Once upon a time there was a princess who was beautiful, kind and generous. Princess Yawn had many friends and much wealth. One day she traveled to another country and met a handsome and courageous prince who fell madly in love with her. Prince Dull was a great scholar, a mighty warrior and fearless leader. Despite his toughness on the battlefield, he was compassionate, thoughtful and romantic whenever he was with Princess Yawn. He loved children and wanted nothing more than to marry Princess Yawn and have many heirs with her. And so they got married and lived happily ever after.
If this were the summary of a book you were thinking of buying, would you put it in your cart after reading that synopsis? No matter how handsome the man on the cover— and no doubt, Prince Dull is a fine-looking man— I’m guessing you’d pass on this book. It has no pizzazz, no intriguing twist, nothing to make it interesting. The characters are just too…perfect. Now think about the books on your keeper shelf. What was it about those novels that endeared the stories to you and gave them keeper status? More than likely what stayed with you from those books was the characters. I'll bet you my lunch money those characters started their journey as flawed individuals with enough sympathetic traits that you rooted for them despite their faults.
Flawed doesn't mean your hero must be dark, tortured and riddled with angst. Nor does it mean you heroine has to be a sharp-tongued witch or too stupid to live. Balance, as with everything in life, is the key. A character needs traits the reader can love (Things like courage, compassion, and a sense of humor) along with some trait that will be a stumbling block to the character in reaching their goal (Think fear of commitment, self-doubt, workaholic, etc.).
Why? Because perfect people are boring! Perfect people with perfect lives have no conflict, and conflict is the fuel that drives your story. Perfect people are already at their zenith and have nowhere to go. Why do you read a book if not to follow a character on a journey of growth and discovery? Readers want to see characters struggle, learn and earn the right to a happy ending. A flawed character who must overcome their faults, who must learn to change and face their fears is far more interesting (and realistic). Make your workaholic re-examine his priorities and learn that balance, sharing his life with his family, or leaving his job for a life of adventure is the way he'll find true happiness.
Once you've decided what your character's flaws will be, show the audience these flaws by putting your character in situations, crises, and relationships that force the character to make choices. Push your character into corners and make them battle their way out. How your character acts in difficult circumstances or when faced with change shows the reader who that character is, what they're made of. Challenge the character's self-concept. Give your character reasons to break out of the box he's lived in to that point and push the boundaries. What will your character do when face with choosing between a business meeting with an important client and being at his recently-orphaned nephew's championship baseball game? Let your character flounder and make bad choices sometimes and have to suffer the consequences. Isn't that how real life lessons are learned? Through a series of setbacks and small gains, your flawed character will grow and learn and be a different (and better!) person by the end of the story.
Now that your character has changed, force him to make a sacrifice in order to prove they've learned, grown and earned their happily ever after. This sacrifice can be giving up a preconceived notion, a bad habit, a grudge that has hindered them since page one. The sacrifice can be big if it fits the story they can risk their life to save someone, give up a job or a lifestyle or a cherished possession but make it personal and relevant to this character's conflict and growth. In the last pages, give your character their just reward. Be it happiness, true love, fame or fortune, they've earned their happily ever after!
If you’d like to learn more about creating flawed and interesting characters and how to take that flawed character through a growth arc, I’ll be teaching “Perfect People are Boring” at the end of this month as an online class. If you're interested, email me for details at bcornelison AT comcast DOT net. In the meantime, comment below to tell me a favorite flawed character from a memorable book. Happy reading, Beth Cornelison
Rita Award finalist Beth Cornelison made her first sale to Silhouette Intimate Moments in June 2004 and has gone on to publish many more books with Harlequin/Silhouette as well as other publishers. Cornelison has presented writing workshops across the United States, and she currently lives in Louisiana with her husband and son. You can read more about Beth and her books at http://www.bethcornelison.com/