Tuesday, June 15, 2010


Girl with cigarette-- 1925--Agnes Goodsir 1864-1939 I think that, as a writer, I spend a lot of time thinking about my protagonists’ strengths.

What are they good at? Where do they excel? How can I play to their strengths?

I’m sure that most writers do that. After all, our protagonist usually has to save the day. How else can our battle be won or our mystery solved, or our character’s love interest bewitched?

But most people have a major flaw: something that could bring us down if the wrong person knew about it.

Mine is my impatience. Since I’m frequently in a hurry, I’m more likely to make a mistake. Or get irritated when I’m stuck on hold waiting for customer service.

Character flaws can be really useful tools. Mostly because they create conflict for our character.

If our character has something that really, really bugs them? Then naturally we’re going to use it. Even a small thing could produce a little stress in a scene. So we can have our impatient character running a little late for something important—like a flight—then stick her in a long ATM line or in a traffic jam. We’ll make the reader just as anxious as the protagonist that they make it to the airport in time.

What if the flaw is something more than that? What if it’s in the category of fatal flaw or more of an Achilles’ heel? The kind of thing that falls in the Seven Deadly Sins category. So you could have a basically good protagonist, but their flaw is a pretty big one. This flaw could affect the way the character reacts to an event or how they approach a problem.

It gets a little sticky, because we don’t want our readers to lose respect for our protagonists. But what if we do have a protagonist who makes a (big) mistake—cheats on their wife or husband, becomes furious and says things that they shouldn’t have said that get them fired from a job or disowned or un-friended? What if their pride is their downfall? What if they’re so envious of a friend or a family member that they can’t have a normal relationship with them?

These types of flaws—lust, wrath, pride—can take our protagonists down and create conflict for our plot.

But how far can we go with it? (In my genre I can’t take it very far.) How bad can we make our characters before our readers aren’t cheering them on anymore?

How flawed is too flawed?

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