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Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Bitter, Resentful, Angry, Stupid?

by Nicole Petrino-Salter

We can't write flawless characters and expect a good story to be the result. How many of us are flawless? (Did you just experience a brief laugh-out-loud moment after reading that question?)

Here's the problem with writing flawed characters. How flawed is too flawed? I recently read a novel by an author I respect. I've read the majority of fiction this individual has written and enjoyed most of the books. However, the recent stories by this author have featured characters I didn't enjoy. Not even a little. In fact, the latest novel could not gin up a single character I even cared for a little bit. Not one. I don't think that had ever happened before reading this book. The story created a unique premise but the characters couldn't deliver. In the end none of it mattered.

Granted, characters assume personality types. I suppose if we don't like a certain type of person, it's logical to assume we might not enjoy certain characters with traits that mirror those type(s) of people. However, as readers we accept all kinds of characters within the pages of stories, eager to love, hate, or identify with them. I doubt we ever expect not to like a single one of them.

So, there must be redeemable qualities under all those flaws - something there for us to access our favor, even in a small way. We can handle them reacting badly - or stupidly, etc. - to circumstances, but if they sustain certain attitudes and morph into hateful or show no signs of letting up with their lousy outlooks, how long will we tolerate them? Will we quit reading? Will we wish we could?

What do you need from your flawed characters to stick with them? If it's the protagonist, what makes you give them the time they need to come around to the place where you'll end up rooting for him/her? What if it's a peripheral character? How flawed is too flawed for you?

Nicole Petrino-Salter writes love stories with a passion. Devoted to the Lord Jesus Christ, her family, friends, and pets, she's written lots of novels, only three of which she self-published. So be it.   Raw, Romantic, Redemptive



  1. Well there's an easy question. Let's flawed is too flawed? When I think of my favorite books, the protags had serious issues. Drug abuse, porn addiction, drinking, gambling, it's all there. I'm not convinced that a character can be too flawed. But we can't leave them wallowing in guilt. After all, that's kind of a pillar of Christianity. The more flawed they are, the more they need forgiveness and to forgive themselves, the more spectacular the character arc. If it's not spectacular, we have a dud. I've been reading a lot of YA lately. The common theme of popular writers is a deeply flawed protagonist. But I think that both adults and teens love a story with really messed up characters who finally come to grips with their issues and find forgiveness.

  2. I agree with Ron. Some of my fave books have severely "flawed" main characters...and some of them didn't grow much. Scarlett O'hara for one! Not to mention the Vanity Fair characters, who drove me so crazy but I loved the story. I have no problem reading a book with MCs I don't personally relate to much and still giving 5 stars for a well-written book that PORTRAYS said characters accurately. In a way, it allows me to slip into someone's head I might not have understood before. Though of course we all have our limits--I don't want to be in a child killer's head, at least not unless I know they will be stopped somehow, that kind of thing. But I love books with a more subtle character growth. I guess to me that reflects reality...we don't always change instantly. Sanctification is a lifelong process.

  3. Separate what they do from who they are. What is their "character"? What drives them? Are they martyr-ish? Do they demonstrate superiority issues? Do they maintain an empathy for other characters? In spite of what they do (their flawed behavior), why do you like or dislike them?

  4. Ditto to what Ron & Heather said. I LOVE a flawed, messy, broken character! I don't see it enough, actually.

    What bothers me in a story is when flaws aren't portrayed as flaws, e.g. the female protag who is constantly snarky or whiny. If the author shows the snarkiness as a flaw the protag needs to grow out of, that works in a story. But the protag or leading characters have to change, they have to show growth or I won't like them.

  5. Great points, Bren. Growth. Stagnant characters definitely don't appeal. Whiny drives me nuts. Arrogance without depth - ugh. Yeah.

  6. For me, good characters are likeable, first and foremost. However, they are flawed in some way (perfect isn't realistic, or likeable).* A flawed character gives the author the potential for a good character development arc - and that makes for good fiction.

    The flaws I don't like in a hero or heroine are whiney (as mentioned by Brenda) and stupid.

    * the exception to this is the character of Awesome of the TV show Chuck. Awesome was awesome - but he was a secondary character, it was a comedy, and his awesome perfection was the necessary (and perfect!) foil to the flaws displayed by all the other characters.

  7. Thanks, Iola, for weighing in. (Never saw Chuck so can't comment there.) The thing about stupid is when a character who appears to be relatively intelligent repeatedly does stupid things that create a disconnect: puts me over the edge. And, yeah, whiny just makes me mad.

  8. I can't stand whiney characters. Any character who sits around whiney instead of planning and acting, is too flawed for me. I want to root for someone who is trying. I also think that arrogant characters are unattractive.

    Great post. In every flawed character there have to be redeeming qualities--I can take a liar or a murderer if he's presented in a way that makes me sympathize and believe that he'll change and grow.


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