There’s a certain amount of method acting to the madness of creating our characters. We have to understand them inside and out, then embrace the actions and dialogue that fit their personalities even if they aren’t what we authors would necessarily want for them. This leads us to the most important aspect of character creation.
If you go reading through Courtney Cantrell’s prewriting blog posts (never a bad idea), you’ll find reference to the story question. Every character has a question that needs answering. He wants something; can he get it in spite of his obstacles?
Our focus today is a corollary of the story question.
Your character has a flaw; can he change?
Let me tell you about Roy. Roy spent his childhood in a military boarding school and had some difficult experiences there.
Then I edited his book. His main character, Roy, spent his childhood in a military boarding school and had some difficult experiences there.
We previously discussed the dangers of making your main characters into little copies of yourself. But I also want to discuss this book because it is a glaring example of why characters need flaws.
Protagonist Roy was perfect in every way. He was smarter than the other students. He was stronger, even though he was smaller and younger. He made no mistakes. Ever.
And—my blood boils just thinking about it—he had this cutesy smile thing that he would do to make adults swoon over him. He was like a toddler with a tiara, except he wore a military school uniform. It made sense when he started the book as a six-year-old brat. But when he finished practically an adolescent, it was just absurd.
I said, “Look at what you’re doing to this kid. You ruin his life. His own parents reject him. He gets beaten up and sent to the hospital multiple times (each time healing unnaturally fast). Why is he always nice? Stop making him nice!”
I explained to him that a character needs flaws, and the point of a good book is to see whether he can grow out of them or not. If he doesn’t, then the book is a tragedy (see Captain Ahab and his relentless quest for Moby Dick, or A Streetcar Named Desire and Blanche’s compulsion to be a damsel). If he does, then it’s a comedy (Lizzy Bennet gets her happily-ever-after because she overcomes her prejudice; Tony Stark saves New York City from a nuclear missile because he accepts his role as protector rather than playboy).
Author Roy wrote his book to give Protagonist Roy a happy ending. But when adolescent Protagonist Roy stands on stage accepting an award and he gives his cutesy smile and the audience accepts it, we see that Protagonist Roy never grew up. He will be a child eternally. Author Roy effectively wrote a tragedy.
The greatest tragedy of all was how Author Roy failed to capitalize on the opportunity to improve his book in editing. It ended up in shambles.
There are success stories. Bill was writing an Epic Fantasy/Christian Allegory, and he had a book full of perfect characters. I gave him the same talk, “Look at what you’re doing to these poor people,” and, because I thought he was ready, I mixed in some, “Your characters’ outward struggles are reflections of their inward struggles. When Gollum dies, the part of Frodo that could become Gollum also dies.”
Dude nailed it. When I got his next draft, his perfect little princess was a self-doubting, dramatic mess. The fisherman raised by an abusive father struggled with meaning and purpose. And the tarnished knight had to learn to care again. The effort took his work from meh to yeah!
Now, let’s apply all this to the two characters we’ve made, Nathan and Erin. Upon reaching adolescence, Nathan becomes plagued by disturbing images. What does that do to him? Well, since his intrusive thoughts include demons, it might chase him toward religion. He feels as though he needs to make penance for things he can’t control. Maybe he’s driven to study the dark depths of theology, looking for some solution. And, as we decided that he’s more athletic than scholarly, it’s not a good fit. Not only does he lack control over his mind, he’s making himself miserable by filling his life with things he doesn’t enjoy.
Erin, on the other hand, is a fixer. She wants to work in physical therapy because she wants to be able to help everyone. If she can’t help someone, it makes her feel worthless.
So, we have potassium, and we have water. Let’s see what happens when we throw them together. I’ll set this scene after our two characters meet and get to know each other.
Erin snorted at Nathan’s joke, which made him laugh even louder. They’d left his bedroom door open a little, and she was sure their voices carried through the house.
Nathan’s voice cut off, almost like someone was strangling him. The smile vanished from his face. He looked afraid.
Erin followed his gaze, but she saw nothing. “What is it?”
Nathan shook his head and forced a smile. “Nothing. Sorry.”
She tried to relax, but she couldn’t. Nathan looked disturbed. She followed his eyes again, but all she saw was a cabinet. Was something in there?
His breathing was shallow, his face pale. “Excuse me just a moment,” he said, standing and walking stiffly out of the room.
What did I do?
Erin hesitated, wondering whether to follow.
Maybe he needs me.
So she did.
Nathan pulled a mug from the cabinet. His hands shook as he filled it with water, shoved it into the microwave, and slammed the door. This was always the longest minute of the day.
He couldn’t shake the image of a demon standing over Erin, choking her with one hand, yanking out her teeth with the other.
She’ll go to hell toothless.
He jumped when he heard her voice over the microwave’s hum. “What’s wrong?”
He didn’t answer. He squeezed his eyes shut and gripped the kitchen counter. She put her hand on his shoulder, but he couldn’t bear for her to touch something so filthy. He pulled away.
“Just go,” he said through clenched teeth.
He reached up and took the cup out of the microwave two seconds before it beeped. He brought the steaming cup down to his face and breathed in. The steam rushed up his nose, up into his brain, washing the demon away.
And she had seen what he did. But he could never explain why. The shame ran deep, too deep.
“I want to help.”
Sometimes he wondered if even God could.
There it is, the core of our story. Can Nathan learn to accept what’s happening to him? Can Erin learn to accept things she can’t control? Those are part of our story questions for each of our characters.
That’s how you make characters who can drive your story. You figure out who they are at heart. Then you let them figure out what they say and do. Then you use this information to decide what their flaws are, what they want to achieve in life, and how they can overcome the former to obtain the latter.
Your story needs to be filled with damaged people because life is filled with damaged people. Following this process will give your characters realism, direction, and heart.
This article took seven read-throughs.