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  1. #1
    >:|Angry Beaver|:< Fung Koo's Avatar
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    Flawed Characters

    I'm hoping for some advice on constructing flawed characters.

    We all know the stereotypical stock SFF characters who are Masters of Everything -- and when they're not, they're Masters of Figuring Everything Out (and really, what, then, is the difference?). While these characters will often have their personal issues/demons, they more-or-less unflawed. And then there's the opposite sort, where a character's flaw ends up becoming their undoing -- the Tragic Flaw. Between them, these two extremes account for a good many characters in SFF, typically split between Heroes and Villains, respectively. What I'm wondering about are the characters in the middle of these two extremes.

    Oftentimes, the typical construction of a flawed character seems to take the same route as a prospective employee in a job interview answering the question "what would you consider your most significant flaw?" The prospective employee almost universally answers by selecting a strength that, when pushed to the extreme, becomes a comparative weakness. "Well, I'm sometimes overly dedicated to a task," for example. Which is kinda like saying, "sometimes I'm too good at my job." Not really a flaw -- for the sake of argument, let's call these weak flaws.

    A quick flip-through of the books on my shelf indicates that a good many SFF characters are constructed with precisely this model (and it's certainly not a criticism new to SFF). Start with a desirable character attribute then push it into the negative to create a flaw. (These are often categorized as minor flaws, though I think of them more as simply character attributes.)

    So on the one hand, you have your Paul Atreides, Luke Skywalker, Aragorn types. They have personal backgrounds that give them certain emotional shortcomings, but those shortcomings almost always are part of how that character matures (gods with daddy issues, anyone?). These aren't always flaws so much as they're foils for character development.

    (Note: there's absolutely nothing wrong with these sorts of characters -- it's just not the point of my question. Forgive me if my simplification of them rankles )

    Then, on the other hand, you have your Lannister, Anakin Skywalker, Boromir, Thomas Covenant, Roland Deschain, Cheradenine Zakalwe types. These guys have real, significant flaws -- actual cracks in their characters -- that lead them into sticky situations, often requiring others to step in for them. They tend not to have an abundance of control, or even awareness, of their flaws. Which is to say, their character flaws will often come to affect and shape the master-plot, and aren't primarily there for character development sub-plots. These aren't so much Anti-Heroes, either (though I wouldn't consider that a flaw-exclusive [or even flaw-dependent] character type).

    I find I can construct a weakly-flawed character (the extreme-attribute-as-flaw type) with comparative ease. Tragically Flawed characters and Anti-Heroes, likewise. But the actually flawed character is much harder for me to do. I find that they're especially difficult in longer works -- suddenly one flawed character ends up doing something that makes sense for that character, but throws the whole story plan off. These characters seem to have a tendency to become the focus of the story (characters gaining agency in directing your story seems to be an irritating, but essential, side effect of flawed characters). This situation often gets out of hand, to the point that I'll lose the thread and have to walk away. I've tried to plan for moments where the character's flaw comes into the plot, but then the whole thing feels contrived. Or I end up with a plot that relies on flaws becoming relevant at key moments (like in the movie Cube, for example) -- which also comes off as contrived.

    So...

    Does anyone have any advice on how to go about constructing a good, flawed character? How do you make your own flawed characters, how do you use them, how do you introduce them and their flaws to your story, and why why why?

    Any help, whether it be pointed advice or pointless musing, is greatly appreciated.

  2. #2
    KMTolan kmtolan's Avatar
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    While this is certainly a widely interpretable subject, my one thought is consistency with the flaw. The character should be expected to react in the same manner when given the usual stimuli to set this flaw off. I love flawed main characters - Julian May's "Felice" in her "Many Colored Land" series was the best example - the girl made a psychotic murderess look tame, yet she had a perfectly stable reason for why she acted like she did.

    When I served up a flaw in my MC, I quickly ran into an issue with my Third Person, Limited point of view. My character simply couldn't see the flaw in themselves, hence the reader was in danger of not noticing it either. The best I could do was to have this flaw pointed out to her by other characters, allowing the reader, should they choose to, review what they knew of the MC so far and realize...yeah, there's a flaw.

    I can't stress, though, how you must stay on top of your MC concerning any flaw. Until something deep and meaningful steps in, they are going to continue doing the wrong thing, and more often than not it will be a subtle thing.

    Kerry

  3. #3
    Excellent question. We need flawed characters because flaws make us human and thus easier to relate to than the "gods" characters you named (though some SW fans would argue that Luke's whining is a tragic flaw ).

    When I write a flawed character, I strive to make them well-rounded - he or she must be shown to have good points along with bad (but I think that goes for "flawed" vs. "perfect" in general). If I'm going to use a flawed character, I will try to design a story arc around those flaws to show growth even if they don't realize their mistake or their flaw until it's too late.

  4. #4
    Palinodic Moderator KatG's Avatar
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    All characters are flawed. You're not talking about doing a flawed character but about how to use flaws in characters in relation to story roles. And this sentence: "They tend not to have an abundance of control, or even awareness, of their flaws. Which is to say, their character flaws will often come to affect and shape the master-plot, and aren't primarily there for character development sub-plots." is incorrect when it comes to Lannister, Boromir, Thomas Covenant, etc.

    So my advice first off is same as I always do -- stop trying to put them all in little boxes: simple flaw, tragically flawed, anti-hero, etc., and then complaining when they don't stay in them. Essentially, forget that big ball of lit knowledge you have with all those lovely terms, because you're so busy dividing things up into categories that it is not productive and tends to cause giant generalizations.

    Your first issue is that you're wrestling between character logic and story logic. You have your story logic planned out (psychologist,) but you're trying to do your characters at least partly organically (detective,) which for you provides a disconnect. You may find some of the flawed characters you're coming up with are just far more interesting to you than others. So your right brain says, "I'm going this way," and your left brain says, "No, we're supposed to be going that way," and your right brain says, "Well then he's boring," and your Editor's Hat comes in too early and fears everything proposed is contrived, which is another way of saying, "it doesn't feel right to me."

    So you may need to assess what story you want to tell, first off, even if it is one with a plot structure you don't consider as daring. You may be planning too much in advance for your process, which is usually what it means when you have characters who are able to send you off track a lot. You maybe are supposed to go off track and go write that story. Or more than one version of a story. Characters are intimately connected to plot and action -- one does not move without the other for the most part. The decision of how much one shapes the other and vice versa is one of the main juggling acts of fiction writing. So if your flawed characters are shaping your plot, maybe they are supposed to. Alternatively, you could approach it as picking character flaws to match your plot -- the what do I need process, rather than trying to come up with an interesting plot on one hand and an interesting character flaw on the other.

    Every character operates by an interactive, dependent triangle: reaction to what's happening or other data, motivation for that particular character and decision-making, which together lead to action. So your flawed characters' triangles are not leading to the actions you want. So you can either change the aspects of the character, and his or her triangle, or you can change the action, or both. That way character logic and story logic line up. The harder part is deciding which aspect is most important to you for that story.

    As for contrived, you know that word shouldn't even come up in your mind during the first draft.

  5. #5
    Shadow's Lure (June 2011)
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    The types of flaws you are talking about are extremely difficult to carry through novel-size projects for several reasons. You already hit on one of them: they can hijack the plot.

    Another is reader identification. Few people want to identify closely with a sociopath. Whatever flaws a main character has, they must be outweighed by that character's strengths and admirable qualities.

  6. #6
    Alien In Disguise
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    Be careful. Flaws can make character repulsive too. Many writers seem to think *any* flaw makes the character intresting.

    Also, seek complexity. Real world example: I have a friend who is a veritable genius. He would be good template for this SFF hero in that sense. But he's terribly antisocial, no people skills whatsoever. Complexity.

    Sympathetic characters are hard to build.

  7. #7
    Just Another Philistine Hereford Eye's Avatar
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    There are flaws that characters are aware they possess and flaws they have no clue they possess. Take prejudice. There are too many people who are unaware of their prejudices though the prejudices do, in fact, exist. I suspect that every person alive carries some prejudices around and most of us aren’t aware we do. The awareness of the flaw dictates how the character responds to instances of its applicability. If aware, they react one way; unaware, another.
    An annoying laugh is a flaw that most people will be unaware they possess. A favorite phrase that seems to be the limit of their vocabulary. A need to touch or a need for space.
    Human things, not heroic in any sense. These are the flaws that make people interesting, even necessary to being able to appreciate them.

  8. #8
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    I would say "be brave" when creating a flawed protagonist. Make him or her unattractive, even unlikeable. I'm currently reading a historical crime novel set in Henry VIII's England. The novel is Dissolution, and the main character is Matthew Shardlake, a hunchbacked lawyer investigating a series of murders under the watchful eye of his boss, Lord Thomas Cromwell.

    Aside from Shardlake's obvious physical flaws, a hunchback who even if you discount his birth defect is short and slightly ugly, he is a man given to quick temper and jealousy, and at times a coward. He is part of a fundamentally corrupt political movement which has one end in mind, dissolution of the Catholic Church in England. That he knows what he does is oftentimes morally suspect yet is able to continue by telling himself, essentially, "You can't make an omelet without breaking eggs", makes it all the more strange that you can still feel for him, and hope he survives.

    I'm noticing characters from StarWars listed as examples?.. these are not characters in any real sense, and should not be used as a template. In fact if as a reader you find yourself identifying with such characters, you may want to do some soul-searching.

  9. #9
    bcitsndslkSKEETSKEETSKEET keatskeatskeats's Avatar
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    Red face wherein i make a bad joke

    Quote Originally Posted by Sparrow View Post
    Aside from Shardlake's obvious physical flaws, a hunchback who even if you discount his birth defect is short and slightly ugly, he is a man given to quick temper and jealousy, and at times a coward. He is part of a fundamentally corrupt political movement which has one end in mind, dissolution of the Catholic Church in England. That he knows what he does is oftentimes morally suspect yet is able to continue by telling himself, essentially, "You can't make an omelet without breaking eggs", makes it all the more strange that you can still feel for him, and hope he survives.
    Just think, if he was born a couple hundred years later, Shardlake would have made a good agent.

    but rilly, there should be more novels about agents being devious and seeking out The Next Big Thing (good title for a beach read~~~)

  10. #10
    Chocoholic ShellyS's Avatar
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    First, I think you need to decide what "flaw" means to you. For me, an abundance or limited amount of nearly any personality trait can be a flaw. Too much pride or too little can lead a character into trouble. Same for stubbornness. Some can be good, your character won't give up easily and will likely succeed. Too little and he gives up. Too much and he keeps going even when everyone else would retreat and he could end up hurt, dead, in jail, whatever.

    Physical flaws can have a similar effect. Take someone who has a physical disability, or perhaps a mental or developmental deficiency. Some characters will let that rule them, keep them from accomplishing things and the plot can help prod them out of their complacency. Others will defy their disabilities and push onward toward success, perhaps due to stubbornness or perhaps due to being very goal oriented.

    Personality traits don't exist independently. Each feeds into and off the others. My protag in my WIR originally didn't work because I made him too complacent, too willing to follow along and not make waves due to a big failure in his past. So, I backtracked and retooled him, just a bit, making him a bit more stubborn. Also more curious and resentful of people trying to tell him what to do. He snapped out of his complacency and started moving ahead, forging through scenes and plot points to climax and conclusion.

    And what was most fun, was that once I did this, I realized other characters were using his stubbornness and curiosity and inner need to do the right thing to manipulate him into doing what he normally would do if he hadn't been feeling a bit sorry for himself. Everything came together.

  11. #11
    >:|Angry Beaver|:< Fung Koo's Avatar
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    Thanks, all, for your feedback so far. I'm going to respond to a couple specifically, so please excuse the double-postings!

    Quote Originally Posted by kmtolan View Post
    When I served up a flaw in my MC, I quickly ran into an issue with my Third Person, Limited point of view.
    Interesting point on how the narrative POV can come into play. So in this instance, you had the flaw revealed through other character interactions in the end. That strikes me as a sensible -- the strategy I've ended up primarily employing is using my other characters to limit the exposure/effect of the flaw on the story. In many cases this does the job, but definitely not always.

    Do you find that any particular POV gives you more or less issues when it comes to flawed characters in your story? (Obviously it's all just in how you handle it -- but given that writing is a deeply personal experience, I'm wondering if you, personally, find a given POV easier than another. Right now I'm looking at several different stories that have hit major roadblocks thanks to character flaws, and there's three first persons and four third limiteds and three third omnis... so I'm all over the map at the mo.)

    A few follow-on questions: how many narrative points of view in 3rd Limited did your story contain? Just the one? If so, did your character come to realize their flaw and "get over it" -- or not?

    And, in addition to adding character interactions to reveal the flaw, is there anything else you tried as a get-around? Switching perspective to 1st or 3rd Omni? Adding a character perspective?

  12. #12
    >:|Angry Beaver|:< Fung Koo's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by KatG View Post
    All characters are flawed.
    Yes, but I'm not talking about minor flaws that mostly affect things like demeanour, tone of voice, outlook on life, etc. I'm specifically having trouble with characters whose flaws are potentially plot-destroying level -- characters with homicidal urges, ideologues, split personalities, hubris, phobias, etc.

    In some respects, the question I'm asking is akin to: How do you keep a Major Flaw from becoming a Tragic Flaw?

    Your first issue is that you're wrestling between character logic and story logic.
    Bang on. I have characters with Major Flaws that are hijacking the story. Mostly this hijacking occurs incrementally -- a little here, a little there, and 30 pages later a huge, unanticipated problems rears its head. Character logic demands one thing, and story logic demands another. For perhaps 75k words (in one example), the story and character logic flow along fine, working in harmony. But then, disaster: one of my Major Flawed characters' next logical actions would, according to the story logic, result in his death and thus prematurely end my story. What I want to know is -- (ideally) how do I get out of this bind without scrapping 50k words of my story?

    (I am prepared to scrap it if I have to, but I would really prefer not to... )

    So, a few concrete things to try from your suggestions:

    1. Assess -- What story do I want to tell? With respect to my characters, what story am I actually telling? Can the two meet somehow?
    2. Is there too much planning? Not enough?
    3. Is there an alternate version of the scene/story that could be told?
    4. Can you adjust the plot to remove the problem? Can you adjust the character to remove the problem?

    Good stuff so far. #4 is the situation I'd prefer to avoid, as some of the characters I'm referring to have been developing over the space of 100 pages or more.

    Some other things I've tried:

    1. Is there a detail/scene introduced earlier in the story leading to the problem-scene that can be modified, removed, or relocated?
    2. Can the problem-scene be told from a different character's perspective?
    3. If the problem-scene is carried to its logical, problematic conclusion, can the story continue regardless? If not, is the story that would follow more interesting or less interesting than the story that fell apart? (i.e. -- am I actually just worldbuilding? Or am I really telling my story?)
    4. Is it too early to resolve the Flaw? Can flaw-resolving elements be added earlier in the story to create an out?

    Anything else?

  13. #13
    >:|Angry Beaver|:< Fung Koo's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Jon Sprunk View Post
    The types of flaws you are talking about are extremely difficult to carry through novel-size projects for several reasons. You already hit on one of them: they can hijack the plot.

    Another is reader identification.
    OK, so I've got:

    1. Hijacking the Plot (flaw becomes dominant feature)
    2. Overpowering the Other Characters (making other characters seem weak or underdeveloped)
    3. Presentational Issues/Exposition (how do you convincingly illustrate passive/aggressive? hubris? sociopathology? autism? etc)
    4. Reader Identification (reader taste -- not a big concern for me at this point. First mission is to finish a novel-length project )
    5. Politics (again, reader taste more than anything)
    6. Masking a Weak Plot with Strong Characters

    Got any more "extremely difficult flaws to manage in long fiction" to add to the list?

    Are there any flaws that you, personally, steer away from entirely? (For whatever reason -- you as an author personally find X type of flaw difficult to imagine and therefore depict; X flaw is too repulsive; X flaw is too political; etc -- Don't worry, I won't take your opinion as "you should never, ever..." I'm just curious about how you, personally, manage the issue of Flawed Characters, not in universal rules. Just building some context to approach the issue myself with respect to my own strengths/weaknesses )

  14. #14
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    Plot flows out of character--it's not (or shoudln't be) imposed on character.

    The complexity of your character--which will, if you do it right, include a melange of flaws at all levels, some the character knows and some he doesn't--determines what kind of plot you're going to have.

    If you just want to play with plot--if you want characters obedient to plot--then what you're saying is you want tools, not characters. In that case, you will have to work backwards: given the plot you want, what character flaws make sense and will produce the actions you desire for the plot? It is possible to write fiction this way, but it's certainly not the easiest way.

    For instance, the easy way to write plot-first fiction is to make your characters very simple, the shallower and less complex the better. Then they do what you want, because they have no depth. You've already said you don't like this kind of character. To give retro-fitted characters the complexity and depth you seem to want, you'll have to plot first--sort of constructing a suit of armor into which you'll fit someone--and then, looking at the whole plot, figure out what traits in the characters will fit into the plot. In other words, your character will have plot-determined flaws, and then you'll have to figure out how to make them feel realistic--give the flaws a backstory.

    Why? Because only when character supplies the motivation for action does the story trundle the right direction down the rails. Situations by themselves are static--they do not impose action; humans behave in all sorts of ways in every situation. The determinant is character, which provides motivation for any particular act.

    If you have characters you like--that feel real to you--you might consider following where they go. If they hijack the story, maybe they have a better story to tell. It frequently happens to character-first writers, and many of them will tell you that the story is now better because they listened to the character. (And some won't say that, and for every 8 "made it betters" there will be at least one "dragged me off in a swamp and left me.")

    Something else to consider is that characters may find, partway through, that what had been their strength/virtue/etc. has become--in a new situation--a liability. Flaws and non-flaws can change value.

  15. #15
    Palinodic Moderator KatG's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Fung Koo View Post
    In some respects, the question I'm asking is akin to: How do you keep a Major Flaw from becoming a Tragic Flaw?
    Usually by shifting its course. No matter what character triangle you've got for someone, there are still always many, many different actions that character can take from it. So, for instance, you say that the logical thing for one character to do, because of his major flaw in the story, is take action that will get him killed. This seems very unlikely that this is the only action that he might take or at least take in full, or, if he took it, that the outcome absolutely has to be death for him, as opposed to near death, or death and revival, or injury or some sort of escape. Small things can change action. The astronauts on the Space Shuttle were killed by a loose O-Ring.

    This is no doubt where your contrived concern comes in. If he is somehow saved, etc., then it will seem contrived, where something seems like lucky coincidence that you pulled out of your arse. But, first off, lucky coincidences happen, as much as unlucky ones do. And coincidences can also be supported by inserting some material for it earlier in the story.

    From what you're saying about not wanting to change characters much, then that's probably going to be plot that you are adjusting, and as Ms. Moon says, that's usually the way to go. But it is also possible to adjust character without completely rewriting the person. Story people don't have to have as complicated a past life as real people, but they can. So you can have something in that person's life that effects the way the flaw plays out, and again, establish this earlier in the story. You have a homicidal maniac -- he's not maniacing all the time. Something probably sets him off, which means something else can calm him down. Frankenstein -- fire, torches, he rages; little girl with flower, aww cute. Sometimes a flaw may be completely resolved by circumstances, but it doesn't have to be just to get it out of the way.

    Also, all characters continually observe, analyze and interpret what is going on around them and who they encounter and what they say and do. They then process that data through their character triangle which then forms some sort of action, from sitting it out to dialogue to a suicidal charge. So you can also alter the data the character is getting, perhaps deliberately altered by another character, so that the character in question, in his or her decision-making, is misled with wrong data. This is not making the character suddenly dumber about data, but confused about it, and so takes an action that is very logical for the character but obviously not what the character would have done if he'd had all the facts or the right facts. (Whether the reader has all the right facts or not is another storytelling issue.)

    So you have a lot of options -- change the situation of the scene, change the plot or aspects of the plot, change the character, primarily by adding background, or shade the character, make the flaw more complex, change the data the character is getting, etc. And don't forget your metaphors to help you with all of it.

    Consider whether it might actually be okay for the story if the character dies. If it's absolutely not, then there are probably adjustment possibilities less drastic than throwing out the entire ms. You are already mulling around some of them, sounds like. But which one to try tends to again rely on what story it is that you want to tell. Because while characters often lead authors in interesting directions and are, for the most part, why we read a story, they are also tools to the story and they can be shaped. (Unless you are one of those writers whose characters utterly boss you around, in which case, have a talk with them and find out what they want to do in the blasted story.)

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