Friday, May 11, 2018

Grief as character flaw

I’m still thinking about the character flaw post from March 24. I understand grief isn’t a character flaw, but I’m thinking about grief as a part of someone’s backstory. The character who keeps rattling around inside my brain is Darth Vader.

I'd say he has many flaws, but the biggest ones are his explosive temper (or tendency to overreact in general) and that he is easily manipulated. So when he is grieving the loss of a loved one (or even anticipating the loss of a loved one), his flaws really shine through in those situations.

I know he is not the hero (well I guess that depends on your perspective) and I know a novel written in 2018 should have more complex characters than one that originated in a movie from a few decades ago. But I’m wondering if the issue is just mistaking grief as a flaw, or is it also that characters dealing with grief/ptsd has been overdone so we should be staying away from it in general?

And no, I do not have a Vader-esque character in my WIP who I’m now super worried about, why do you ask?

I'm glad I saved this question for a while because a tv channel recently broadcast the Star Wars movies (in chrono order I think) and I got to see parts of the first three movies (the ones I'll always think of as first anyway.)

I'm going to take issue with your assertion that Darth Vader's character flaw is his explosive temper. I think it's his impatience. Remember Yoda talking about Vader being impatient with how long it took to become a Jedi and thus being sucked into the Dark Side?

However, I do agree with  your overall point that grief is backstory, and illuminates character.  I also think grief/ptsd are overdone, and unless there's some new twist in how it's presented in the book, it does feel old hat.

And in the larger perspective: I think character flaws are the parts of ourselves that we often think of as strengths. Vader's impatience means he acts quickly and decisively. That can be a good thing, particularly if you're leading an army. It's a good thing if your kid is about to run into traffic. Impatience is a not a good thing when you're teaching a two year old how to tie their shoes.

I'm well known for plain speaking. I think of it as a strength. Some call it brutal honesty. Others have different phrases, not all of them complimentary. I've had to learn to temper that part of myself. Writing conferences are the best example. Plain spoken brutal honesty is NOT the correct choice for talking with  a novice writer showing her first work, a memoir of her difficult life and hard won survival.

In fact brutal honesty here is the absolutely wrong choice.
I had to learn that lesson more than once, to my everlasting shame.

Think of your own flaws. There are some you wouldn't change, aren't there? Those are the ones that are interesting.

I'm always drawn to complex characters who do the wrong thing for the right reason, or even better, the right thing for the wrong reason. Characters who are perplexed when people don't understand their "pure motives."

Telling me a man has PTSD from the war (any war) doesn't tell me much about him. When you say a man is scared to be part of a family because his PTSD manifests itself in ways he's afraid will teach a child to think of the world as a scary place, that illuminates character.

I think the question to ask as you build characters is whether something is an emotion (fear) or a flaw (impatience). Everyone has emotions. They're not right or wrong. What we do with them, how we act upon them, that's the good stuff.


Steve Forti said...

"Think of your own flaws. There are some you wouldn't change, aren't there? Those are the ones that are interesting."
I never thought of it quite like that. I like it.

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

I don't know, I think Darth Vader is a fairly complicated and compelling character (as is his grandson, Kylo Ren, though there were a number of interesting things they could have done with him).

Grief and anger and fear and frustration are things that drive people. Trying to figure out what they take pleasure in, and what they're proud of, is another dimension.

Timothy Lowe said...

"how we act upon them, that's the good stuff"

Good stuff indeed. Agency is one of the most important aspects of your characters. Good to keep in mind, not always easy to get on the page.

Lisa Bodenheim said...

I remember, along time ago, one of my coworkers had her annual job review and that particular boss told her she needed to work on her stubbornness!

Talk about a two edged character quality. At its worst, stubbornness can be labeled pig-headed, bull-headed, maybe even defensive. But stubbornness also shines through as tenacity, persistence.

Sherry Howard said...

I'm always drawn to complex characters who do the wrong thing for the right reason, or even better, the right thing for the wrong reason. Characters who are perplexed when people don't understand their "pure motives." JANET REID

Quote worth remembering.

Margaret S. Hamilton said...

Your blog about PTSD not being a character flaw really threw me. I did enough freewriting to think through how the condition affects the character's actions and enhances her true flaw: mule-headed stubbornness.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

A question for the group about character development beyond grief and flaws – how much physical description do you need? My characters do not see themselves the way the world would see them – as the way we see ourselves is seldom the way others look at us. I spend a lot of time on psychological development, all the complexity that twists the human condition. However, a couple of my readers say they want to know more about what the characters look like from page one.

I do not do that because POV- the character telling the story isn’t thinking about his/her physical appearance. I have also heard multiple agents, editors, writers advise leaving the vast amount of physical appearance to the reader’s imagination.

I tend to sprinkle in physical characteristics only as they matter to the story – one character is short and this allows him not to hit his head on the top of a cave while his friend has to stoop to crawl through for example.

Few of my POV characters think about how they look at all. Instead, I rely on esoteric characteristics like physical strength or lack thereof (trying to climb a cliff but lacking coordination and strength to manage, for example.) I doubt it matters that the character is 5’10 with brown hair that grows thin and long as he will fall from this cliff into the ocean and he can’t swim.

How much effort should be put into physical appearance in the introductory paragraphs surrounding a new character not related to other drivers? How much heed do I give my beta-readers that want to see the character from page one?

PAH said...

I don't comment often, and this is a little off topic... but this sentence in the OP's question really stood out to me.

" I know a novel written in 2018 should have more complex characters than one that originated in a movie from a few decades ago."

Why? What special chemicals have entered our drinking water in 2018 that makes us oh so superior to story tellers of the past? And do you expect the novels of 2048 to have more complex characters than the novels we're all writing today?


Stacy said...

Speaking of PTSD... one of the best ways I've seen PTSD written into a character is the first season of Justified, with Raylan Givens. He clearly had PTSD, but it was written into his character in such a way that his choices stemming from it (and his character flaws) often drove the plot. And it was close to what veterans have described PTSD actually being. It's a form of damage. Raylan was a bit of an a-hole, but you got a clear sense of WHY he was an a-hole. And that made his choices seem justified (ha). If you're looking for a way to infuse PTSD into a character, I'd be hard-pressed to think of a better example to emulate.

Stacy said...

Why? What special chemicals have entered our drinking water in 2018 that makes us oh so superior to story tellers of the past? And do you expect the novels of 2048 to have more complex characters than the novels we're all writing today?

I took OP's comment to acknowledge that writing has changed and made some advances since then. And it has, I think.

The Noise In Space said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
The Noise In Space said...

I think in this case grief is just the situation that brings out the flaw, rather than the flaw itself. In fact, if you just watched the original trilogy, you might not even know he is grieving, which wouldn't be the case for a true character flaw--those are present much earlier.

(also, #TeamMachete. Release order is good, chrono is okay, but I am a staunch proponent of Machete order.)

Brenda said...

EM Goldsmith: I do the same. I try to leave as much of my protagonist’s appearance up to the reader’s imagination as I can. I think it makes the reader identify more strongly with that character. I tend do be more detailed with my antagonist and with dogs, and I’m somewhere in the middle with minor characters, drawing their outstanding features with a few (often scathing) strokes. As I only have one book (out of five) with a female protagonist that means that I’m often describing female minor characters while leaving a male protagonist undescribed. Is ‘undescribed’ a word? Anyway, I’m uncomfortably aware of the gender imbalance in the work I’m editing at present, because a second male character doesn’t even show up until chapter four and a likeable minor character doesn’t show up until chapter six.
Most of us have read formulaic books that describe all men in terms of their height, eyes, and clothes and all women in terms of their face, clothes, and breasts and I dread falling into that trap. I believe that it’s lazy writing but I digress.
Perhaps description depends on the role that your character is playing. I say give your readers a taste, as long as it’s not your protagonist, and try to restrain yourself from rapsodizing over the pets.

Brenda said...

In regards to Darth, getting inside his head must have been a blast for the writer.

KariV said...

As writers, we want to shoot for character flaws, not caricature flaws.

The problem with a lot of novice writing is those flaws as presented in caricature form rather than any real character development. The reason the plot exists is *because* someone has PTSD vs someone runs into a interesting set of circumstances and has to face them as a fully fleshed person who just happens to struggled with PTSD and how that manifests itself.

We can all put our hands up and say we've drafted some weak characters who are really only caricatures. Dig deeper, flesh more, bring them to life in the book and they really will become more than the sum of their fears.

Megan V said...

Think of your own flaws. There are some you wouldn’t change, aren’t there ?

A few years back I got into an emotional argument with someone. There was something I said that kind of astonished me at the time and has stuck with me ever since.

“I enjoy my differences, whether other people like them or not. Who I am shouldn’t come with a stamp of approval.”

I don’t know why I blurted that out at the time. But I think what the Shark is saying is absolutely true, there are some flaws that we value and it’s those flaws that make a character interesting. In terms of Vader, i’d say he is both hotheaded and impatient , but also envious and later entitled. He has a desire for power, knowledge, love. A desire to do as he wishes. Freedom from control. He believes because of his strength he should have everything he wants. And his impatience make him more susceptible to taking shortcuts to get what he feels he is entitled to have.

Craig F said...

I have always thought of flaws as having an internal drive. Those things forced upon a character are not flaws.

The addiction flaw is the same for sex, drugs, or gambling. The backstory is in how it became focused on that particular form.

Those things thrust upon a character are also backstory. This is best sprinkled in as the story moves along. These things can color how a character views a certain situation.

Julie Weathers said...

I'm going to write a blog post about Stonewall Jackson today if I can get the fortitude to do it. Yesterday was the anniversary of his death. He was a truly tragic character. He adored his mother and presumably his father. His father died young. His mother was taken advantage of and her inherited property was left deeply indebted. She finally had to sell the family home and lands to pay off creditors and take in sewing to support her children. She remarried, but the man hated the stepchildren and abused them. She died not long after due to childbirth complications and her lawyer husband buried her in an unmarked grave and farmed the children out to relatives.

Jackson was abused more, but finally found a type of happiness with one uncle where he went to school sporadically and mainly educated himself by borrowing books and reading them by the light of pine knots at night. He traded reading lessons to a young slave for the pine knots. It was illegal to teach slaves to read in Virginia at the time.

Somehow he managed to get a recommendation to West Point where he struggled because he was poorly educated, was poor, gangly and awkward socially. His classmates, of course, let him know he didn't belong there. He managed to graduate 17th out of 59 and peers said he would have been top of the class in another year because of his sheer determination.

He lost a child and a wife he loved deeply. Remarried and lost another child. It seemed he was to have no happiness. He insisted wherever he was stationed on setting up a Sunday school for blacks free and slave and he and his wife taught the school and taught them to read. He was brought up on charges at least once for it. I've read his letters to his wife and others and I am astounded at the serenity he maintained throughout life.

With his history, he would make the perfect sullen, mean, vindictive character, but somehow he rose above it to find peace and happiness in life. Much of that peace, I'm sure was his devout faith in God. A person can find peace through their faith, but you have to walk through the valley of anger and hurt to get there. It isn't automatic.

Emotions are what breathe life into a character and turn them into people. However, the writer has to do something with those emotions. They have to serve a purpose. There's nothing more boring than a character who is just a bundle of emotions unless it's Blanche from the old Bonnie and Clyde movie. She might have a reason to be emotional, though.

Does anyone remember the story Great Expectations and how a woman's grief over her abandonment twisted her life?

Unknown said...

Thanks to the QOTKU for some great advice. And I believe it was TNT because I caught some of that run as well :)

It's weird, I think Vader is both complex and really simple. I mean for the first one and three-quarters movies he is just your regular evil villain right? Only later did we learn he was more complex.

It's also worth noting that the original trilogy is highly regarded whereas the prequels (aka a trilogy that is purely backstory)... well I'll just say they aren't as highly regarded. It was great to learn more about young Vader and it's interesting to rewatch the originals with this new knowledge. But in book form, maybe the prequels would be the part you write for yourself to understand the character but then leave out of the actual novel.

Elissa M said...

I think one of the biggest character flaws someone can have is seeing personal flaws as virtues. As Lisa Bodenheim pointed out, I'm not stubborn, I'm tenacious. Since nearly all flaws can be seen as a virtue in a different light, I like to have my characters' inner selves see the virtues, while the reader can see the flaws. Then I might throw in a twist where a character discovers their flaw(s) and over-reacts, causing new problems.

To me, what makes a character complex is a mix of flaws and virtues. What makes the story is how those flaws and virtues influence the character's choices.

Gigi said...

Hmm, maybe I'm just reading the wrong books, but PTSD overdone? I feel like I'm longing for good PTSD rep (and have actually been asking around for those books for the past year or so).

But perhaps you mean a specific lens of PTSD? I do think I've seen a lot of dudes-with-war/police work-PTSD and PTSD that mostly manifests as addiction and/or violence.

But the actual stats are that women are more likely to have PTSD and that's something I think I've seen quite a bit less of, especially when said PTSD is manifest in ways that don't involve self-destruction.

I've definitely seen some characters (especially in crime fiction) with PTSD that manifests as violence and volatility, but I'd love to see more PTSD characters who handle their symptoms in a different way (so if anyone here has suggestions, please send them my way!). I have CPTSD and know a number of other people with CPTSD/PTSD and I can only think of one who has had anger issues/violence issues related to the diagnosis.

So now, typing it out, I guess I agree - I have seen a lot of PTSD, but only through one specific lens and it's a lens that doesn't reflect my own experience, so that makes it feel under-repped.

Julie Weathers said...


" I know a novel written in 2018 should have more complex characters than one that originated in a movie from a few decades ago."

Why? Complex characters have been written throughout the ages including movie characters.


Regarding character descriptions, it varies with author and reader. I like lush, but not rote character descriptions as a reader. Give me something fresh and I don't mind if the description is scattered out a bit unless there's a reason to give a lasting first impression. You don't have to go on for paragraphs to set a an image in the reader's mind. Not every character needs a description. I describe one character's horse as much as him because whenever he shows up it's usually with unwelcome news and his horse is identifable from a distance.

Nothing is right or wrong if it works.

Julie Weathers said...


I wouldn't mind seeing more PTSD if done right. Not everyone who has it is a timebomb waiting to go off and I'm a bit sick of seeing this depiction on tv and screen. When my youngest son decided to go to college one of the professors made a speech the first day that if there were any military people there or vets they could just go ahead and leave. He wasn't putting himself and his students in danger because they might just go off the deep end some day. Stop putting vets on potential terrorist watch lists and stop portraying them as homicidal maniacs.

Not everyone who has PTSD is a walking menace to society. Most just simply need some help and help comes in different forms. For many, a service animal means all the difference.

A friend on twitter posted a phone call from one of his friends. They were the last words he heard from him. He needed help. The VA was turning him down and told him his private insurance would have to take care of it. His private insurance wouldn't help. Could Joey help him somehow? The friend gave up shortly after that and killed himself.

Officially, they say 22 vets a day commit suicide. The rate is much higher because some states don't report veteran status on suicides.

Rant off.

Sam Mills said...

Ooh, ooh, character descriptions! (and flaws, I'll tie it back in)

I looove getting descriptions, but I don't mean just hair color/eye color/height. Our physical appearances affect how we are treated by other people, and our personalities/histories affect how we *react* to that treatment, so a character's appearance (and how well they fit/diverge from the expectations of the community they're in) ought to feed in to their attitude and mannerisms based on the personality traits you've given them.

Examples: A very tall, broad-shouldered fellow might unconsciously try to shrink himself so he doesn't intimidate, or might loom over people to bully. A woman with big teeth might cover her mouth when she laughs if she's self-conscious, or might be more charming because she doesn't. Anybody who has obvious ethnic markers might proudly accentuate or embarrassedly minimize them--or more likely, vary depending on who they're with. Even if your entire cast has the same race/culture/fitness/abledness/general appearance/school uniform, they'll find things to nitpick about one another because that's just what people do. The trick is not to fall back on lazy stereotypes or make people one-dimensional based on a single trait.

Appearance can feed into character flaws, too, not in the evil-eyebrows-mean-evil way, but in the ways we do anything to fit in, or anything to stand out, or whether we're prone to resentment/aggression/defensiveness/vanity/whatever in response to treatment by others, or the ways we craft our clothing to either make impressions or be invisible... etc etc the sky's the limit!

Sorry to ramble, this is my FAVORITE part. :D

Kate Higgins said...

I love character development. The right character writes himself and the story at the same time.

One of my favorite exercises as I write is making and adding to my character sheets.
There is always some "character" on the Ferries to Seattle that has the perfect flaw, vice, demeanor, irritating or endearing mannerism or attribute that I haven't thought of. And I also sketch them if they have a certain look.
I wonder if I get wildly successful if I can deduct the ferry fee as research?

CynthiaMc said...

PTSD is not a character flaw any more than diabetes or pneumonia. It's a diagnosis.

There is a National Center for PTSD with the DSM-5 criteria listed for anyone who wants to learn more.

Anonymous said...

I don't see Vader's flaw as impatience so much as ambition fueled by impatience and arrogance. I find it interesting that the same description fits Luke (also dealing with grief and loss), only in his case the traits are framed as positive. But I'm one of the few people who hasn't seen all the movies, so . . . grain of salt.

EM, you wouldn't describe characters by how they see themselves, but by how others see them. Non-POV characters might make some remark upon first meeting that paints a picture of the POV char. I'm a BIG proponent of minimal/no description, but there's more to description than the physical. My current ms has this (one reader said they could picture Lady C perfectly, even though I never describe her):

[Zoey] stepped into the room, filled with pricey antiques and the kind of uncomfortable stuffy furniture that would satisfy even a Regency matriarch, and thought it suited Lady Creighton admirably.

"Hello, Liz. Enjoying the ball?"

The woman's chin rose impossibly higher. "I don't care for you, Ms. Prescott."

"It's not my job to be likeable, Lady Creighton. Forgive me if I'm not devastated."

My favourite character description is this one from Jenny Crusie's Welcome to Temptation. Yes, there's physical description, but that's not what makes an impression. It tells you SO much, about both characters:

He had broad shoulders, mirrored sunglasses, and no smile, and Sophie could hear ominous music on the soundtrack in her head as her heart started to pound. His fair hair shone in the late-afternoon sun, his profile was classic and beautiful, the sleeves of his tailored white shirt were rolled precisely to his elbows, and his khaki slacks were immaculate and pressed. He looked like every glossy frat boy in every nerd movie ever made, like every popular town boy who’d ever looked right through her in high school, like every rotten rich kid who’d ever belonged where she hadn’t.

My mama warned me about guys like you.

Crusie, Jennifer. The Jennifer Crusie Collection (Kindle Locations 463-467). St. Martin's Press. Kindle Edition.