Thursday, March 26, 2015

How to Write Flawed Characters

Nobody's perfect. We all have flaws, and those flaws can take a thousand different forms. In many ways it's our flaws that make us who we are, providing the shading and contrast that throws our positive qualities into a starker relief. Flaws give people depth and character, which is why if you want the populace of your stories to stand out they need to have flaws as well.

The problem for many authors comes in deciding just how to execute those flaws; specifically in how to take the characters you've created and to give them flaws that are real and meaningful, instead of purely cosmetic. Since this is not an easy process The Literary Mercenary has put together a simple guide that will help you distress your characters in ways that make them more believable.

Step #1: Give Your Characters Flaws That Make Sense

Let's start with an example; we'll call him Chris. Chris is a big, handsome young man who comes from a supporting home, and who has a long record of personal achievement. He makes good grades, achieves positions of leadership in sports, always has a smile for his classmates, and refuses to sit by while anyone gets bullied. So what's his damage? Well... he has a crippling lack of self confidence.

Okay... why?

It eventually got bad enough that he had to have a horse carry him everywhere.
Barring some secret past being revealed, the elements for this flaw aren't present. A young man who has done nothing but succeeded in his endeavors, and who is supported and valued should have, if anything, an over-inflated sense of confidence. After all, he's led the team to three championships while maintaining his place on the honor roll... what could possibly get in his way?

If you really wanted this flaw though, you could plant it in fertile soil by altering the character's background. For instance, say that Chris's mother and father divorced when he was 10 or so, but for those first 10 years nothing Chris did was ever really good enough for his dad. Good grades were ridiculed, praise from coaches sneered at, and Chris was constantly told how weak and stupid he was. Even if his mother re-married, and Chris's step dad was supportive and proud of his new son's achievements there are going to be scars from that earlier period. While he has the skills and the drive, Chris might be pushing himself to try and prove that his dad was wrong even while he's secretly afraid he might be right.

Put another way it doesn't make a whole lot of sense for your character to be deathly afraid of dogs if he's never seen one before. If you want to sell a flaw you have to make it make sense.

Note: A huge list of character flaws can be found right here on TV Tropes.

Step #2: Give Them Flaws That Will Matter

Detective Lieutenant Larry Stone is a hard-nosed homicide cop who takes no shit and gets the job done. He's tough as nails, can quote every subsection of the city's law book, and he has an unimpeachable record as a lawman.

But he's sexually impotent.

And he's really pissed about it.
If you're wondering how Larry being unable to have sex affects his ability to catch murderers then you're already on the right track. While not every flaw a character has will be center stage all the time, for those flaws to matter they actually have to get in the way of something the character is trying to accomplish. Otherwise it fades into the background, an unimportant footnote we can easily forget about because it isn't germane to the story we're telling.

I'll give you a good example.

There's a novel I'd love to write based off of White Wolf's (or Onyx Path as I believe they're known now) tabletop roleplaying game Promethean. In this game you play an artificially created being who must struggle to find humanity. There are several varieties, but one is the Wretched, known more colloquially as the Frankensteins. Enter Adolph Simmons, a 7'6" monster assembled from the best and the brightest of Ryker's Island, and brought to life in the electric chair by his maker. Escaping after his birth the giant swum to shore and faded into the alleys of Hell's Kitchen. Years go by and there are rumors of a creature called The Butcher of Hell's Kitchen, a favorite in the tabloids for his supposedly gruesome murders of criminals in the area surrounding Our Lady of Sorrows.

It's all rumors and smoke, until children start going missing from the orphanage run by said church. The self-proclaimed guardian of those unwanted youths, Simms has to find where they've gone and who's taking them. The problem is that while he possesses unparalleled supernatural strength, he isn't very smart. He has no training as an investigator, and this makes his efforts clumsy at best, brutal at worst.

This fiercely loyal monster could solve any problem with his hands if it came to a fight, but when he has to use his brain his biggest strength has been stripped away and he has to overcome one of his weaknesses. That's how character flaws add to your story.

Step #3: Flaws Are Not Strengths. They're Flaws

At this point in the list I don't have the energy to pull out rare examples or hidden gems from master authors. Instead I'm just going to go for the low-hanging fruit and use one of the many things wrong with Twilight to make this point.

This was a dead horse a while back... I guess there's one or two whacks left...
Let me draw your attention to the collection of character flaws that is the book's main object (being a protagonist would imply she took effort to achieve something). Among her many other flaws Bella Swan suffers from extreme co-dependency, being left dejected and unable to think or act for months when her abusive significant other abandons her. Rather than struggling to remember how to be independent (as one assumes she was before she was part of a couple) her complete inability to function outside of a relationship (no matter how unhealthy it was) is shown in a positive, romantic light. As if by refusing to put her life together, and actively setting the remnants of it on fire, is supposed to be a statement of great love.

Here's another example for you: Batman.

I've written about Batman's character mistakes before (the article is here, by the by), but he's the easiest example of the emotionally damaged archetype to hold up. A normal person who lost his parents in a mugging would grieve for them, and he would grow up with a sense of just how easily life can end. He would see how prevalent crime can be, and he might even be motivated to try and fight against it in his parents' memory. Perhaps he'd become a cop, or campaign for change to clean up the streets. Perhaps he'd look for ways to help those who have to deal with grief. The idea of dedicating one's life to more than a decade of training, and then several more decades of donning body armor and prowling the streets, breaking bones and smashing teeth is the act of a crazy person. When real people have done this (check out The Real Superhero Project for some real-world vigilantes who started their careers in a dark place) it's been met with abject horror. Yet when we take utter insanity and dress it up in a set of fictional tights we see Batman's dedication and drive as assets rather than a fanatical devotion spurred by someone unable to cope with a traumatic event.

Step #4: Scale Is Everything

So you've got your character, flaws and all. You've figured out what events left scars, and how he or she healed from them to become the person they are today. Before you decide you're done though you need to stop and take a look at the scale of the flaw, and compare it to the scale of the results.

And then the lemur burned down the zoo. Because reasons.
Creating flaws whose results are extreme happens all the time with villains (and I covered some of it in Under The Black Hat: Writing Believable Bad Guys). I personally call this Dr. Doom syndrome. For those of you who don't read comics Victor Von Doom is the sovereign ruler of a small kingdom called Latveria in Marvel Comics. As a young prince Doom traveled to America for his education (where we presume he earned a doctorate). While he was in the lab working on what we can only assume was his thesis there was an accident. The accident marred Victor's face, and he sought some way to repair the damage. After medicine and magic failed him he forged an iron mask, and encased himself in a suit of highly advanced armor which he is rarely seen without.

The reason I use this example is that in some versions of the origin Doom's face is marred, but it's far from a horror. A small scar was all it took to send him on a world-wide quest to restore what he viewed as perfection, and in the end he encased himself in a suit of armor that put Tony Stark's most cutting-edge Mark line to shame.

Yes the comic was trying to evoke both The Phantom of The Opera and The Man in The Iron Mask for the purpose of mystery. We never see Doom's face, so we don't know if it's a terrifying ruin, or if it just has a slight imperfection along the cheek. The point is that even if he was disfigured why the armor? Why an iron mask? Why seclude himself completely except for when he pursues his own ends? The story reads more like a myth than a character study, and as a result the actions are grand, sweeping, and ultimately kind of shallow.

Ask Yourself If Real People Are Broken Like This

Art imitates life, and vice versa. Even if you're putting your characters into a completely unreal scenario (farmer abducted by aliens becomes intergalactic gladiator), the ways in which the human psyche breaks and heals are fairly finite. Coping mechanisms are kind of universal, and someone dealing with the stress of completely Earth-bound wars may develop the same sorts of tics and triggers as those who've fought in alien gore pits. All you need is to find a situation similar to the one you're setting up, and ask how real people turn out in that sort of situation. If you can follow that blueprint then the flaws your characters develop are going to feel as real and organic as any person your readers have ever met.

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