Writing Strong, Flawed Characters: A Conversation

despairing silhouetteI was working on who-knows-what the other night when a chat window from a friend popped up on my laptop screen. He wondered if he could ask for some writing advice or if I only answered questions when I was paid for it.* Seeing as how this particular friend is a lawyer who has freely answered my questions about copyright and other legal odds and ends before, I quickly assured him he could ask me anything he wanted.

What followed were some questions that I feel like a lot of people have—and my two-part answer is really one of the biggest secrets to deeper characterization. Actually, I saved the script of our conversation largely as a reminder to myself. As I work on my own writing, one of my struggles is getting to know the characters well enough to let them, not my impulses, drive what happens in the story. With permission from my friend, I’d also like to share the conversation with you, leaving informal grammar and punctuation as it was used that night.

*Note the question he raised, especially if you have a friend or family member who is an editor, writing instructor, etc. While we care about our loved ones and enjoy our work, giving writing advice is exactly that to us—work. We usually don’t want to spend our free time thinking about work instead of relaxing and enjoying our time with you.

Here’s the important bit of our conversation:

Friend: so, I’m working on a script/story/something that qualifies as a narrative

Friend: any tips on how to make the good guy/gal/etc. characters good and yet still realistic (i.e. still fallen)?

Me: Yes, actually.

Me: two things.

Me: One, what are they motivated by? They have desires, and they have fears. Know what they would do to get those desires and what they would do to avoid those fears. I don’t mean “I want ice cream and am afraid of spiders.” I mean “I want to make people happy and am terrified of taking risks that lead to failure”

Friend: you described me in a nutshell, but I follow

Me: Two, remember that strengths and weaknesses are two sides of the same coin. Someone who is confident is often cocky. If you look at our culture, people who are caring are often accepting of wrong OR afraid to call it out. People who are logical forget to use their emotions.

Me: and so on.

Me: To use a more complicated example.

Me: I’m very smart at many things–I hear them and they just click. I get it. I follow. I learn it fast. I’m good academically and test quickly and accurately. However, this means I never learned how to WORK on things I didn’t understand. I really struggle now if there’s something I don’t understand immediately. I either ignore it, deciding I don’t even need it, or I freak out because it seems impossible.

Me: Having one strength meant I never developed another.

Like me, my friend was in the middle of something else, so it was a few minutes before he responded. When he did, he thanked me for my advice and told me he’d keep in touch about his project—even if it took a while in between work and other plans.

Two things to remember:

You probably pulled out the two takeaways that I gave my friend, but I want to point them out again with a bit more commentary.

1: Know your characters’ motivations.

Everybody does what they do for specific reasons, and it’s usually not because an all-mysterious plot decided they should. People make choices, some conscious and some unconscious, based on what they want or fear in life. If you can dig deeply into each of your characters’ desires and fears, you’ll have a better understanding of how they’d react to the circumstances that come up due to other characters’ choices and actions. If you’re looking for a way to add flaws, think about the value your characters place on their motivations vs their morals. What would they do to stay true to their desires or fears? Where they draw that line tells you—and your reader—a lot about who each character is as a person.

The weakest books are the ones where characters act a certain way just because the author thinks it would make a good story or doesn’t know what they would actually do. The strongest books are the ones where the characters (major and minor, good and bad) act according to their fears, desires, and values in response to every situation, whether big or small.

2: Know the flip sides of your characters’ strengths.

Strengths and weaknesses are typically consistent with a character’s personality, experiences, and values—and with each other. If you’re having trouble coming up with flaws for your character, think about their personality traits and strengths. What happens if they take those traits or strengths to a negative extreme? Alternately, what areas of their personality were underdeveloped because they relied on their strengths or interests? A strength in one area can be a weakness in another.

Balance every character.

There’s a trend these days of portraying villains in a way that emphasizes their positive traits and desires or portraying heroes in a way that emphasizes their dark sides. I’m not suggesting that you have to blur the line between good and evil this way. What you should do, however, is remember that nobody is 100% one-sided, and nobody acts for no reason. It’s true in real life, and it should be true of the characters you are creating.

If you’re having trouble figuring out believable weaknesses for your characters or knowing whether their motivations are followed consistently through your story, get some help! A good beta reader can read specifically for character motivation and portrayal if you give them a list of specific questions to consider while reading, and a professional editor would be more than happy to work with you on this (characterization is a big part of the manuscript critiques I offer). You don’t have to settle for plastic characters—with a little effort, you can grow them into real people.

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