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Making a protagonist both sympathetic and flawed

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Jabrosky, Jan 4, 2014.

  1. Jabrosky

    Jabrosky Banned

    I'm in the process of outlining a novel, but I am having some difficulty fleshing out my main characters. Especially the protagonist. I know what motivates her, what her story's central conflict is going to be, and a bit about her backstory, but I struggle with assigning flaws to her personality. I really want this heroine to be sympathetic, but I worry that giving her flaws or making them too prominent will make her too unlikeable. On the other hand I believe that knowing how this character will grow and overcome her flaws over the story's course will help me fill out the middle act. How do you balance a character's likeability with flaws?

    EDIT: Never mind, I think I know what to do now. Putting more thought into my character's backstory and upbringing might shed some more light on my character.
    Last edited: Jan 4, 2014
  2. Malik

    Malik Auror

    My main character's flaws are the most likeable part about him. But then, my wife says the same about me. You write what you know.

    My MC's flaws -- like mine -- are a result of his backstory. Think about it: your backstory is who you are. It's what drives you. It's what makes the audience care about your main character. You'll have to know more than "a bit about her backstory."

    One of the things in A Song of Ice and Fire, love it or hate it, is that in any other book, nearly every character that Martin introduces so elaborately would have been a spear-carrier / Star Fleet Red Shirt. Martin took incidental characters -- people who advance the plot but not the story -- and fleshed-out their back story, making us care about every last one of them. Of course, that's why it's a series of 800-page doorstops, but I digress.

    Backstory is everything. Flesh it out enough and the story writes itself.
    Jabrosky likes this.
  3. A. E. Lowan

    A. E. Lowan Forum Mom Leadership

    Characters are just people who happen to share space in our heads. That's how we approach them. Flaws shouldn't always be something to overcome by the end of the book - after all, do you expect to have your own flaws recognized and overcome by the end of an episode in your life, or even the end of life itself? Just like everyone, flaws are an intrinsic part of what makes a character, a person, who they are. And flaws are not necessarily something that is obviously bad. They can be virtues that are carried to an extreme, as well. Flaws are what make our characters whole individuals.
    Jabrosky likes this.
  4. Nagash

    Nagash Sage

    Flaws make characters likable, since they are what make them realistic. For human readers with a bunch of flaws of their own, flawed characters are very compelling, since they can easily identify to them. For example, I cannot think of a character as flawed and super-compelling, as Dr House (well, there might be others, but he just came to mind); the suffering doctor with a painful, albeit mostly medical, history, and and wielding a sharp cynicism and biting sarcasm on a daily basis. Seeing how he mistreats everyone around him, he should be hated by any viewer of the show; yet, we love him. Why ? Because, deeply, he is seen as a deeply crippled human being, suffering above reason; we pity him, and sympathize very quickly for the poor lad he is.

    Flaws are crucial in making a character likable; a flawless character is generally seen as cold and unappealing, inhuman. Give a bunch of flaws to a character, and the reader will have as many reasons to love him.
    MVV and Jabrosky like this.
  5. wordwalker

    wordwalker Auror

    I think the two main sides of a flawed sympathetic character may be that you can see they're trying to do the right thing, and they make mistakes along the way.

    Defining that "right thing" can be trickier than it looks. Of course saving the world works, and so does driving a character by helping her sick family. But just trying to get by, or have fun, can be enough too if you capture that it's enough of a challenge to keep him busy; anti-heroes often work this way, there just doesn't seem to be room for higher goals in their world.

    Along the way... flaws might work better if they come from a visible character failing, not just bad luck or misunderstandings. And be sure the character suffers at least a little themselves for their mistakes; the only one more miserable than the people who have to put up with House is House himself.

    But most of all, the character has to keep trying. If his goals change he still has to find new ones and fight just as hard for them; and either he grows and learns from his mistakes, or (House again, to some) he at least has to have a rut that keeps doing some good for that goal. Call it the perspective a story puts on life: it's all about having a purpose.
  6. Feo Takahari

    Feo Takahari Auror

    I don't necessarily approach them as flaws so much as aspects. For instance, I have one character who tends to bond to charismatic people and try to help them. That's a flaw to some degree, since she can neglect her own needs, but it also makes her very loyal, and that loyalty is one of the things that saves her. The same goes for my character who lacks any capacity for reverence (and has tremendous self-esteem that keeps her sane in a difficult situation), or my character who has no stable identity (and who's capable of adapting to a variety of roles.)
  7. Bansidhe

    Bansidhe Minstrel

    It's the flaws in characters I find most interesting--and make them more real to me. And Malik is right, a character's back story is what defines them, influences all they do, just like us "real people". It's overcoming those pasts that make for a really great character arc.

    Flaws are the source of internal conflict--as opposed to external conflict--and both are needed for good stories. Good luck!
  8. The Dark One

    The Dark One Auror

    I agree with most of the above but have my own approach to this. And for a start I'd say beware just coming up with a 'flaw' to make your character seem human. Flaws have to feel genuine (so yes backstory is critical) and need to be relevant to the plot; ie the story would have ended far more quickly and less messily if not for the flaw. In other words, there wouldn't have been a story if not for the flaw.

    And the flaw doesn't have to be obvious. For example, I have a character in one book who has a damaged spine but who wants to go on playing professional football (obvious), but he also has bad judgment in several situations which rather complicate his adventures (not obvious). He is also hopeless at understanding women, but seeing as all males are, that hardly counts.

    You can also hide flaws until the plot requires their revelation - thus revealing to the reader a part of the underlying plot, just as they thought they knew where the story was going. My latest book features a seriously flawed MC - he's a real bastard. People find him funny but also breathtakingly evil - until they suddenly discover his real problem and motivation and all is revealed in a blinding flash. Then the reader looks back over the story bewildered by how they had so harshly judged someone deserving of sympathy. At least that is what I hope happens.
    Jabrosky likes this.
  9. Caged Maiden

    Caged Maiden Staff Article Team

    Sometimes, I think the word "flaws" can be confusing, even. For instance, weakness vs. strength is quite obvious and the weak (either physically or emotionally) character could be seen as flawed, but I like to step it up quite a bit from there. I don't write emotionally weak characters that handle all situations by weeping or complaining. I make them perfectly capable under certain circumstances, and alarmingly weak/ irrational/ etc. in others. The point I am making then, is that it is a certain trigger that affects their flaw, rather than just having a general "weakness" about them.

    Some other "flaws" I've made good use of are shame (never underestimate the power of dragging a sack of shame around for a decade or more, right?), guilt, loss, disdain (there's a whole world of things/ qualities/ people a person can just find repulsive).

    I often throw characters into a situation where they have to face that thing that most makes them uncomfortable or most upsets or annoys them. In fact, if I only throw it at them once, the character might want to call himself lucky... because most characters must persevere and are made increasingly uncomfortable by my challenges. I like to really break people down before I allow them to mend or find their happy ending. They have to be completely out of hope, and how better to get them there, than to play off their flaws?

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