I’ll list my top two favorite female literary characters, straight off the top of my head, to start making my point:
1. Beatrice, from Much Ado About Nothing
And 2. Granny Weatherwax, from the Discworld novels by Terry Pratchett.
Let’s break this down. Beatrice is, lets be honest, a raging bitch. No, stay with me. She’s super witty, but she uses that wit to cut Benedick to shreds. It’s the whole point of the play (at least for me).
Granny Weatherwax? Hoo boy. She’s prickly, proud, tricky, cunning, manipulative, and hard-assed. Everyone in the novels knows that it’s better to have her as a friend than contemplate making her an enemy.
“I even wrote a bit underneath asking her to be a godmother,” she said, sitting down in front of the mirror and scrabbling among the debris of makeup. “She’s always secretly wanted to be one.”
“That’s something to wish on a child,” said Agnes, without thinking.
Magrat’s hand stopped halfway to her face, in a little cloud of powder, and Agnes saw her horrified look in the mirror. Then the jaw tightened, and for a moment the Queen had just the same expression that Granny sometimes employed.
“Well, if it was a choice of wishing a child health, wealth and happiness or Granny Weatherwax being on her side, I know which I’d choose,” said Magrat.
-Terry Pratchett, Carpe Jugulum
Why do I love them, if they’re so terrible? How can I say they’re my favorite, when they have such obvious, unpleasant traits?
The answer to that is also the answer to the question: Why should I give my characters flaws?
- Because they are relatable.
- Because finding out what motivates those flaws gives us (readers) a mystery to solve and we all love finding the answer to that riddle.
- Because the other characters provide the counterpoint, competition, or complement to their flaws.
- And, because the flaws provide obstacles to overcome, or a reason for that character to change/grow.
One: We like these made-up people when we find little examples of ourselves in them. It gives us a point of contact, a reason to empathize with them. We all have flaws, and we recognize that as what makes us human. That makes them real, which in turn gives us a reason to care what happens to them. Translation: we want to read their story.
Two: Beatrice is so nasty to Benedick because they have a . . . history. (When I put the . . . before, you know that means a good, juicy backstory.) Granny Weatherwax is a witch and solves problems for people, but she doesn’t want them running to her for things they could do themselves, she wants respect, and is terrified, deep down, of going to the “bad”. None of that was obvious in the first few sentences, or even the first few pages. Terry Pratchett, especially, is a genius at stretching out backstory for multiple novels, so that you’re always finding a new facet to the gems that are his characters.
Three: The best part is, your character’s flaws become one part of a tapestry that is more striking with contrasts. Beatrice plays against Benedick, which is fun, but she is also loving and devoted to her cousin Hero which gives us a reason to like her in spite of her sharpness. Granny has the wonderful, the cheerful, the crude, Nanny Ogg. The two together are comedy, while Nanny provides the new witches in the coven (and therefore us) with all the deep knowledge of Granny that seventy years of friendship can allow. Give your characters flaws, of course, but don’t forget to give them someone or many someones to work with.
Four: Some flaws can be the stumbling block keeping your characters from getting what they want. To solve that problem they might need to recognize their issues and work on getting past them, giving us character growth. The ways you can use this are many, and all good things for your novel.
To summarize: Make your characters flawsome and readers will want to keep turning pages.
Some extra reading, if you’re interested:
Post from Curiosity Quills on writing Flawed Characters
An index of some character flaws, from TV Tropes.org to give you some ideas
But don’t go too far when it comes to flaws. Here’s a post from Writer’s Digest on keeping a balance between flaws and virtues.
Do you have any tips or tricks for this? Flaws you have used in your books? Or extra reasons why you feel like characters should be flawed? Let me know about it.
cover photo courtesy stocksnap.io and Josh Byers