Sorry, this should really be a touching post in which I confess some sort of horrible flaw, redeem myself, and cause you to have empathy with…well, with whatever I decide you need to have empathy with today. Writing is all about manipulation, after all, even when you use honesty to do it.
But instead I’m going to go all analytical on you. I was complaining to someone that I have no “heart” as a writer, that I have no idea what “heart” is or how to write it and thus certainly couldn’t give a @#$$%^& presentation on it…but what I could do was discuss flaws in an analytical fashion. Apparently that counts as “heart,” so I’m testing out the ideas here. I’m deliberately not using heart-tugging techniques here. That seems like cheating. This is a craft post, dammit, not a tear-jerking essay…
But to get down to it:
There are several ways that we have to deal with flaws as writers:
- The flaws in our work.
- The flaws in our writing process.
- The flaws in ourselves.
The first would be something like, “My endings tend to be train wrecks” or “I have slow middles.”
The second would be “Every time I switch to a new setting, I have to fight against writer’s block” or “I am so concentrated on perfection that I delete more than I write.”
The third is the hardest to deal with.
- What if people who read my work don’t like it…and act like it reflects on me, personally?
- What if I write about sex and people look at me funny?
- What if I write about main characters who behave in ways that are immoral or unethical? Won’t people think I think that way, too?
- What if I haven’t lived a life of adventure/romance/etc. and can’t write about it convincingly? What if I want to write about someone fundamentally different than I am–am I deluding myself into thinking I can pull it off?
- What if I just want someone else to take care of all the problems so I can write? What if I can’t handle being a professional writer?
We all have flaws. We all have fears, desires, biases, prejudices–irrationalities–apathies–blind spots. We can either spend our writerly lives trying to work around them, hide them, overcome them–or we can use them.
From time to time the advice “give your characters flaws” comes up. If you write perfect characters–those tend to be boring. Most writers have heard this and heard this and heard this. But what flaws, and how big should the flaws be, and when should they be introduced?
I recently rewatched Harry Potter 3 with my family. In that movie, which is my favorite one, Harry Potter is a bad kid. He sentences his aunt to death for insulting his mother–it isn’t just an accident that he blows her up; it’s that he refuses to try to fix it or call in outside help to do so. He’s an attempted murderer. And yet he’s our hero.
Katniss from Hunger Games is intolerant, rude, and looks down on everyone who dares to be nice to her–except the one guy who’s more or less like her dad. Even the little sister she claims to love is too weak and foolish to be able to take care of herself, in Katniss’s view.
Take a look at your favorite book, the one that’s lasted you through the years: more than likely, the main character starts out as something of a turd (and may or may not improve after that). Mine are the Alice in Wonderland books: she runs away because she’s bored and solves her problems by throwing tantrums. (Works for movies, too–Luke whines about having to contribute to his family, whines about being shoved into the friend zone, whines about having to save the world…in fact, his major change in Star Wars is that, for one freaking second, when he fires the missiles into the Death Star, he stops whining. OMG! A freakin’ miracle!)
The main question isn’t, “Should characters have flaws,” because great characters do. They have huge flaws. Scarlett O’Hara? Huge flaws. Sherlock Holmes? Pass the cocaine while I insult you, old chap. The list goes on and on, more limited by my ability to come up with 1001 characters at the moment (Aladdin was a dick…Wolverine, what an asshole) than a lack of memorable characters with flaws. With a great character, it’s almost like the flaw is more important than the redeeming characteristic.
However, the reason that we, as readers, aren’t really overwhelmed with how crappy our beloved characters really are, is that these characters are presented from the inside. Sherlock Holmes isn’t an unemotional asshole…he’s a very smart man. Katniss Everdeen is a jerk to everyone around her…but she knows it and is uncomfortable about it, and is even, at times, sorry. Alice is a complete and utter brat with no attention span…but she’s really just reacting to the nutzoids around her. Aladdin just wants to make a buck (off a supposedly helpless old person). Wolverine lashes out at everyone…but his past…oh, his past…
And so on.
What has this got to do with point 3?
Where do you think those flaws come from?
As a writer, it’s often easier to start with what you know. ”Write what you know.” You don’t need to stop there, of course, or else a lot of great books would never have been written. But you might want to start there–with the flaws that you know.
It turns out I write a lot of characters who think too much and who get lost in their own worlds. Maybe not the grandest flaws in the world, but something to start with.
Do people judge me for it?
The answer that I’m discovering is that yes, they do (mostly in blog posts)–but they will almost always give me credit for honesty. You’ll never get credit for satire; you have to be very careful about it, and I have a fairly dry, satirical wit; I’ve been called a racist before because I’ve written from the POV of a racist who thinks himself above racism. Satire is tricky. But honesty, taking ownership of one’s flaws in the most naked way possible–that, people can respect (although they may try to fix the flaws for you, which, really, is kind of sweet).
So write those nakedly flawed characters, because mostly we’re okay with that. Yes, you have flaws as a human being. But like ladies flocking around a bad boy in a romance, those might be the parts that we like best about you.
All right, now for extra dorkiness…I’m trying to work on marketing (see previous post), so I’m biting the bullet here and saying…if you found this post inspiring or at all helpful, why not check out my nonfiction short book How to Fail and Keep on Writing: Kill Your Excuses, Combat Naysayers with Facts & Figures, & Mail Your Stories Like a Pro? You can find it on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and more…
WHEW. And I didn’t have a heart attack or anything. Thanks!