Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Flaws Are Awesome

Character flaws? They're awesome!
"Human beings can't see anything without wanting to destroy it. That's Original Sin." - Philip Pullman, The Golden Compass

"You are the Special. And so am I. And so is everyone. The prophecy is made up, but it's also true. It's about all of us. Right now, it's about you. And you... still... can change everything." - Phil Lord & Christopher Miller, The Lego Movie

I was recently asked in a class, "How can I simultaneously make my character flawed and yet lovable? Aren't flaws usually dislikable parts of a person? Like someone who's too jealous? Or too greedy?"

It's a good question. But a better one would be, "How does my character's flaw make my character lovable?"

A sympathetic character won't hurt anyone other than him or herself. In hurting him/herself, a character who is his or her own worst enemy is ironic: a character with the most to learn - and is the most fun to watch as he/she undergoes rich conflict to perform the learning.

The Godfather's Michael Corleone - he destroys his family to "save" it.
The Shawshank Redemption's Andy Dufresne - he lands in hopeless situations repeatedly to bring hope to his fellow inmates.
Star Wars's Luke Skywalker - his anger at Darth Vader threatens to destroy everyone he holds dear.
Dallas Buyers Club's Ron Woodruff - those he detests the most are the ones he must befriend in order to save himself and others.
The Lego Movie's Emmet - his low self-image jeopardizes the entire world.
A Clockwork Orange's Alex - his drive to victimize render him into the ultimate victim.
Groundhog Day's Phil Conners - thinks so highly of himself that no one else thinks highly of him.
Harry Potter becomes powerful enough to rival Voldemort - but will his anger and despair drive him to make the same murderous decisions to retain that power?

Here are some questions to ask yourself about character development:

How has your character felt that he/she "missed the boat" on something? What does he/she regret?
What does your character cling to a little too hard?
What does your character take for granted?
Is your protagonist in a funk when the story starts? Why?
Is there an injustice that your character suffers? Is it an actual injustice? Or is it only an injustice from her/her point of view?
What makes that (perceived) injustice relatable?
What or who is the biggest loss your character has ever suffered?
What makes your character likable? And dislikable?

Flawed doesn't mean evil: it means human. It means relatable and universal. Further, a character who overcomes his/her flaw doesn't become a perfect person, but he/she can become perfect for the situation, perfect for handling that which threatens what they hold most dear. Becoming is always more engaging than being and the only characters who have a direction in which to become are those who start as troubled.

You don't have to watch a film to see this in action. Look at any celebrity or politician scandal of the past day (missed today's? There will be more tomorrow). Why are these stories so popular? Celebrity meltdowns and the indiscretions of politicians remind us of something. Those who we put atop pedestals are not that much different from ourselves. As they fall, there is a corresponding elevation - this omnipresent idea that in some way, we're all the same.

A character who learns how to overcome his/her flaw attracts attention like a lightning rod. A new character stands in the place of their old self, who has been destroyed. Destruction means change. It means new life. And that's ultimately good news for your character.

When an audience member projects him/herself upon your character onscreen, or a reader imagines him/herself as the protagonist of your novel (either of which would be ideal for you), you've reminded them of something about themselves. If your character is victimized, a reader/watcher recalls himself or herself as a victim. If your character experiences the healing joy of a long-coming reunification, your audience should feel that, too. We experience the highs because we know the lows, and we experience the lows because we're experts on the highs. We've lived them both, after all. By the same token, to accept a complete character at the end of your work, your audience must be familiar with the character as incomplete. As flawed.

Really, as themselves.


  1. "Flaws" can lead to a miriad of wonderful opportunities.
    Especially, when they are used to help others.