Flawing your characters


I know, flaw is not a verb. I’m taking liberties. I like flawed characters. I like to read them and I like to watch them in my TV/movies, and I like to write them. I find them far more satisfying than characters who are too good or too bad.

Recently I taught Jane Eyre in my college class. I’ve read this book too many times too count and each time I find something new and different about it. But the thing I find lately is that I like Rochester more and more. He’s obnoxious. He’s got no tact and no interest in it. He messes with people’s heads for fun and he’s flat out ornery. What makes him likeable to me is that he’s passionate (in both the romantic sense, and the deeply felt feelings sense). He struggles with his failures and his mistakes and he struggles with his decisions. I see in him a man who is flawed. He chooses the right path frequently–afterall, he doesn’t need to bring Bertha home and care for her. He certainly doesn’t need to bring Adele home. But he chooses to. He takes care of those who need caring for. Same applies to Mrs. Fairfax, a poor relation.

At the same time, he loses the battle of honor and tries to commit bigamy, driven by a desperate need to not only find happiness, but also to conquer a past that has been (to him) horrific. He’s attempting to conquer betrayals and find a cure for them, by betraying someone else. Isn’t that deliciously insane? I mean, what lovely flaws! And he does all this in a way that makes the readers sympathize with him.

As I said, I like flawed characters. In my book, The Cipher, both Lucy and Marten are terribly flawed. Marten especially. In fact, he’s so flawed that some readers don’t care for him much. He makes mistakes. And then he compounds them, even when he declares he won’t. He can’t help himself. Until he runs into the deepest, darkest part of his soul, the rock bottom, as it were, and he discovers he can’t live with himself unless he finds some kind of redemption. Not of the religious kind, but more in answer to his crimes.

I adore him. Lucy, also, is terribly flawed. She does stupid things because she’s driven by this childhood incident and her family’s reaction. She’s defying something she has no real words for, and she does it by breaking the law, even though she’s an agent of the law and hates lawbreakers. Conflicted much?

The thing that makes me like these people, and Rochester, is that I can sympathize. I see their struggles, I see what drives them and I know people make bad choices for the right reasons and for the wrong ones. I know that even when people try to do good things, the results are often bad.

The hard thing is writing such characters. You need to get in their minds and understand their hearts. You need to recognize that life is full of gray areas. Misty Lackey once said something to the effect of: Evil Wizards sometimes get up in the middle of the night and bake chocolate chip cookies. They have ordinary, empathetic qualities. Even Hitler’s dog liked him, and Hitler thought he was a good guy doing a good thing. The point is, to make real and interesting characters, you need to recognize something good in them. You need to love them for their flaws. The flaws have to be understandable in some way to your audience. Your reader needs to empathize on some level.

Rochester gets punished for his crimes. It’s not the burning or the blindness, but losing Jane that is his punishment. It tears his heart out. So that when she comes back to him, (and puts him through a bit of revenge), we are happy to get the happily ever after sort of ending. (Jane also is flawed, but to talk about her in this post would take far too long). In my experience, characters who are flawed, and who suffer and struggle for and with their flaws, make the most interesting characters.


13 comments to Flawing your characters

  • […] over at Magical Words today talking about creating flawed characters. Come over and take a […]

  • bonesweetbone

    Extremely flawed characters have always been my favorite. Which is probably the reason I have such a hard time rooting for main characters. The secondary ones almost always appeal more to me.

    I have to admit I hadn’t considered evil wizards baking until now. Food for thought! I’ll definitely take this into consideration the next time I’m working on a Big Bad.

    And now to go rough up my good guys…

  • Diana> I love flawed characters–thought I will disagree a bit about villains. I do think that there are some people who know that they are doing is wrong–and they don’t care. They don’t even think it is right for them. Take the example of the Joker in the Dark Knight. He has no illusions that he’s good. He’s an agent of chaos, deliberately. He believes (I think) that chaos is reality and morality is fiction, and he’s trying to prove it, but not because he believes proving it is a good thing. That relentless devotion to his desires without any care of goodness, and without self justification, is pretty scary. (And, to a point, he wins. He gets Batman to violate some of his basic values and turns Batman into a villain at the end.) That said, I love Rochester. And I really like Jane too. On the other hand, every time I read Wuthering Heights, I dislike Catherine and, especially, Heathcliff just a little bit more.

  • Bonesweetbone: Definitely rough them up. It will be fun!

    Pea_faerie: I hadn’t thought about the Joker. I guess I would argue he didn’t buy into right and wrong. He wouldn’t have thought himself wrong in the sense that he did believe himself to be an agent of chaos. But I can definitely see your point. I’m afraid I’ve never been a fan of Wuthering Heights. Maybe it’s that Heathcliff is too flawed. Catherine too. I find it hard to sympathize with them on any level.

  • MaCrae

    My main character is nothing but flaws. She has a massive temper, thinks of herself before others (but does think of them… sometimes), and is very smarmy. But that’s it. I’m guessing she may have a heart of gold…somwhere. Right now her character’s kinda stuck. I know there is a point when flaws become too many flaws and they become the opposite of the perfect character, but is her character at that point? Is she too flawed?

  • Thanks for this reminder, Diana. Just started work on Book 2 of my WIP, and I was wondering what was bothering me about my characters. The good guys are a bit too good, this time around. They don’t have to be, duh.

  • Unicorn

    MaCrae, I know exactly what you mean. One of my current POV characters is like that as well. Granted, she has had a really bad past, which turned her into such a twit, and she’s reforming (slowly), but yeah, I also worry that my readers will get sick of her.
    Thanks for the interesting post, Diana.

  • I love flawed heroes and sympathetic villains. I love to write my characters in shades of gray, and I like to read (and watch on screens both large and small) characters who pull my head and heart in many directions at once. Thanks for the post, Di.

  • […] Juliette Wade at Talk To YoUniverse has a good piece for fantasy and sci-fi writers about designing dialects.  This was especially intriguing to me, since the Murshy dialect (more of a creole) plays such a prominent role in the Observer stories.  Also in the writing world, Diana Pharoah Francis at Magical Words discusses flawed characters, […]

  • […] While you are writing, Diana Pharaoh Francis discusses Flawing Your Characters. […]

  • Macrae and Unicorn: My character Max is a bit of a difficult person with lots of flaws. But she cares about her friends and has a protect the innocent streak. This really helps her be sympathetic. I don’t know that a heart of gold is necessary, but some positive attribute is a good thing.

  • David: met too. And it’s just that–pulling me in all directions–that gets me. Especially when it’s really anchored in a character’s own issues.

  • Flawed characters sometimes are closer to ourselves than we care to admit. We can empathise with them. Sometimes their weakness, we can see in ourselves if circumstances were different, if dealt with a different hand. My character in Malice in Blunderland is a total train wreck. A mess, and no matter what he does, he makes the situation worse. Key though, is he isn’t a bad person, just an idiot. That’s where you form your warmness, he gets the sympathy vote.

    But it has to be said, flawed people tend to do dumb things. Put themselves in situations others wouldn’t. Go to far. Stupidity is only funny when it’s observed.