Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Character flaws...how bad can they be?


Boy meets girl, boy and girl live happily ever after. Nice, but not a story. Boy meets girl, boy screws up and loses girl, fights win to her back – that’s a story.
A romance needs conflict. In romantic suspense, conflict often comes from external factors such as an assassin who’s hunting down the heroine. But in many other romantic stories, the conflict is internal and arises out the characters’ character.
Specifically their flaws. If characters were perfect people, they wouldn’t do the things that get them in trouble that causes the conflict that creates the story that keeps readers reading.
He’s arrogant and domineering; she’s defiant and impulsive. He’s reluctant to trust; she’s hiding a big secret. She needs frequent reassurance; he’s not comfortable communicating his feelings. The clash of flaws create a natural story.
But flaws can make characters unlikable to the extent that readers may hope they fail in the pursuit of their goal or worse not care enough to finish the book
 Is he arrogant or an asshole? Is she impulsive or too stupid to live? For an authors and readers, the difference can be a very fine line.
In my novella Secret Desires, Morgan and Jack both want more sexually from their relationship than they’re getting, but each fears jeopardizing what they do have by raising the subject. Morgan repeatedly goads Jack in an attempt to get her needs met. Although they both redeemed themselves in the end, some of my readers initially found one or both of them unlikable, Morgan for being spoiled, and Jack for being too passive.
Many a bride has been blinded by the stars in her eyes and ignores serious relationship issues and marries anyway. Yet, in Unexpected Consequences, a few reviewers took Melania to task for her naiveté in marrying a man who would spank her when she misbehaved. I wanted her to be naïve to the point of ignorance because I wanted her to be totally shocked by what happens.
Author Ranae Rose in her novel Taken Hostage creates a “hero” who robs a bank. He’d lost his job, but wasn’t desperate. He robbed the bank for money -- pure and simple.
Ranae has said some of her readers wanted him to have a better reason. I liked Lucy in Gem Sivad’s Quincy’s Woman, even though she was willful and spoiled. But I admit I liked her better in Perfect Strangers when she’d matured.
So how do you create characters who have the flaws necessary to drive the plot forward, yet keep them likable? Do you eject realism into a character’s character or do you give them flaws that aren’t – like the positives phrased as negatives at a job interview: “My weakness is that I pay too much attention to detail” or “I’m too productive and I expect others to be the same.”
Some character flaws would never fly in a romance. (Nor in real life for me!) Could you imagine a hero who cheats on the heroine? Or who had a history of domestic violence in a prior relationship? Or who can’t hold a job? There are clear-cut flaws to avoid, but between black and white is a lot of gray.
What thought process do you use in giving your characters flaws?

10 comments:

Cassandra Carr said...

I think everything that's a character flaw has to be redeemable. If he/she can't or won't fix the flaw, that's where writers get in trouble.

C.L. Knight said...

Loved this and you're absolutely right about the fine line between flawed and thoroughly dislikeable. I think the problem is that, you're never going to please everybody. Some flaws will be viewed as minor by one reader, but horrific by another.

I try to make my characters as 'real' as possible, by using the flaws of people I know (or have known) - if, for me, these are a touch much, I'll tone it down or add something redeeming to make the character more likeable. I try not to second-guess what my readers might think, though.

CL.Knight said...

You've definitely got a point, Cassandra, but I don't think it's always the case. For example, Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights - deeply flawed and those flaws are never really redeemed, but we love him anyway. Sometimes, we can excuse flaws in a complex, fully-rounded character. It's when they're too, 2D that it's a prob. I think anyway.

Ranae Rose said...

Ooh, I've read most of the books you used as examples (and hey - one of them is mine! LOL). Yes, I made a bad-guy the hero of my story. I love James, but one reader commented that they thought he would have some 'noble' reason for stealing, like needing the money to pay for cancer treatment for a beloved relative (that's what the reader suggested). Well, he didn't have a noble reason at all. He's a criminal.

I can see how my bank-robbing James would certainly not make an ideal hero for some readers. But to me, personally, he's still relatable - I would never rob a bank, or steal in any form, for that matter, but hasn't everyone had those moments when you get frustrated with society and having life kick your ass even though you work really hard? And for a minute, you sort of think that you'd like to do something bad, and say 'f*ck you' to the rules. Well, that's what James does. And though I wouldn't do it in real-life, I like writing/reading about someone who does.

I also loved Heathcliff despite the fact that he was a total ass. I can love bad characters, as long as I can sympathize or relate to them in some way.

Cara Bristol said...

Ranae -
"He didn't have a noble reason at all. He's a criminal." I love how unapologetic you are!

Cassandra Carr said...

I still think with most likable characters there's something redeemable about them. Even your thief could be likable if he loves the heroine. Mr. Darcy is likable because he treats his friends and family well and loves Elizabeth to distraction.

Ranae Rose said...

Cara - well, that's how I meant it to be. When I set out to write the story, I wanted their relationship to be 'bad' in that sense.

Kayelle Allen said...

I think villains can be cruel and heartless, but even they need some redeeming quality. I try to give mine some aspect that makes people like them. Very good article.

Savanna Kougar said...

Taking a different stance, while I understand the idea of character flaws, I kinda got burned out on them after years of reading romance novels. I mean, really? How many character flaws can I overcome as a reader? Of course, we all have our weak points... but, of far more interest to me these days, is a heroine/heroes' strong points, and how they are used and develop as the story goes along, in the face of challenges.

William Kendall said...

In the collaborative novel I'm working on, one of our two main characters has to come to terms with her own insecurities, because of her family history, before she can move on with her life. What we've found much more compelling as we've gone along has been the strong points to both characters.

In my solo work, I've been writing villains who were sympathetic-because of what drove them to that point- until they crossed a line and committed an act that's drained off my sympathy. For quite awhile I was apologizing to my two primary antagonists for everything I'd put them through.