Today’s post is written by regular contributor Susan Bearman.
“In writing, you must kill all your darlings.” — William Faulkner
There’s debate about whether Faulkner really said “kill your darlings.” And if he did, was he talking about editing out beautiful, but superfluous words; or was he talking about how we treat our characters?
We’re all guilty of falling in love with our own writing. It’s an occupational hazard. Who would want to write about a character you didn’t like, or at least find compelling? Given the amount of time you spend with a main character (MC), it’s important to feel a real connection.
But there is danger in liking your MC too much. Here are some things to keep in mind when trying to create memorable characters.
Perfection is Boring
There’s a little bit of autobiography in everything we write, and it’s human nature to try to revise history to our own advantage. When creating a character, we are recreating some aspect of ourselves and it’s tempting to make that character perfect.
But perfect is boring, and boring is fatal when it comes to a main character. As readers, we are far more likely to identify with the follies and foibles of our favorite characters than with the things they do well. Forget perfection. Turn yourself into an armchair shrink and get your MC to open up about all his secrets. Keep investigating until you find his fatal flaw—that one character trait that will get him into trouble every time.
Good fictional flaws should be more than superficial. They should be genuine and difficult to overcome. Good flaws tend to be more psychological than physical, although they can certainly have physical manifestations.
I’m not much of a gamer, but I was thrilled to discover the Dark World RPG Demonic Renaissance website, which has compiled a great list of character flaws. Bookmark it for future reference, and have fun trolling through this magnificent collection of human frailties.
Up the Ante
Sometimes, our characters are like our children. We want to protect them, or at least let them learn from our mistakes. But just like children, characters need their own experiences to become fully developed. They need to make their own mistakes.
So, take off the training wheels and let your character go. Your job isn’t to make her ride smoother, just to set her on her path. Be her shadow, not her savior.
“Find out what your hero or heroine wants, and when he or she wakes up in the morning, just follow him or her all day.” — Ray Bradbury
If you’re not sure what your character wants, try taking something important away from her. Stick an obstacle or two (or ten) in her path and see how she reacts. Let your reader become part of your character’s journey. With each stumble and fall, the reader will become more vested in your MC’s quest.
Look for Universal Truths
The autobiographical aspects of fiction don’t usually represent actual events or people, but rather the feelings we had about those experiences and encounters. One of the great joys of writing (and reading) fiction is that it allows us to go places we’ve never been before. The facts come from research, but the truth comes from feelings, and different life experiences can produce similar emotions.
Your job as a writer is to tap into the feelings you have had in your own life, and recreate them within your story so readers can experience them right along with your characters. This takes practice. Get out your notebook and take a journey back into your own life to re-experience the events that produced the most profound emotions. You’ll probably discover that first experiences are often the most memorable.
Ask yourself how it felt to do something for the first time?
- to ride a bike or drive a car
- to go to school
- to fall in love
- to leave home (or come back)
- to see your newborn child
- to bury a loved one
- to fail
- to embarrass yourself
- to take a risk
Note what you did, but more importantly, note how you felt. For example, let me share some things I remember about the first time I went scuba diving. After a few weeks of training in an indoor pool in Chicago, I did a 90-foot dive in the clear, warm waters off the coast of the British Virgin Islands. The pool experience was nothing like the open-water one. Here are some of the distinct memories of the feelings I had during that dive:
- disorientation, easily losing my sense of up and down, left and right
- alien in a completely strange environment
- intrusive; afraid to touch anything
- hyper-aware of my breathing
- small, insignificant, and vulnerable
- agile, able to move freely in all directions
- part of something bigger and grander
- alone, even with 9 other divers
- in a time warp, where time seemed to move more slowly while I was submerged, but to have elapsed more quickly when I resurfaced
I don’t write science fiction, but if I did, I would have a lot to draw on from that event. But those feelings aren’t limited to a fantasy world. There are plenty of everyday experiences when a character could feel some or all of the sensations I felt that day.
One Size Does Not Fit All
No real person is all good or all bad. We each have the capacity for love and hate, generosity and selfishness, maturity and childishness. To be well-rounded and believable, our characters must be equally complex. When cooking up your main character, you want to add more than one flavor into the mix.
Your character may be kind to his clients or coworkers, but a tyrant at home. Your plot may affect they way your character behaves. Stress can bring out the best or worst in anyone—sometimes both. Try different stressors to see how your MC reacts.
Try not to be judgmental. Different personality traits serve us in different ways at different times. Introverts tend to renew themselves by drawing inward and looking for time alone; extroverts will refill their emotional tanks by seeking the company of others or going out into the world. Neither is right or wrong. As a writer, you need to understand what replenishes your character’s reserves and what depletes them.
It’s just as important to flesh out supporting characters. A one-sided villain is not nearly as credible as one who shows complex, even conflicting emotions and behaviors. If a supporting character doesn’t seem to be working, try inventing a backstory so you can understand her motivations. She can still be villainous and make wrong or evil choices, but she won’t seem as flat to your readers.
This doesn’t mean to fill your pages with the minute details of every character’s childhood. It means that you need to understand each character and why they do what they do, so you can make them real in the eyes of your readers. A character chart can help you get to know your character better. There are plenty of examples online, from simple to extremely detailed, or make up one of your own.
Like our children, we don’t love our characters any less when they do something wrong. We love them more, because they are just like the rest of us.
Join the discussion
Ashley Prince says
I couldn’t agree more. Perfect is boring. I love giving my characters flaws.
One thing that I have to be careful of when I’m writing my characters is making sure that I don’t over do their flaw. For instance, my MC in my current WIP has body image issues. Almost every time she looks in mirror, she wishes she saw something else. But I just know that I have to be careful and space out those instances, otherwise readers might think she’s too one dimensional.
Great, great post!
Cathryn Leigh says
I like that you included Villinas. Just the other day I took a look at mine.
However I do need to work on my male MC… aside from his devotion to the female MC he doesn’t have any other flaws, and I think he might need one or two.
thankd for the link to the list. that shall serve me well! :}
The link you provided on the character flaws is really great! Thanks for sharing them; I can make my characters’ lives more colorful.
Excellent post, Suzannah & Susan! Thanks for sharing. My editor recently told me, in the sweetest way possible, that I was in love with my MCs, and that I needed to increase the pain in order for the novel to go that extra step. She’s right–I knew it immediately–but how to fix it? Your article has just given me some excellent ammunition (and yea, that list of character flaws is BRILLIANT) to work on my revisions. Thanks!
Thanks for sharing the resources above and for reminding us of how important substantial, believable flaws are to creating an engaging character. The list of flaws is great because it includes traits we don’t think of when we are creating our characters. And you are certainly right about any autobiographical component to our characters preventing us for making them truly flawed.
Dianna Zaragoza says
Thank you for this blog – your advice is so helpful. I love that list of character flaws. I can already see how I’m going to use that.
Mathilda Wheeler says
I think too when characters are vulnerable, the reader likes them more, but if the character is too perfect, we kind of hate them (just like the popular girl in 7th grade). Great post. Thanks!