Why we love flawed characters (but not too flawed).

Today’s WIPjoy prompt asked about a mutual flaw a character shares with me. It didn’t take too long to pinpoint it. Though I hadn’t considered it consciously before, it was obvious that the main character, Kelsey, and I share the gene of gullibility. In Kelsey’s life, she went from being well-liked in her younger years, but now she’s considered a know-it-all and teacher’s pet. Her social desirability plummeted as did her self-confidence. It’s from these circumstances that her gullibility appears.

What makes flawed characters so enjoyable? They’re more believable. We know, as readers and as human beings, that people are not all good or all bad. Nobody is pure goodness or pure evil. We all have a mixture of good and bad traits, positive and negative qualities that make us who we are. We are complicated, but from that complication an identity forms. It’s the same for characters. They come alive through their contradictions, through their insecurities, through their fears. They may be a good person – most people and characters are good people – but they have a bad habit they can’t kick. It could be something as simple as being anxious or it could be as all-consuming as a drug addiction.

While creating these characters, I didn’t stop and think, specifically, which flaws I, as the almighty author, could bestow upon them. It was only through throwing the characters into the setting that I could deduce their flaws. (After all, it’s only when we’re put in a situation that we know how we’re going to act.) I do, however, like to pause and consider a character contradiction before I start writing. For Kelsey, she so desperately wants acceptance and approval, but not only does she not accept and approve of herself but she refuses to put herself in a vulnerable enough situation to where people can see who she really is.

What happens when we go too far with the character flaws? Say you have a character in front of you. He’s brash and insincere with his words. Not only does he smoke, but he blows the smoke in people’s faces intentionally. He speaks his mind and without a filter. He’s impulsive, and don’t forget that he’s dishonest. He’s also an opinionated bigot who opposes gay rights and is racist. He’s a weekend drunk who frequently engages in fights at the bar. Please tell me you don’t like this person because I sure don’t! Why not? He’s too much. He’s too mouthy and sassy. It’s negativity overload. It’s not even realistic. Where’s the positive? The redeeming quality that makes him human? If I said he reads books to blind children every Wednesday or he bakes peanut butter cookies to bring to the local homeless shelter, you might see another side of him you wouldn’t have seen had you only paid attention to the obnoxious obscenities coming from him. (Heck, I almost missed those positive qualities from him, too!)

So while the aim is to determine a flaw, make sure the characters aren’t flawed to the core. A healthy balance between positive and negative traits is best. Remember: Everybody is the protagonist of their own story and people are complex.

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