Six impossible things

Do Characters Really Need to be Flawed?

I spent last weekend mainly at Minicon 52 in Minneapolis, and generally had a wonderful time. There were a few eye-rolling moments (they’re still arguing about that? Really?) and lots of science geeking about recent discoveries (seven Earth-sized exoplanets in the Goldilocks zone of the TRAPPIST-1 system…which was apparently named for a Belgian beer). And of course talk about books and writing.

One of those discussions centered around characters and character flaws (there was a panel on the topic, but I didn’t manage to get to it), which led me to do some poking around on the internet when I got home. And what I found was a pretty universal consensus:

“To be credible, characters must have flaws as well as strengths, just like real people.”

“Make sure that your character really has flaws…”

“To make your characters fascinating, to create an emotional story, give them a weakness.”

“Part of creating a well-rounded, non-overpowered character involves giving the character flaws and weaknesses.”

“Flaws in your characters give your novel depth and make characters believable.”

“If a character is perfect, then all the conflict in the story is someone else’s fault.”

A lot of the blogs and writing advice books don’t even bother to make a case for why they think characters should have flaws; they simply assume this as a given, and jump right into the hows and whats and dos and don’ts.

Assumptions like this make me cranky.

I get especially cranky when I think people are missing the point, which I very much believe they are in this case. I have a really, really hard time coming up with any character that I would describe as “perfect.” (Actually, I think a good case can be made for “perfection” being a major character flaw all on its own, or Mary Sue characters wouldn’t be so annoying, but that’s probably a different post.)

Fiction is not real life. It is not about creating a photorealistic image of real life or real people. Fiction is a model, a model that necessarily leaves out vast amounts of stuff that would really be there in real life. The point in fiction, whether you are describing a conversation, a room, an event, or the personality and behavior of a character, is to tell readers the stuff that is cool and interesting, that will make readers either believe the story or make them willing to suspend their disbelief for the length of the story.

And there are stories for which groping around for a suitable character flaw is pointless and counter-productive. Many fairy tales are perfectly good stories just as they are, without making Cinderella arrogant or greedy or bitter, or Prince Charming lazy or intolerant or reckless. One could, of course, start with the fairy tale plot and come up with a really interesting retelling by making the characters more complex in these ways, but that wouldn’t necessarily give you a better story, just a different and more detailed one.

Starting from the assumption that all characters must be flawed begs the question of what constitutes a flaw. In many stories, the protagonist is flawed, but in ways that don’t really affect the story. Conan the Barbarian is not exactly the brightest or most thoughtful character, but that doesn’t really matter when solving his problems doesn’t require anything but mighty thews, an enormous broadsword, and an unreasonably high pain tolerance.

Then there are the “flaws” that aren’t always flaws – character traits that some people or groups see as undesirable or unsympathetic, but that others see as admirable, or at least neutral. Readers who value independence may interpret Character A’s constant deferring to his family’s wishes as a flaw, and characterize him as a wimp, while those who place a high value on family loyalty and harmony may see the character’s actions as admirable. A writer who considers intelligence unsympathetic may endow the character with positive traits “for balance”…and end up with a character that many readers think is  perfect (because, unlike the writer, they consider intelligence a positive).

Which brings me to what I think the main problem is with most of the “characters must be flawed” writing advice: It looks to the audience, rather than to the story. Characters must be flawed, the advice-givers say, to be credible, believable, fascinating, sympathetic to readers; to be realistic in the eyes of readers … all readers, all the time. It says nothing about the story or the writer or the effect the writer is going for, all of which are at least as relevant, if not more so.

Besides which, readers are not a monolithic block, all of whom have exactly the same reading preferences and exactly the same reaction to a particular character presentation. If they were, you would never hear (or participate in) conversations about how one person adores angsty Character X, while another thinks X is a whiny mopey-pants. Also, readers have an enormous capacity to overlook even the most glaring flaws and shortcomings in a character they really like.

Finally, if the characterization doesn’t fit the story, it doesn’t matter how well-rounded or flawed or realistic the character is. Fairy tales require a different type of presentation than a realistic modern detective novel, a character-focused literary novel, or a pulp adventure yarn. A writer who is trying for a nondescript Everyman protagonist does not have the same need for strong positive and negative character traits as the writer who wants to explore the psychological twists and turns of a charming antihero.

In short, one size does not fit all, and there is no One True Way to write “good characters.”

Next post, I’m going to talk more about my version of how-to specifics, I hope. This post is long enough.

5 Comments
  1. Yep, there is whole genres of stories that involve “perfect” characters getting seriously OP power-ups on a regular basis. I’m currently reading my way through all the (translated) Chinese webnovels I can find. Nearly every one of them involves a main character who NEVER makes mistakes. (Mostly because all mistakes have lethal consequences and… that would make the book really short)

    Some of those characters are just naturally perfect, some have a “perfect” teacher or spirit guide and a few have time traveled in the past so they know what not to do. Based on the comment sections… most readers find that perfection either forgivable or even endearing. It helps that the characters often make minor choices with no wrong answers. Opinion stuff rather then the life-or-death stuff of the main plot.

  2. Love this. It’s refreshing to see an author admit that not everything has to be done a certain way, and someone who questions *why* things are they way they are. A lot of heroes are more “perfect”, but I think if you’re writing a very escapism-type story, that’s an okay thing, maybe even a good thing.

  3. I think it’s a problem if a character is perfect in the theological sense, that is, omniscient and omnipotent — because then, what do you do for a story? (Although somebody somewhere’s probably pulled it off.) But then if they’re not perfect, they must have flaws, and because you’re talking about characters, that swiftly gets turned into “character flaws” — and then suddenly, your perfectly fine character has to be scatterbrained about appointments or unable to boil water.

    Taken even farther, it turns into your character can’t be really good at anything; I once watched a critiquer insist that a character couldn’t be skilled at something she’d been around all her life, nor a quick study — she had to fumble everything she was doing, because otherwise she was “too perfect”.

    Which may have been appealing to that critiquer, but I hope the author didn’t listen to him. Ugh. Give me competence porn any day!

  4. Some random thoughts:

    My first thought was that it’s *tragic* characters who need to have flaws. Characters who aren’t doomed to a tragic fate, not so much.

    What makes Mary Sue / Marty Stu characters annoying is less that they’re “flawless” and more that they trespass on other characters’ shticks – they’re stronger than the big strong guy, smarter than the brainy guy, a better pilot than the pilot guy, etc.

    I’ve read advice that characters should have flaws that make the plot-problems more pointed and difficult for them. This seems lazy. I enjoy (and sense an undermet need for) highly competent protagonists who deal with exceptionally difficult problems.

    Maybe I’m discounting readers who aren’t readers-like-me, but to me it seems that writers (and editors, and others) have a skewed view of what the typical reader wants and needs when it comes to flawed characters and reader-identification “everyman” characters. That readers have a higher tolerance of (and even desire for) weirdness and “perfection” than writers are willing to give credit for.

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