and vulnerable. Then she accidentally kills her son. I was super angry with her and couldn't rally around her after that even though she had changed her ways.
I emailed this author to discuss the possibility of starting the book with Jane's new job, new life and demonstrate her fighter-like qualities by hinting at her troubled past, but establishing all of the good that she had accomplished before going into the details about the mistakes she made in the past. I would have been able to commit to her a little easier if I had seen this side of her first.
This is not always going to be the case. Sometimes the villain ends up becoming the hero over time, and we are able to cheer for that character even though logically we shouldn't want to. That's the beauty of multi-dimensional characters, a subject we will touch on in future posts.
For now, I want to delve a little deeper into the kinds of flaws that may turn your readers off and why.
I recently reviewed a book called Ariel by Fia Essen. This is the story about a girl in a rut. She broke up with a seemingly amazing boyfriend, got fired from her job, pushed away all of her friends, allowed herself to get into horrible debt, and can't stand her family.
You're probably wondering if this character has any redeeming qualities, but what the author does with Ariel is allow her to admit to herself that all of this, in one form or another, is wrong. She is self-deprecating and with a little help from Celine she recognizes that she has problems. Then she honestly admits her desire to continue living in denial about them in a witty, humorous way. This next scene is a conversation between Celine and Ariel.
"As dissatisfied as you are with your life, you're too scared to make an effort to change it. You fear failure so much that you would rather do nothing at all. Your fear has turned you into a prisoner of your circumstances. It's keeping you stuck in your rut."
Now that was the plain, unvarnished truth. Celine was right. She had hit the nail right on the head. but I wasn't ready to admit it. I couldn't. Not yet.
Who hasn't done this? Totally understandable, right? This ability to accept the rut she has allowed herself to fall into and take responsibility for her actions is a huge part of the ongoing tension and conflict within the book, but as we continue further we realize that she didn't just happen to do all of these silly things on purpose. She wasn't intentionally becoming the type of person most people would shy away from. In reality, her boyfriend of ten years dumped her and told everyone she dumped him before she even knew she'd been dumped. She loses her job through a huge misunderstanding and an honest mistake. Her family is constantly finding fault with her, and she can't bear to be around the same friends who knew her when she dated Duncan.
We can be a little indulgent of her flaws simply because we've all been there with break-ups, family disputes and huge misunderstandings that don't get cleared up right away. We are also privy to the blunt, offensive manner in which her parents and grandparents talk to her, picking out faults and criticizing her single status and lack of career, making us want to cringe at their insensitivity even though they are unaware of the circumstances surrounding her job loss and single status.
"Yes, I know, but Ariel doesn't have a proper career anymore, does she?" Grandma Morton shot back. "Having a career clearly isn't a priority to her these days. So she really doesn't have a legitimate reason to put off starting a family."
"She;s not exactly a spring chicken anymore," Father said, referring to me.
"She has left it a bit late in the day," Grandpa Morton agreed.
"And it takes some women several years to get pregnant," Grandma Morton remarked.
It was decided. As far as my family was concerned, getting married and knocked up was all I was qualified for. And they were clearly worried I wouldn't manage to pull that off before it was too late.
Her desire to avoid her family at all costs is understandable in light of this revealing family conversation. So even though Ariel starts out terribly flawed, the reader can appreciate the external causes surrounding her current predicament and like her all the more simply because she knows she's flawed and is hilariously determined to remain in denial about it. She's just too fun and quirky to dislike.
Now if Fia Essen had spent the entire book allowing her character to bemoan her existence, drowning in self-pity and refusing to ever acknowledge the part she played in her own downward spiral, these character flaws would begin to grate on our nerves and cause us to become fed up with Ariel and her story. Fortunately, this didn't happen.
Now you need to determine what your character's possible failings and weaknesses are and figure out how he/she can work to overcome them so that your character becomes someone we admire and respect rather than an individual we'd like to beat our fists into. Yes, I've read books that have given me the desire to do that.
Next week we will talk about how to create multidimensional characters. Oh, I just love talking about that. If you would like to continue reading about Ariel's journey of self-discovery, and the yummy man who walks into her life,( Yes, there is delicious kissing. Hooray for kissing!) just click on the cover below.
Did you miss the first post in the series? Here you go!
The Fundamentals of Character Development
Part 1: How to Give Your Characters Heroic Qualities
Part 3: How To Create Multidimensional Characters
Thanks for reading, and have a great Wednesday.
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