For a list of participants in The Great Blogging Experiment, click on the link to this post at Elana's blog and scroll down. Much thanks to Elana, Alex, and Jen for setting all of this up.
The topic: Writing Compelling Characters.
It's well established that fictional characters should have flaws. It makes them real and therefore relatable. And getting readers to relate to a character is imperative if the character is to be compelling. But even the flaws have to be done just right. If we don't follow certain guidelines, we'll end up with someone who is just as obnoxious, grating, and despicable as the all-too-perfect character. So I dedicate this post to adding my two cents on guidelines for "perfecting" flaws.
First: Don't overdo it. Just like no character should be all perfection, no character should be all flaw. Even the villains need some redeeming qualities.
Lord Voldemort (from the Harry Potter series for anyone who's new) was one of the most evil characters ever invented, but he had admirable qualities in his power, skill, intelligence, and leadership. It made his tyranny more tragic, because he could have done so much good with his assets.
Another nearly pure-evil character is Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights. His redeeming quality was his love for and allegiance to Catherine Earnshaw. Sure, this love and devotion became a psychotic obsession that infected the lives of several innocent people, but the sentiment itself was nice.
Second: While small flaws are part of all of us and require no explanation, there has to be some kind of reasoning behind the larger flaws. Not that these reasons are an excuse for the behavior, but if the flaws can be understood, readers will sympathize.
Let's look at Severus Snape, one of my all time favorite characters (again from the Harry Potter series if you didn't know...where have you been?). He's a nasty, greasy-haired jerk-off through the entire series, but piece by piece we learn more about his sad, lonely childhood and his tortured teen years, and suddenly, icky old Professor Snape has an adoring fan base.
Third: The flaws have to at a minimum be acknowledged and preferably have consequences.
Scarlett O'Hara of Gone with the Wind fame was a horribly flawed individual---selfish, spoiled, conniving, disrespectful, stubborn---and that was acknowledged throughout the book by other characters and more importantly, by the author. The flaws were intentional and never defended or glossed over in the narrative. And boy, oh boy, did Scarlett have consequences to her pig-headed refusal to live life by anyone's rules but her own.
Now I get to vent a little and give you an example of a character that in my opinion was very poorly done---Bella Swan from the Twilight phenomenon. She described herself as plain and nothing special, but obviously was anything but because it seemed every male she came in contact with became immediately smitten with her and most of the the females wanted to be her BFF. As I read along in the series I realized how incredibly self-centered and false she was, and it nearly drove me insane. Then it hit me that this shouldn't bother me at all. Because I like flawed characters, right? And Bella had two big flaws that were entirely believable considering she was a teenager. So what was my problem?
Well, it turns out that it wasn't my problem at all. The problem was that no one ever acknowledged these flaws. Not one character and certainly not the author. Rosalie gave her a hard time, but it turned out that was only because she was jealous of Mary Sue, I mean Bella. As a matter of fact, when Bella's behavior was at its absolute worst, her vampire boyfriend jumped in to tell her how amazingly wonderful and unselfish she was. These flaws were not intended. They were the byproduct of a poorly developed character.
Were there consequences for her living her life so selfishly? That's a good one. Nope, she got to skip off under a nauseating rainbow into fairyland. Now, the series was and still is insanely popular, so obviously the author did something right. But writing a compelling main character was not it.