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Thursday, January 21, 2016

Making Flawed Characters More Palatable

Jennifer Slattery writes soul-stirring fiction for New Hope Publishers, a publishing house passionate about bringing God’s healing grace and truth to the hopeless. She also writes for Crosswalk.com, Internet Café Devotions, and the group blog, Faith-filled Friends. When not writing, Jennifer loves going on mall dates with her adult daughter and coffee dates with her hilariously fun husband. Visit with Jennifer online at JenniferSlatteryLivesOutLoud and connect with her on Facebook.
Making Flawed Characters More Palatable

Our characters must be authentic, but there’s a fine line between real and palatable, especially when dealing with bitterness and anger. We all act like jerks at one point or another, and so will our characters. The trick is to balance their more abrasive side with likeability. 

This was my challenge with Tammy Kuhn, the heroine in Intertwined. Abandoned by her husband for another woman, she was angry and left scrambling to hold on to her career while raising her children by herself. Plus, his behavior toward her and their children throughout the novel was less than honorable.

If in her situation, most of us would react… strongly. But in my effort to make Tammy real, I also made her unlikable. Because understanding why a character does something and admiring them are entirely different things. Strong characters need flaws and heroic attributes.

Give your flawed characters someone to care for

For Intertwined, this came naturally as my main character was a mother who loved her children fiercely. The trick was making her bitter less self-focused and more protective. Readers have more grace for a yelling Mama-bear than they do for a screaming, embittered woman.

Another example is Katniss from the Hunger Games. Had Suzanne Collins created a surface level character, we’d be left with a self-defending killer. And the series would’ve tanked, because though most of understand why someone would kill to survive, such behavior isn’t admirable. However, because she fought to save her sister and the people in her district, Katniss became a hero. The author gave Katniss hero qualities in the beginning, before we’d developed distaste for the character.

Show the emotions behind the behavior

This is where an author needs to dig until they uncover the vulnerable and good, revealing this in a way readers understand. Show a character’s interpretations, thoughts, and perceptions, in an authentic way—that’s where the challenge arises. Most of us react without understanding why. But regardless of how self-aware your characters are, you know. By placing clues throughout the novel, you can help your reader decipher motivations as well. 

Use secondary characters to reveal POV’s psyche

 My main character in When Dawn Breaks responded to fear and pain by lashing out internally. He called certain adults names in his head. The social worker who ripped him and his sister away from his mother became Ferret Face. The woman in charge of the group home he was sent to became Skin Flapper. I did this because teenagers reveal sorrow through anger.

Unfortunately, one of my early readers didn’t understand and developed negative feelings toward this character. I knew I needed to find a way to reveal the why, but I had to do it in a way that was authentic. So I had the character slip with his tongue and call the social worker, an adult trained to understand childhood trauma and behavior, a name. When he apologized, she said she understood he was merely hurting and lashing out at those he believed to be causing his pain. This gave context and meaning to his harsh behavior.

In both stories, I was able to use present authentic yet unpleasant behaviors without causing my reader to turn on me.

What are your thoughts on this subject? What are some ways you create authentic characters will realistic flaws and struggles without losing their likeability? Share your thoughts in the comments below, because we can all learn from each other!    

Abandoned by her husband for another woman, Tammy Kuhn, an organ procurement coordinator often finds herself in tense and bitter moments. After an altercation with a doctor, she is fighting to keep her job and her sanity when one late night she encounters her old flame Nick. She walks right into his moment of facing an unthinkable tragedy. Because they both have learned to find eternal purposes in every event and encounter, it doesn’t take long to discover that their lives are intertwined but the ICU is no place for romance….or is it? Could this be where life begins again? 

2 comments:

Tami said...

Hi Jennifer, thank you for the great post. I've just finished the first draft of chapter one of my wip and you've given me some valuable insight into why my character will do some of the things he will inevitably do later in the story. As a pantser, I don’t work with an outline but I do have 'scenes' that I know will come later in the story. Now I realize that I have to show why some of these will happen or the readers may hate me, the hero or probably both of us.

Jennifer Slattery said...

Hi, Tami,

I'm so glad you found my post helpful! Best of luck with your story! Sounds like you're heading in the right direction.