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Designing flawed characters in storytelling

Designing flawed characters in storytelling Designing flawed characters in storytelling
In this article:

    Common writing advice is to make sure your character has flaws. While this is broadly true, what makes a good character flaw is dependent on narrative, genre, and to a certain extent, taste.

    Flaws can be scary, because they’re an opportunity for the reader to dislike the main character. Some writers tackle this by giving their characters fairly neutral flaws, like being clumsy (interestingly, the clumsy character is almost always a woman or girl… we don’t tend to see a lot of brooding mafia men who drop things all the time). The thinking here is that it serves to make the character “relatable” by preventing them from being “too perfect.” However, this loops back to the “relatable” issue above. This kind of non-flaw prevents us from getting to know the characters in a meaningful way by substituting a surface-level difficulty for real intimacy about what the character’s vulnerabilities and coping mechanisms might be. 

    The other difficulty is that this kind of flaw has no effect on the narrative. It doesn’t matter to the story. The plot doesn’t change because of a character being clumsy, and they’re not likely to make bad decisions because of it. Whereas if a character’s flaw is that they tend to ice people out instead of talking about issues, that’s going to eventually create problems in their relationships, and can lead to bad decisions–and the spice of narrative: conflict

    Of course, this leads to the question haunting most writers’ minds: What if readers stop liking my character because of a bad decision they make? Most characterization problems stem from this question, and the belief that the most important quality of the protagonist is to be likeable. But if you’re afraid of having your character make a decision your reader doesn’t agree with, pretty soon your character may not be making decisions at all. A totally passive character who is borne along by the narrative can’t make decisions the reader disagrees with–but they’re also very difficult to get to know, and thus to invest in. 

    If you feel a lot of anxiety or fear about the idea of readers disliking your character, it might be worth asking yourself why that is. Do you feel reflected in your main character? Is being likable in your real life important to you? How does that shape how you feel about your characters? If readers disagreed with your main character’s decisions, what’s the worst that could happen? On Wattpad, readers love to interact with their favorite writers, and  while this is usually a wonderful place to connect, sometimes readers do sometimes share negative comments when a main character does something they don’t like. This can be hurtful, but you are always in charge of your comment space. In moments like this, it’s crucial to remember that you are in charge of your story, and your artistic vision is more important than whether or not every reader likes your main character’s every decision. If you have a clear vision, negative comments from people who don’t get it don’t hurt as much, because you are being true to yourself. 

    Good character flaws should be:

    • Meaningful to the narrative, whether through pushing the conflict forward, or through illustrating the story’s themes. The big conflictual moment in a romcom, for example, where all seems lost, is most effective if it grows out of the main characters’ established flaws. Allow your characters to make mistakes and for those mistakes to change the course of the action. 

    • Integrated into character. A good character flaw will feel like a coherent part of the character. The easiest way to do this is just to take one of your character’s strengths and extend it out past the situations where it is useful or called for. Maybe someone who is fantastic at keeping a cool head in tense, high-pressure situations struggles to articulate their emotions because they’re so used to keeping things locked down. Maybe someone who is an effortless social butterfly struggles to hear when they’ve hurt people because they’re deeply afraid of being disliked. Think about situations where your character will struggle to respond well, or where the opposite of your character’s strengths are needed, and try to integrate some of those situations into your plot. 

    • Grounded in backstory. Why is this character the way that they are? This is the unending allure of the bad boy with a heart of gold. What made him this way? What other dimensions does he have inside of him? But this is applicable to all characters. We want to know what shaped them and why they behave the way that they do. Sympathetic backstory is a huge component in winning over readers when your character makes a bad decision. Allowing us to understand why your character acts this way is one of the best ways to build sympathy. 

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