Flawed Characters Can Be Too Flawed

Frankenstein_monsterI wanted to chuck the book, but it belonged to my friend. I wanted to quit reading, at least, but he promised me the story would get better. And he was right. Had he not convinced me, I would have missed out on one of my favorite series, Stephen Donaldson’s The Chronicles Of Thomas Covenant The Unbeliever, because the main character acted heinously.

First, the protagonist, Thomas Covenant, was a sick, sad man. He had leprosy, a disease that few understood and fewer tolerated. He was isolated from society, and to a degree, isolated from himself because his illness destroyed his nerve endings, robbing him of the ability to feel. But one day, he fell into a parallel world where he was no longer sick. Believing that what he was experiencing was not real, he did a horrible thing. He raped a girl who had befriended him.

See why I wanted to chuck the book? Thomas Covenant was not someone I liked, and I really didn’t want to keep reading about him. I know of people who, in fact, did stop reading and never picked the book up again.

The point is simple. To be believable, characters need flaws, but if their flaws overshadow their higher nature, readers may not care enough to continue on the reading journey with them.

As Angela Ackerman put it in her February 2014 Writer’s Digest guest article, “When Flaws Go Too Far: Avoiding Unlikeable Characters”

There is a tipping point for flaws, however. A bit too much snark or insensitive internal narrative and the character slips into unlikeable territory. Too much surliness, negativity, secretiveness or an overblown reaction and the reader will disconnect, frustrated by character’s narrow range.

I’ve had occasion more than once to read a novel written in first person–which is fine, except I didn’t care for the protagonist. The character was either too whiny or too morose or complained too much or thought ill of his colleagues all the time or was focused on her own cares to a point of distraction. Especially in a novel in which the reader must live in the character’s head for upwards of three hundred pages, an unlikeable protagonist is a problem.

But a story is about character development–how a person changes. Does the young boy learn responsibility, does the woman allow herself to love again, will the hero find the strength within to over come? These are storylines which demand a character grows or admits failure.

The point is, the story begins with a young boy who is irresponsible, a woman who is cold and stand-offish, a weak person thrust into a situation requiring strength. In short, the story starts with a character in need because of his flaw.

How, then, is a writer to portray this flaw without making it fatal for the book? How can a broken, warped, imperfect character still be someone who engages readers?

First, the character’s flaw must have an understandable reason for existence. Who hurt the character or failed him or bullied him? Who used her or betrayed her or demanded more than she could handle? If readers understand why a character acts badly, often they will be inclined to tolerate more.

Furthermore, if the character’s flaw is a result of his own suffering, readers may be willing to forgive him and hope for change.

Showing the character’s backstory provides his motive, including for his flawed actions or angsty attitudes. The key to using what happened in the past in this way is to treat it like any other bit of backstory. It must not be delivered up front or in lengthy paragraphs or presented in a speech. It must serve the plot. It must only be delivered when readers are ready and want to know what happened before. (See previous posts on Backstory).

Besides giving reasons for a character’s flaws, another way an author can keep those from overshadowing a character is by counterbalancing them with winsome traits.

Ackerman explains:

no matter how impatient, uptight, angsty or spoiled your character is, hint to the reader that there’s more beneath the surface. A small action or internal observation can show the character in a positive light and should happen in the first scene (frequently referred to as a Save The Cat moment.) It can be a positive quality, like a great sense of humor, or a simple act that shows something redeeming about the character.

A-Cast-of-StonesRecently I read The Staff & The Sword fantasy trilogy by Patrick Carr. The story opens in book one, A Cast of Stones, with a character, Errol Stone, who is drunk. He, in fact, is the main character, and he isn’t just drunk on that one day. He happens to be the town drunk. How is a character with such an obvious and dominating flaw to be someone readers care about?

First Carr showed other characters–ones who were in respected positions in the story–who sympathized with Errol Stone. They even did all they could to help him. Some provided him with work, some allowed him a place to sleep off his drunk.

They also acknowledged his value and identified an area in which he excelled beyond anyone else in the village. In other words, readers see through their eyes that Errol has value.

Further, Errol Stone suffers beatings at the hand of the local pater, ostensibly to cure him of his public drunkenness. Very soon it’s clear that Errol is suffering unfair ill treatment.

Fourth, Errol faces a life-and-death surprise attack and shows by his wit and agility that he has skills a reader can admire. The reader learns there’s more to him than his addiction.

This latter hints at one of the points Ackerman mentions: if a character faces hardship, readers are more willing to be patient with his bad behavior. However, his reaction to hardship must give some reason to believe he can conquer what he’s up against.

If the hero has a rough road ahead, the reader makes allowances for his behavior, as long as he doesn’t wallow in gloom and doom. It isn’t hardship that creates empathy, it’s how a character behaves despite that hardship, giving us a window into who he really is.

Errol Stone not only survived an attack, but the next day his quick thinking and decisive action saved the lives of two other men. Clearly he was more than the town drunk, and I for one was cheering for him to overcome on many levels. Patrick Carr had made sure that his flawed protagonist didn’t fail by being too flawed.

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5 Comments

Filed under Character Developmet, Characters, Motive

5 responses to “Flawed Characters Can Be Too Flawed

  1. It’s not just unlikeable characteristics that can seep through the POV character’s voice. (And not just in first person; the sort of tight-third that I prefer to read gives the reader the POV character’s internal monologue just like first person, but not in quite as strong a dose.) I’ve read a book (The Magic of Recluce) where a major internal problem the main character needed to work through was boredom … and that came dangerously close to rendering the novel boring. (It also doesn’t help that the author, L. E. Modesitt, Jr., likes to write scenes where the protagonist and main POV character isn’t present in the present tense.)

  2. Excellent thoughts for writers in any genre, Becky!

  3. Thanks, Normandie. I always appreciate the encouragement.

    Becky

  4. Absolutely true, Jonathan. The character’s personality, likeable or otherwise, ought to permeate the POV character’s voice. When it is “otherwise,” though, the author needs to handle the writing carefully. I agree also that the close third person, especially if there are not multiple POV characters, can be nearly as problematic. I don’t think this is unique to me, based on the reviews I’ve read and the books I’ve discussed with others, and the critique I’ve received of my own work–a character that portrays more unlikeable qualities without giving the reader some reason to see beyond his flaws, is a hard character to care about and therefore to keep reading about.

    And a story in present tense, delivered by a POV character who isn’t present? That sounds just wrong! 🙄

    Becky

  5. In Modesitt’s books, except one series that is entirely first person and never shows us anything that character doesn’t see, there’s one primary POV character and either one or a handful of secondary “POV characters” (sometimes villains, sometimes quasi-neutral leaders who are reserving judgment). Scenes with the protagonist are told in the past tense, in a fairly close third person, including thoughts as appropriate. The other scenes are told in a fly-on-the-wall or camera-eye third person and in the present tense.

    Oh, and some of his books—I think the Recluce prequels, and just those—are told entirely in the present tense.

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