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.