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When Flaws Go Too Far: Avoiding Unlikable Characters

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by A. E. Lowan, Feb 25, 2014.

  1. A. E. Lowan

    A. E. Lowan Forum Mom Leadership

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    Roan Davidson likes this.
  2. Jabrosky

    Jabrosky Banned

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    The character I have in mind at the moment is meant to be a hero, but I worry his profession might seem unsympathetic.

    He's supposed to be a professional big-game hunter similar in vein to Allan Quartermain (King Solomon's Mines) and John Roxton (Conan Doyle's Lost World). That is to say he makes his living off hunting wildlife and selling their meat and other anatomical parts, and he enjoys it as a sport. He has a lot of qualities I would call likeable, most notably a tolerant respect for indigenous cultures and a dislike of European-style imperialism, but I can see why the very nature of his career might unsettle readers in this age of over-exploited endangered species.

    I want to add that I actually love wildlife and support conservation (as would most respectable hunters). It's just that, from a storytelling point of view, hunting has inherently more conflict driving it than, say, nature photography.
     
  3. Feo Takahari

    Feo Takahari Auror

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    The rules in the article are useful, but I'd like to propose one more:

    Flaws should have narrative effects.

    One common example of this failing is when authors create a "timid" character, but don't want to have that character be completely ineffectual in dangerous situations. So the moment danger starts, the character becomes very competent, only to start jumping at her own shadow once the danger's over. In other words, the character might as well not be timid at all! Better writers will develop a character who runs from danger at first, but gradually develops into a more confident character--or even one who never gets confident, but can set traps, attack from cover, and generally be an absolute rat bastard.
     
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  4. Guy

    Guy Inkling

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    Just a suggestion, but reading something by Peter Capstick or Robert Ruark might be useful. Both men hunted in Africa (Capstick did so as a professional hunter and a game officer), and perhaps read some editorials in hunting magazines. You might get some insight into how people who hunt still love animals, nature, etc., and have a great deal of respect for them. Essentially, participating in nature through the predator/prey relationship results in a whole new level of reverence for nature.
     
    Last edited: Feb 25, 2014
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  5. Jabrosky

    Jabrosky Banned

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    Good way of framing it. Furthermore, since my character's economic livelihood does depend on his hunting, I suppose he's no worse than a wild carnivore who needs to hunt for sustenance.
     
  6. tlbodine

    tlbodine Troubadour

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    Amusing anecdote.

    When I was first introduced to tabletop RPGs, my friend handed me a Changeling: The Dreaming character sheet and helped walk me through the basics. In the White Wolf system, you get to give your character flaws, and for every flaw, you can spend a corresponding number of points in merits.

    Well, I missed the part where there was a limited number of points to spend in flaws, so I just loaded him up with everything that sounded fun to play. Curiously, I couldn't find anywhere nearly as many merits that I enjoyed. So I handed over my character sheet, and the GM thought the whole thing was hilarious.

    Moral of the story: I have a soft spot for damaged characters.
     
  7. AudaciousVagabond

    AudaciousVagabond Dreamer

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    Maybe you could even explore the concept of the character's own justification for hunting. If the question has arisen in your mind, I'm sure they've thought about whether hunting animals is good or evil themselves. I find that it is always interesting when a character addresses an issue or idea that the reader may have and states their own opinion. Not only does it give a broader perspective or second side to the argument, but it also helps shape a character and personality.

    Just my opinion of course.
     
  8. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    I found the ideas in the article interesting, though from the way it is written the author seems to be starting from the premise that you can't have a main character that is flat out unlikeable, which I don't agree with.
     
  9. Feo Takahari

    Feo Takahari Auror

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    There's a difference between unlikable and unwatchable. Slight spoilers for London Falling:
    While examining the stash of coke he's planning to sell, he's confronted by the ghost of someone he got killed, who basically says "I'm in hell, and you're going there, too." The cop says he refuses to be haunted, and in any event, he has other plans and doesn't really need the coke anymore, so he destroys most of the stash. Then he snorts the last of it and declares that if he's going to hell, he's gonna run the place.

    Is this character likable? Not really. But he's got enough guts and enough charisma to be entertaining. He's not a total mass of flaws.
     
  10. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    I agree. I find that character interesting as well. One book I often mention is Monument, which is a good book with a thoroughly unlikeable MC who doesn't even have charisma. It's a good study for people who want to go that route.

    For a truly unsympathetic character who has enough charisma that the reader can enjoy being in a close POV, Lolita‚Äč has to be at or near the top of the list.
     
  11. SeverinR

    SeverinR Vala

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    I think a character that is overloaded with flaws can still be likable. The story might be hard to write because the mc has so many flaws to keep interesting.
    It depends on how that character interacts and plays out rather then being so flawed.
     
  12. Wormtongue

    Wormtongue Minstrel

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    You are linking confidence with competence. It's tempting to think that competent people will be confident people and vice versa.

    Not always. Not even most of the time.

    How someone will react in an emergency is difficult to know. That cocky sob may scream like a little girl and run away and the wallflower may charge straight into the face of danger. And I have seen both happen in real life.

    To the op, I find that once I flesh out a character's motivations it's hard to write them completely unlikable. Once I understand the character (even the evil ones) there is always something relatable.
     
    Last edited: Mar 9, 2014
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  13. Feo Takahari

    Feo Takahari Auror

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    My argument isn't necessarily that it's unrealistic, just that it doesn't usually work as a "flaw." Though I guess it could probably be done better than it normally is--for instance, if the timid-seeming character isn't taken seriously because she's seen as weak, that could actually impact how the narrative plays out.
     
  14. Wormtongue

    Wormtongue Minstrel

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    Of course it would. And that very scenario is playing out in my wip. The confident swordsman does not take the timid mage seriously. And that underestimation has already impacted the narrative.

    So in my case I do use lack of confidence as a character flaw. Which is not to say that I find it easy. My biggest concern is that readers may find it cliche or sexist. The timid female mage vs the confident male swordsman.

    And in the case of the swordsman, sexism is a factor. It is one of his character flaws. Although it's not as much a sense of feeling superior to women as feeling it's a man's place to protect women, to not allow women in dangerous situations.

    But I digest...
     
  15. stephenspower

    stephenspower Inkling

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    If a hunter kills for sustenance and to sell the meat and by-products, what's the harm in that? This may be the only time in the history of America, in fact, that most people didn't have to do this, and a large number still do and not just in rural areas. And remember: Katniss became a great archer because she had to get food for her family.

    Now a sport hunter, a guy who just wants a trophy and probably has a guide do all the work, including handing him his loaded gun and telling him when to shoot, he's reprehensible.
     
  16. Twook00

    Twook00 Sage

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    San Dan Glokta from Abercrombie's First Law series is a fine example. From an outsider's perspective, he's a vile, ruthless, merciless inquisitor. Physically he's hideous, twisted, and scarred. But when in his head, watching him agonize over walking up a set of stairs or asking himself why he does the terrible things he does, you can't help but root for him and hope that some day things will work out for this guy. That he will be redeemed.

    If I can understand why the character is the way he is and if there are other aspects of his character that I enjoy, then I can look past the flaws. Heck, I might even embrace them. Also, if I see a shred of humanity or vulnerability in that character, just a glimpse that may some day give way to more, that's enough to keep me reading.
     
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