Saturday, March 24, 2018

The Flawed Hero

Felix Buttonweezer, grief stricken after the death of his cactus

Felix Buttonweezer, white knuckled sobriety a daily challenge

Felix Buttonweezer, gifted surgeoun suffering from PTSD

Poor old Felix. Someone read that heros need flaws so they give him some.
Except illnesses or states of mind are NOT flaws.

Illnesses do not strike due to faulty decisions, or lack of self-awareness, or hubris.
Grief doesn't come only to the undeserving.

CHARACTER flaws are what the main character needs.

If you don't know the difference, stop querying.

If you don't know the difference, go back to your reading and watch for what flaws the hero has, and how it affects the story. 

Start with Michael Connelly, Dennis Lehane, Catriona McPherson.
If you need a perfect illustration, Prince of Thieves by Chuck Hogan.

My suggestions are all crime novels of course. If you've got others, please use the comment column to tell us about them.


Kitty said...

Out of curiosity, I googled "character flaws," and the first thing that popped up was Writers Write's list of 123 Ideas For Character Flaws.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Okay, so I googled character flaws. Went from those of my characters to me. It took fifteen minutes for me to realize how deeply flawed I am.
Need to recline on couch and talk. Shrink with yellow legal pad and Bic (pen not lighter) will take notes.
To identify a personal character flaw is like knowing you’re allergic to milk and yet attribute your gastrointestinal discomfort and weight gain to potato chips.
Okay, back to my characters. I need to mess-em up a bit.
Where’s my Rocky Road and Wise.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Hey KITTY I saw the same list. It was so daunting I decided to self-diagnose. As usual, it's all about me.

Kitty said...

Carolynnwith2Ns... Since we're all flawed, I like to think my flaws help make me unique. Yeah, that's the ticket.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

I love Robin Hobbs for this. Her Fitz of the Fitz and the Fool books is impatient, stubborn, short-sighted, with a bad temper but we are always rooting for him. These are character flaws all of us have from time to time so they make the characters so real and draw the reader in.

Another Hobb character from her Liveship Trilogy, Malta is vain and petty, the worst of adolescent girls, defiant and niave. I hated her for the first two books but it turns out vain and defiant are traits that suit dragons just fine. It allows Malta, a teenage girl quite full of herself to well understand, Titaglia, a dragon queen who is quite certain she is the most glorious and important creature in all of existence. Without the maddeningly annoying Malta, the story would lose its magic.

Yeah, characters without flaws are boring and will not come alive for your reader. And while PTSD or OCD are challenging, they are not things a character has control over. Vain and petty can be changed, can give a character an arc, growth. Ok. I am babbling all to agree with our queen. Back to writing one last draft I swear

Colin Smith said...

Hmmm... a shrink with a lighter... setting fire to pieces of paper during therapy sessions... there's an idea. :D

Of course, the first and best place to research character flaws is within.

BTW, I'm a real writer now. I just got a story rejection. On my birthday! :D

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Colin You are a wonderful writer rejections be damned. Happy Birthday. May cake find you well and issue in another year full of story.

Colin Smith said...

Awww, thanks Elise! Yeah, it's a bummer, but I've been through the query trenches a few times, so I'm used to rejection. I just sent the story somewhere else. Maybe this one will be a personalized rejection! ;)

FirstBorn made me birthday cake when she was home for Spring Break. And she made chocolate pudding--home-made, not the powder-in-a-box stuff. *sigh* Wifey's made me cherry pie and custard. I'm blessed and spoiled. :D

Susan said...

I've been stepping away from writing for a bit this year and diving into some other studies (that I think/hope will ultimately lead me back to writing). One of the tools I came across in these specific studies was the Enneagram. It's kind of like Myers-Briggs in that it identifies personality types but the Enneagram classifies according to nine types and dives into levels of development (basic fears and desires) and our strengths and weaknesses in times of growth and strength. For example, I'm a Four--at my unhealthiest, I can be self-reproachful and self-sabotaging (all true, by the way). This is an insightful tool for anyone but it's also fascinating if you're working on your characters, especially if you're trying to figure out how their flaws might fit with their overall personality.

You can take the test here:

Colin! Let's put you to work on your birthday! Linkify, please?

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Colin Could your family possibly adopt me? So sweet spoilings. Oh my.

Colin Smith said...

Here ya go, Susan:

Susan said...

Thanks Colin!

Gah. There used to be a free version of the test. But anyone can still go to the main site and read the descriptions of the nine types.

Cecilia Ortiz Luna said...

The 123 ideas for character flaws seem to me to suggest that anything that goes three shades beyond vanilla humanity is a character flaw. It cited practicality and pacifism. So character flaws need not be negative? I've always thought that the "flaw" part connotes something that is bad, destructive or dislikeable. Maybe I read it wrong because Saturday morning.

Happy birthday Colin! Rockstar of the Reef :)

Steve Stubbs said...

Carolynnwith2Ns said...
It took fifteen minutes for me to realize how deeply flawed I am.

Wow, I envy you. I wish I had flaws. Even one little minor flaw would be better than none at all.

I guess I'll have to study Kitty's list.

And for those of you who have no sense of humor, this is a joke.

And thanks to Ms. Reid for another awesome post. It is amazing that anything as simple as writing has so many aspects.

DeadSpiderEye said...

Being perfect, I have to rely on observation to develop my understanding of, to me, the totally abstract concept of character a flaw.

Unknown said...

Cecilia, I suspect good things can be flaws if used in certain ways. Think of generosity. You can be so generous with your time that you neglect your family. Or, so pacifist that you don't stand up for yourself. So practical that you miss important opportunities that require creative understanding.

Happy birthday Colin, and anyone else with a birthday today.

Sherry Howard said...

Happy birthday, Colin!

If you write YA, John Green does character flaws beautifully. His Katharine (can’t remeber exact title) had such a flawed MC that even though I didn’t “like” the book, I had to follow this character through his journey.

OT If you guys haven’t seen the new little on-line magazine, BACKLOG, for writers, you may want to check it out. I’ve been in it, but that’s not why I think it’s great. It has wonderful aesthetics with a layout that’s really pleasant, and content that’s so helpful. A subscription costs a little, but it’s worth it! Sarah LaPolla was the guest agent in the most recent issue, which was about publicity.

Julie Weathers said...

What an interesting topic.

I have always thought it would be interesting to write a true story of Audie Murphy after the war with flashbacks to his younger life and the war. The hero is almost larger than the myth. His father drifted in and out of their lives. He was the seventh of twelve children. He quit school in the fifth grade to pick cotton for $1 a day to help support the family when they were completely deserted. She died when he was 16 and it affected him deeply.

"She had the most beautiful hair I've ever seen. It reached almost to the floor. She rarely talked; and always seemed to be searching for something. What it was I don't know. We didn't discuss our feelings. But when she passed away, she took something of me with her. It seems I've been searching for it ever since."

The authorities placed his three youngest siblings in an orphanage in 1941. He was 19 and doing the best he could, but it wasn't enough for them. He tried to enlist in the military after Pearl Harbor but all three branches turned him down for being too young and small. His sister gave him an affidavit lying about his age and he got in the army.

He, of course, went on to become the most decorated soldier in history.

After the war, he was everyone's champion. Young, handsome, perfect. Hollywood made him a star. He drank too much. He couldn't sleep. When he did it was with the lights on and a gun under his pillow. He would wake up screaming. His life was being destroyed by PTSD. He testified before congress about it. He became addicted to Placidyl and had to kick it cold turkey. His guilt over German orphans was driving him insane. He wrote poetry to deal with some of this.

He loved horses and bought some of the best Quarter Horses of the day for his Texas ranch, but he couldn't keep up with the papers or money. People were going to sue him to hell and back. (Fittingly enough the name of his memoir, To Hell and Back.) Murphy could have made commercials for alcohol and cigarettes to help with his financial mess with the IRS, but he wouldn't because he didn't want to negatively influence youth. The Scharbauers, a wealthy old money Texas family, came to his rescue and bought most of his horses including Double Bid, a foundation sire, saving Murphy from ruin.

He died at 45, a proper tragic figure.

Anyway, I think in this case, PTSD would very much have to play into the hero's story and flawed character, but maybe I' missing the point. It's entirely possible.

Julie Weathers said...

Lawsy, forgive that rambling post.

Cecilia Ortiz Luna said...

Kathy: You're right, of course. The article did say "Ideas" so I shouldn't expect it to give me the whole nine yards of what makes these things character flaws. I guess I'm still dazed from all that talk yesterday about Janet not doing the blog everyday. I'm already practicing curling up in the fetal position.

Sherry: Is it "An Abundance of Katherines?"

Julie Weathers said...


Happy birthday to you. I sent you a dancing cowboy.

I couldn't find a dancing cowgirl, but it's just as well.

You enjoy that cake and pie and pudding. Oh, my.

Sorry about the rejection.

Craig F said...

I think the biggest thing is to recognize the difference between the flawed character and the damaged character. The damaged character is so yesterday but won't die off because it seems to make for an easy query.

I think a damaged character can still be viable if you can delve into the flaw behind that damage. Mentioning the death of a spouse is not quite enough for today's market.

Some of the best flaws can be seen in the political ring. That circus seems to accentuate those flaws.

Craig F said...

Oh, happy birthday Colin

Unknown said...

Carolynwith2Ns - I don't know if you meant to be funny, but you had me giggling. As did

Julie Weathers with the dancing cowboy.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY - Colin. Sorry about the birthday rejection.

And Julie W = PLEASE do Ramble! Fascinating history.

Character Flaw...I think illness can be a catalyst for 'character' flaw and that's where maybe some of the confusion lies.

Beth Carpenter said...

Cherry pie! Oh, Colin, you will have a happy birthday, rejection or no. Enjoy!

Flawed characters: Sherlock is just a mass of flaws wrapped around a brilliant brain. Hercule Poirot is relentlessly rigid and arrogant, but subtle characterization isn't Christie's forte anyway. Tom Sawyer is conniving, disobedient, and selfish.

I'm wondering, though, if all character flaws don't stem to some extent from illness or state of mind. Is being self-centered, messy, or impatient inborn or a trait developed because of one's environment? At what point does a child move from being willfully disobedient to having a behavorial disability?

And then there's the question of what is a flaw? As I remember, Janet found a hotel guest who butted into a conversation obnoxious, while many southerners labeled him friendly. Passive and agressive tendencies are both flaws, but where is the unflawed center?

Lisa Bodenheim said...

Happy birthday, Colin. Glad you have family and friends around and you had a plan to counteract rejection.

This post and the comments are gold. I like Craig's distinction between damaged and flaw. That's a helpful nuance as I think about my characters.

And thank you Kitty and Colin for that website of flawed characteristics.

The Sleepy One said...

I've found The Negative Trait Thesaurus and The Positive Trait Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi to be helpful when I'm crafting my character's flaws and backstories. Positive traits can have negative consequences, and vice versa. The books have been useful tools when I'm deciding how my characters would react to a variety of situations (good and bad).

John Davis Frain said...

I hung on every word, Julie, so that ain't rambling by any definition.

Great discussion topic. Thanks, Janet.

Cecilia, I think a perfect example for your quandary is Javert in Les Miserables. He has traits we'd normally deem as positive (law-abiding, for example) that he ratchets up so high they become flaws. His adherence to law blinds him to common sense. That's something we see a lot in the world today too.

Two points to consider:
1) Don't confuse flaw and handicap.
2) To make your character's flaw effective, it should have an impact on the story. If your protagonist enjoys sex too much and goes to bed with anyone, that needs to get her (or him, I suppose, if you want to play into stereotype) in trouble at some point or it's superfluous.

But I'm open to being wrong about anything I say.

Cecilia Ortiz Luna said...

John: All good. Was just messing with the semantics. All my WIP main characters have flaws which directly impact the story. In fact, you can say it forms a significant part of the premise of the novel.

And yes, psychic John, one of my characters does enjoy sex too much:)

BJ Muntain said...

On that list Kitty posted, there are a lot of things that are mental illnesses. While a mental illness isn't a flaw in itself, it can cause flaws. Someone suffering from depression can self-medicate with alcohol or drugs. While addiction itself is an illness, rather than a flaw, it can cause people to make bad choices, such as delving into crime or choosing to spend money on their addiction rather than the necessities of life.

I think flaws really come down to bad choices (this is a theme with my behaviorally challenged young nephew). You choose to fight anger down or lash out. You choose to stand up to life or run away. Some of the choices are really difficult, especially if you do have a mental illness. The choice between someone getting help with a mental illness or self-medicating is not only influenced by the illness, but also by society's view of both choices.

The tendency to make a bad choice can become so ingrained that it becomes a part of that person's personality. Thus, a flawed character. But such flaws can be overcome by making better choices, thus giving room for character growth.

Amy Johnson said...

Thought-provoking post and comments! If I commented about everything I liked reading here today, I'd be far too chatty. So, I'll limit my commenting to "Thank you." Plus:

Colin: Happy Birthday! Glad you got to celebrate when your daughter was home, and glad you get to celebrate again today.

Susan: Very nice to see you here! Hope you're doing well. I'm familiar with Myers-Briggs (fascinating), and I'll check out the other tool you mentioned. Thanks!

Unknown said...

Steve - thanks for the laugh. Sorely needed today.

Melanie Sue Bowles said...

Excellent discussion... Thank you to all, especially Janet.

One of the best compliments I've ever received about the Proud Spirit books: "I love how you share your imperfections with the reader. You pull off self-deprecation with great humor." I'll never forget that. It sure made me smile.

Colin, Happy Birthday! And YAY for homemade goodies.

Julie, I wasn't familiar with Audie Murpy's history. Fascinating. And tragic indeed. Thank you for sharing.

Mister Furkles said...

"Unbroken" by Laura Hillenbrand is a great true story about Louis Zamperni. He was an Olympic champion, POW, alcoholic, depressive, and overcame it all. It's at your local library.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

MB OWEN yup I was TRYING to be funny. It's a character flaw.

Unknown said...

2ns - You Succeeded !

One Of Us Has To Go said...

Happy Birthday, Colin and sorry about the rejection.

Now you've got two Happy Birthdays from me, since I sent one earlier via DM on Twitter. Didn't know you'd celebrate it here, sorry.

Stacy said...

Well, I hear Game of Thrones is a right compendium of characters with character flaws...

Conversely, I think it's interesting when the antagonist shows a human side.

Karen McCoy said...

I like what BJ Muntain said about choices. This brings it to more of a question of "what happened to you" than "what's wrong with you."

Happy birthday, Sir Colin!

Anonymous said...

I think it's fine to have characters with emotional wounds, that's just life experience, but Janet is right that those aren't the same as flaws. A character flaw usually determines how they cope with (or not) a wound. And other stuff.

I love the Chinese proverbs that can be taken in a completely different way, once you think about them. Is it a promise of good fortune, or a warning? Like: "If you don't change your direction, you will end up where you're headed." That's inelegantly worded, but you get the gist. One of my favourites is: "The biggest mistake is never making any." So maybe we can also say: "The biggest flaw is not having any."

The thing that irritates the hell out of me is when a writer tells us a character has a certain flaw -- eg, she's so arrogant and controlling -- and then the character doesn't behave or speak or make decisions that way. At all. Like, not even close. You don't need a degree in psychology to be a writer, but I'd say a good grasp of human nature is a necessity.

Do I have to give Colin birthday wishes here even though I already said it on FB, so I don't look unfriendly? Yes?

Happy Birthday, Colin! Wishing you many many more.

Claire Bobrow said...

A very entertaining flawed character from the world of picture books is President Squid. (by Aaron Reynolds and Sara Varon). He wins the award for Least Self-Aware Squid in the ocean!

Happy Birthday, Colin!

Beth Carpenter said...

KDJames, I did that in a first draft. I mentioned how much my MC admired another character's sense of humor, and then realized I'd never had her say anything funny. Thank goodness for revisions.

Gingermollymarilyn said...

@ COLIN: Hap-happy birthday! You deserved to be spoiled :) Sorry about your rejection. That really sucks when they come on special occasions, but, you'll never know, maybe it was for the best, and it's just on its way to finding the right agent. And thank you for all that you do here.

@ JULIE WEATHERS: I enjoyed your rambling, what an interesting story, and lovely writing.

Anonymous said...

Beth, I'm sure I've done it too (which is so often true of things that irritate me). Thank god for editing and revision.

Julie, I meant to say, I also loved that rambling comment. All I knew about Murphy was the film work and that glimpse into the more comprehensive picture of his life was fascinating.

One Of Us Has To Go said...

Lisa Bodenheim:

Since you said recently that you'd love to travel more but can't (so you do that via reading stories), would you also travel "via some photos combined with short texts"?

Or does it have to be a book?

Julie Weathers said...

And that should have been all three branches turned him down. He had to get his sister to lie for him and try to pack some weight on to go back to the army.

Thank you all. Audie Murphy was a fascinating, tragically flawed man. He was trying to get his life back together. Maybe he would have if not for fog and a Virginia mountain.

Medal of Honor recipients headstones are decorated with gold leaf. He specifically requested his be left plain.

Julie Weathers said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Craig F said...

BJ, I think is the first time I have noticed but you are wrong, I think. A flaw is deeper than just bad choices. It is a kern underneath those bad choices. It is something almost ingrained in the psyche of someone that causes them to consistently make the same bad choices.

It could be the reason a person is damaged or the reason they kept doing the wrong thing until they got damaged.

There are myriad reasons for a flaw, it could be something out of balance. It could be the reason that thing is out of balance.

That list of character flaws only covers the small concept flaws. For some reason the bigger types, like Demography, Theocracy and Fascists didn't get there.

It is something more than just the choices made with a bad attitude.

KariV said...

*Annoyed because this somehow got posted on yesterday's comment trail instead of here. So sorry. Here's my 2 cents.*

Late to the party today, but better late than never.

My take on character flaws is that the flaw needs to drive the conflict or else it's superfluous. So:

Felix Buttonweezer, grief stricken after the death of his cactus - meets new cacti and must choose if it's time to move on.

Felix Buttonweezer, white knuckled sobriety a daily challenge - gets roped into a modern Prohibition movement.

Felix Buttonweezer, gifted surgeoun suffering from PTSD - is asked to treat soldiers on the battlefields of war-torn Afghanistan.

In these cases, the character must make a choice that therefore drives the story. It can make for great fiction. But just giving them flaws like grief, addiction, or PTSD to make them likeable or interesting is a No-No.

Happy Birthday, Colin!!! Mine is tomorrow!!! March birthdays rule!

Colin Smith said...

Thanks for the birthday wishes, everyone!

BTW, it was a short story rejection, not a query rejection. It still stings, but I wanted to make clear before Janet starts wondering where *her* query got to... ;)

Adele said...

I wish I knew what a surgeoun was. Even Google doesn't know.

Brigid said...

Colin, happiest of birthdays! And congratulations on the rejection--as you know, it's one more step in the process. Forward movement is forward movement, and I hope your story finds a home soon. Plus you get to drown your sorrows in pie, you lucky dog.

Richelle Elberg said...

Dexter! He takes his (major) personality flaw and tries to do good with it. I've always loved that character.

In my latest, a main character has PTSD. But it's not talked about that way, initially. He's just an ass and gets in fights and drinks. Gradually he starts to heal (a good woman!), then a new plot turn sends him way off the deep end and he lands in jail. THEN he goes to a PTSD support group. I was more focused on his evolution and reactions to the other story dynamics then the PTSD per se. And he evolves, in a lumpy fashion. Hopefully I've pulled it off.

Currently enduring the months and months it takes for the full and partial requests to be read. Every time there's a post on that topic, I just sigh....lack of patience being one of MY biggest flaws!