Faults, Flaws, Fears & Failings: Why We Love Imperfect Characters

With final edits completed on The Shadow of Memory, the fourth book in my Kate Hamilton Mystery series, I can now turn my thoughts to the pleasurable task of creating new plots and new characters. I love this time in the writing process—a time when all paths are open, anything can happen, and my characters can be anyone I choose.

That’s why my ears perked up when I read a comment in one of the Facebook reading groups I follow—this one focusing on British crime fiction. One reader wrote (and I paraphrase): “While I read all the Charles Todd books, I prefer the Inspector Ian Rutledge series. Bess Crawford is just too perfect.” The comment stopped me in my tracks because I love the Charles Todd books, too. And even though I’d never consciously thought about it, I also prefer the Ian Rutledge series. Why is that?

For those who don’t know, the New York Times best-selling author Charles Todd is actually a mother and son writing team, Charles and Caroline Todd, who set their books mainly in England during and after the First World War. The Bess Crawford series features a nurse who saves lives in the field hospitals of France and often finds herself drawn into the personal lives of her patients. She is bright, resourceful, kind, and courageous. In contrast, the Inspector Ian Rutledge series stars a Scotland Yard detective who is recovering from physical and psychological wounds suffered in France. As commander, Rutledge was forced to execute Hamish, a young Scottish soldier who refused to follow orders. Then an explosion buried Rutledge alive with Hamish’s corpse. Rutledge survived, but as he returns to his duties at the Yard, he is haunted by guilt and struggles with “shell-shock,” what we now call PTSD.

Why am I drawn to Ian Rutledge more than Bess Crawford? I think it’s because readers love flawed characters. We may not always admire them, but we’re drawn to them. We remember them. Think Macbeth’s vaulting ambition or Gatsby’s tragic illusions. Think Miss Havisham or Sherlock Holmes or Lisbeth Salander, the girl with the dragon tattoo.

Here are five reasons why I believe readers are drawn to flawed characters:

1. We identify with imperfection.

Every human being has faults and struggles. No matter how hard we try to get things right, we all make mistakes. We all screw up. This is what it means to be a person, to be a real three-dimensional human being. Who can identify with a perfect character? No one. Creating realistic characters means giving them the full range of human traits, including fears and deficits. Otherwise, they become robots—and even Star Trek’s Data could be an insensitive know-it-all.

2. Old wounds deepen the backstory.

All stories begin in medias res because every character has a personal history, and that personal history determines how that character will behave in the current crisis. What are her irrational fears, and how were they formed? What past traumas impact his outlook on life and therefore affect his behavior today? What secrets must she hide? What internal conflicts will hinder the protagonist and cause him to make mistakes? Take Arthur Conan Doyle’s eccentric and dysfunctional private detective, Sherlock Holmes. Will the new case relieve his depression and keep him from the opium pipe? A protagonist may be a terrible role model, but sympathizing with a character isn’t the same thing as liking them.

3. Inner fears and faults ramp up the conflict.

Conflict in a story can be external and plot-driven—will Frodo overcome the evil forces against him and get the Ring to Mordor? Conflict can also be internal and character-driven—as Frodo battles those evil forces, will he succumb to the Ring’s temptation? Conflict in a story raises the stakes. Internal conflict creates more ways things can go wrong.

4. Flaws create opportunities for change and growth.

We all cheer for the underdog. That’s what makes Forest Gump such a sympathetic character. Readers are attracted to characters who change and grow, who face their fears and move forward. This reminds us that the world isn’t black and white and that no one’s destiny is set in stone. That gives us hope for our own lives.

5. Flaws create interest.

Character flaws create an unpredictability that keeps us turning pages. Perfection is boring. In fiction, characters without flaws are sometimes called Mary-Sue’s or Gary-Stu’s. Perfect characters are physically beautiful, loved by everyone, humble, nice, caring, wise, and idealistic. They never change because why would they? They’re already perfect. They don’t drive the plot. They simply react—perfectly. Ho-hum. Do we really care? Without flaws, there’s no character arc. Without a character arc, there’s no emotion and therefore no attachment to the story.

One more question: can flaws be taken too far? I finished Gone Girl, but by the end, I felt like throwing the book across the room.

Are you drawn to flawed characters? Can a character be too flawed?

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  1. First, I love the Inspector Ian Rutledge books. Second, I’ve read some books where the character is very flawed and dark. For me to enjoy the story, there has to be some chance at redemption—some lightening of the spirit.

  2. So right, Eileen. Even the bad guys should have one admirable character trait. When my Scottish grandmother spoke about a really horrible neighbor once, she said, “Well, at least he loved his mother.” No one is all bad or all good, right?

  3. I also finished GONE GIRL without being invested with any character—they could all get their own. Seems like even in a den of thieves, it’s best to give the reader someone to root for.

    1. My thought at the end of the book was, those two shouldn’t be allowed to have children. While I did want to know what happened, that certainly wasn’t satisfying. And yet well written.

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