24.9.10

Writing Compelling Characters

I'm excited to particpate in The Great Blogging Experiment, brainchild of bloggers extraordinaire Elana Johnson, Alex J Cavanaugh and Jennifer Daiker.  The experiment is simply this: a bunch of bloggers blog on the same exact topic on the same exact day---today!  Will it be mass redundancy, or will we find each post insightful in it's own way, colored by each blogger's unique personality?  We shall see.  I'm betting on the latter.

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.

38 comments:

Katie Anderson said...

Really like this post Nicki - some great examples of good/bad characterisation.

J K Rowling seems to have appeared in a number of 'Great Blogging Experiment' posts today. Unsurprising really I suppose as she is one of the masters when it comes to creating believable three-dimensional characters!

Liz Fichera said...

Excellent post, Nicki! And what a cool idea for a blogfest. I agree with you on flawed characters. When they're overdone (or not at all), they feel false. I think LOST (the TV series) is another great example of flawed characters that you learn to love. Over time, we began to almost feel sorry for some of them as we learned their backstories--e.g. Dr. Linus.

Nicki Elson said...

Katie - Glad you liked it. Yeah, it's not surprising Rowling's characters would show up often. In addition to being well-developed characters, another reason I chose them was because they'd be well known by readers, so makes sense. Well, now that I've posted, I'm going to get going on reading some of these.

Liz - Thanks! Yes, this is a cool idea for a blogfest, and now I'm kicking myself that I didn't do a small post to advertise it earlier in the week! But it looks like it's still open for anyone who wants to hop on at Elana's blog.

I've never watched Lost! But several friends have told me that I'd love it. Now that the series is done, perhaps I'll have to get all the seasons and have myself a marathon! (You know, with all that extra time. Ha)

C. N. Nevets said...

This is not only a great caution against some mistakes that seem to plague many of us writers, especially as an overreaction to the first crit group or writing class, but superbly written.

Nicki Elson said...

Why, thank you, C.N. I'm glad you find it helpful. I think it's best to write by guidelines that give leeway for originality rather than set-in-stone rules that seem to be so popular in writing classes and crit groups.

openid said...

What a great post. This is one I'm bookmarking and saving. Thanks for the reminder that not all flaws are meant to be reconciled. I'll be thinking about that a lot today...

Shallee said...

Such a good post! Everyone always mentions characters should have flaws, but it's important to remember these rules about the flaws! Thanks for sharing.

Lola Sharp said...

I agree. Even antagonists need to have some redeeming qualities for realism.

Also, love the Docs and Chucks on your header. I was raised in the 8o's too. In fact, I wore my Smiths T-shirt yesterday. :)

I'm your newest follower and friend.
Happy Weekend,
Lola

Nicki Elson said...

openid (if that IS your real name O_o) - Nice to know this post is book mark-worthy!

Shallee - Thanks! Glad you found it helpful. Thank YOU for stopping by.

Lola - Aha, I see you have a thing for shoes. ;P Nothing like the 80s, ey? I'm so jealous of your Smith's T-shirt. Man, I was addicted to that band in college.

arlee bird said...

Good insight on this topic. All of us are shaped and our flaws have origins and have resulted in various consequences. Each character is a puzzle to be disassmbled and examined to see how and why they work and then put back together for the readers to enjoy and empathize with.

Lee
Tossing It Out

Nicki Elson said...

Thanks arlee bird. I'm glad you found my contribution to the Experiment insightful. Ooh, love the puzzle analogy.

Elana Johnson said...

Yes! You got it with reasons for having the bigger flaws, especially ones we think the MC should be able to overcome. I also like the consequence angle, but I'm sort of a consequence person by nature.

Meredith said...

Love the Harry Potter examples! You're so right that the flaws need to be realistic and acknowledged--otherwise, the character's just going to be annoying. Great post!

Carolyn Abiad said...

Acknowlegement of the flaws... definitely food for thought. I wonder if that would have helped me like Bella? Thanks!

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I agree that we can't overdo it! Nobody likes a really crappy character.

Shannon O'Donnell said...

Wow. You did an incredible job of illustrating EXACTLY what you were trying to say with your character examples. This is one of my favorite posts of the day! :-)

Your blog is very cool, btw!

Nicki Elson said...

Elana - Consequences are what help us & characters learn & grow, right? If there are no consequences, why bother changing?

Meredith - Hooray for Harry! Glad you agree with what I had to say about flaws. :)

Carolyn - Nice to know I gave you something to think about. It would be interesting to see how readers' reactions to Bella would've been different had she ever been called out on her flaws.

Alex - Yep. About the only wholly-crappy character I can stand is Bif from Back to the Future.

Nicki Elson said...

Hi Shannon,

Yay! I'm so happy that you liked my post that much. :D Extra glad I made the effort to add the examples too since you think they fit so well.

Thanks for stopping by my "cool" blog. ;)

Summer Ross said...

many of us are talking about Flaws....There must be something inside that says- they are a person if they have flaws that we can believe. Good post

Kittie Howard said...

Love this post! In my salad days, there was a couple, the perfect couple -- looks, brains, personality, you name it, they had it. Well, they ended up getting divorced. When I hit a book with good-character overload, I think of them, and, that's it, end of getting lost int he book. Have a great weekend!

Hart Johnson said...

Great post, Nicki! As you guessed, Harry Potter is one of my favorite series, too, and you used it well. I totally agree that flaws can be overdone (or stereotypical). And I LOVE learning the reasons BEHIND the flaws in supposed villains. I never came to LOVE Snape, but KID Snape, I am VERY sympathetic for (in fact wrote his mother's 'biography' in fan fiction and explored it further)

One of my FAVORITE things is when a perceived flaw turns out to be a strength--compassion saving an army, or 'hiding' putting a hero in the spot they can actually do the most good.

Melissa said...

Voldemort and Heathcliff... two of my favorite villain personas ever created. I love that you mentioned them and all of your points about flaws are just so true. I wish I had expanded more about flaws in my take on this.... Oh well, I guess its better this way because I really couldn't have done better than this.

Vicki Rocho said...

ACK! I closed the window before word verification popped up.

Loved all the examples you used! Don't tell my daughter I'm saying this (hard core fan) but I agree about Bella.

Talei said...

I agree, flaws are good but keep them under check. Interesting also that Harry Potter is on a few posts - I guess JK did something right with her series. SM with Twilight, thats a phenomenon in its own league, I agree Bella did frustrating at times but the overall love story with the sparkly one was compelling enough to keep me reading. Sometimes I just want to see if the MC overcomes her problems to win out in the end. I guess Bella was lucky that the vamps and wolves came through for her time and time again. ;)

DL Hammons said...

This was very insightful...and quite relevent! Thank you!

Nicki Elson said...

Summer - Yes, with all of us talking about 'em, flaws must be vital. Like you say, they make us "believe."

Kitty - Thanks for the real life example of perfection not ringing true. It's a poignant one.

Hart - Ooh yeah, that's great when a flaw surprises everyone and does some work. Snape is SUCH a wonderful, because I don't know that anyone ever likes him, but we are all so intrigued by him.

Melissa - Glad I could cover two of your favorite villains. :) Mine too. What's cool about this Experiment is that each of us are posting pieces of character development, and when we put them all together, we have it all!

Vicki - D'oh! Sorry about the word verification. I'm thinking about turning that off (assuming I can figure it out). Glad you like the examples, and I won't tell if you don't. ;)

Talei - The sparkly one pulled me in too. Not the love story, just the sparkly one, hehehe. You point out one thing that Meyer did well---make readers care enough about the characters to want to know how it all turned out. So even though I really did start to despise Bella during book two, I read through the gaggilion pages to the bitter end of book four.

DL - Why thank you, sir. :)

To all of you - thank you so very much for stopping by to read my post. I totally dig The Great Blogging Experiment. Have a fabulous weekend!

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

These examples are sooooo good and really show where compelling comes from (or doesn't). ;)

Sharon K. Mayhew said...

Yep...characters have to have flaws...both main characters and secondary ones....

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Hey Nicki! Thanks for offering to post for me on October 19. My tour schedule is already overfull, including several days where I am double booked, so I don't dare include any more stops. I'd be happy to do one question though. I'd send you purchase links in addition to what is posted under CassaStar on my blog, but I can't locate your email address. Mine is alexjcavanaugh AT earthlink.net. Thanks!

Nicki Elson said...

Tricia - Thanks! I'm glad you like the examples.

Sharon - Good point about the secondary characters.

Alex - I'll e-mail ya!

Elizabeth Mueller said...

Wow, you really hit it right. I know what you mean. That's when believability comes into play, like you said. I've read books where a lord in scotland was all that, the characters cowered. The author endowed him with so much power, but something was missing. He didn't feel real to me at all and I rolled my eyes with the way others acted around him. I closed the book and laughed.

What about appealing to the reader's emotions by detailing my MCs's emotions? Could I over do that? *Cringing here!

Come and visit me!

Nicki Elson said...

Glad my points made sense to you. You hit on something here in your comment too---eye rolling. When I reread my work, this is a question I ask over and over---will readers roll their eyes at this? If I think the answer's "yes" it's gone or heavily revised.

stickynotestories said...

I really like the idea that it's not enough to give your character flaws, but that your other characters should call them out on it too. Not that my secondary characters have EVER had a problem calling out my MCs on their flaws (they revel in it, sometimes) but it's the first time I've ever realized that it's necessary.

Thanks for the post!

Nicki Elson said...

Cool, stickynotes! Glad I could give you something new to think about.

Nicole Zoltack said...

Loved your examples! Harry Potter were excellent books and the characters so well defined. And completely agree with you on Bella. Ugh. Don't get me started.

Nicki Elson said...

Hi Nicole,
A Harry lover and a Bella hater---VERY nice to meet you! ;) I just love it when people agree with me. A lot of us ended up using Harry Potter characters in our posts I think for the very reason you say---they are so well defined.

Thanks for stopping over!

Sandra Ulbrich Almazan said...

Good analysis on how to make flaws work!

Nicki Elson said...

Thanks Sandra. I'm glad you enjoyed the analysis. The Experiment was a great idea, huh?