They have to have it: characters need flaws. But can it be too much?
The enormously successful book GONE GIRL hinged on the flaws of female protagonist Amy Elliott Dunne. She is conniving and murderous. She lies. She deceives. She is irrational. She also started a trend of unreliable narration. So she must have been doing something right.
Amy is not the first protagonist to have flaws, she is simply at the far end of the spectrum.
Think about Elizbeth Bennett. The heroine of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE may be universally admired, but she was flawed: too outspoken. Too willing to walk her own path and unwilling to do what society expected, even if that meant risking her financial stability.
Lisbeth Salander from THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO is another “Elizabeth” who is boss of her world. She has a strict moral code, which strays from mainstream life. She is promiscuous and anti-social. She is also whip-smart and key to the success of the series.
Main characters have flaws. They are also balanced. We forgive Lisbeth’s behavior because she is willing to do anything to help those she’s loyal to, and she is so smart we want to see her succeed. Cannibalistic serial kill Hannibal Lector is (partially) redeemed by his excellent manners and cleverness. How’s that for balance?
Some character flaws are in danger of being overused: the drunk divorced lonely cop, for example. Right up there with the hooker with the heart of gold.
However, flaws bring characters to life and make them relatable. They are essential.
Find the ‘right’ flaw and you will find the balance that gives a character his or her full potential.
Who are your favorite characters and what are their flaws? Any flaws you wish had never been created? (Agatha Christie certainly grew to hate some of Hercule Poirot’s! The very things that made him beloved.)
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I love the idea of balance – you’re absolutely spot on. For instance, the characters (all of them!) in Girl on the Train were so flawed, they had not one redeeming quality among them, so I didn’t want to root for any of them. Which made reading the book more of an exercise to just find out the ending vs caring about the ending.
Yes, there is a fine lone between believably “flawed” (i.e., normal, not some annoyingly perfect Pollyanna) and so completely dysfunctional you can’t turn a page without wondering why the character doesn’t just get some therapy, already?
Flaws make the characters human and relatable. The problem with Amy Dunne was she had no redeeming qualities whatsoever. I couldn’t put the book down, but I read with disgust. It left a bad taste in my mouth. Same thing for Girl On The Train (although I at least felt sorry for her). I like giving even my bad guys a redeeming quality. That’s real life. I remember my mom saying about a criminal we heard about on TV, “Well, maybe he loves his mother.” Now Lizzie Bennett and Darcy–there’s a pair to root for–flawed, yes, but oh-so-human. Great blog!