As a writer, I’ve often heard about the trap of creating a character who’s too perfect. They don’t seem human and can often come off flat and boring. If there’s no room to grow, then where’s the story going? On the other hand, creating a flawed character is a tricky business. With a few notable exceptions, readers want to root for the protagonist, so they must be likable. Sometimes we may want to shake them, but they aren’t so irredeemable that we want to shut the book.
The best protagonists walk this line with flair and originality. Below are the lessons I learned from some of my favorite, classic authors on how to create characters whose flaws are an integral part of what makes them compelling.
Make a Flaw a Secret Strength
Jane Eyre – Jane Eyre
Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre is one of my favorite novels of all time because of the wonderful heroine at the center of her story. Jane has a temper, railing against the unfairness she encounters with her family and at her horrible boarding school, rather than accepting her lot quietly, piously and passively like a good little girl. It’s this fighting spirit that makes Jane so lovable to the reader and her love interest, Mr. Rochester. She is also uncompromising in her values, leaving the man she loves when she finds out that he’s married, even though she wants to stay with him. This stubbornness almost costs her happiness and even her life, but when she manages to take a risk at the end of the story, her reunion with Mr. Rochester is all the sweeter for knowing how hard it was for Jane to turn around and come back to him.
Counterbalance Flaws with Self-Sacrifice
A Tale of Two Cities – Sydney Carton
Charles Dickens knew how to paint bright spots of humanity even in its darkest hour, and Sydney Carton is the best of his creations. A cynical, alcoholic and depressed character at the beginning of the novel, Sydney is completely transformed by his love of a woman to give his life to save the man she loves. His story wouldn’t be nearly as compelling if he was better man. It is overcoming his flaws, or achieving true goodness in spite of them, which makes this story one of those that stays with you forever.
Choose a Flaw People Can Relate To
Hamlet – Hamlet
There are dozens of wonderful Shakesperian examples of flawed heroes to choose from, but Hamlet stands out as one of the characters who strikes a chord with many people. His fundamental goodness – loyalty, courage and committment to the truth – are undermined by his flaws – his indecision, pride, and depression. He’s a character that you simultaneously root for and want to shake. Every time I read the play I find myself somehow hoping that his final demise can be prevented. He’s a character that has taken root in my brain as a reminder that good intentions without action can be disasterous.
Let Your Character Revel in their Flaw
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – Lisbeth Salander
Perhaps this isn’t quite a classic, but I couldn’t end this post without mentioning Lisbeth – a violent, anti-social vigilante with an obsession with revenge and justice. What’s not to love? Stieg Larsson did an incredible job created a complex, multi-layered heroine whose flaws make her more lovable, rather than less. She’s tough, able to take down men three times her size, but also vulnerable, a woman alone who only knows how to turn to herself when she needs help. Watching her kick butt is gratifying and riveting.
Who are some of your favorite examples of delightfully flawed heroes and heroines?