It’s easy to want to make your central characters the “good guys”, and therefore nice people; even if they aren’t perfect, per se, they can end up with nothing particularly “wrong” with them, no real flaws, just sort of humdrum, plain-vanilla people. They’re okay. They’re not offensive. They seem like they’d be all right to have dinner with sometime, but you wouldn’t go out of your way to find out more about them.
Wait, these are your characters. You need people to give a damn. You need people to want to dig around in these people’s trash cans and browser histories, spy on them when they don’t know anyone’s looking, and draw them out so they’ll tell us crazy stories about their lives. Let them be offensive sometimes, make the wrong decision, take the wrong side, make mistakes, act inappropriately defensive, and use messy logic to justify behavior that isn’t really justifiable or logical.
It can be tricky to balance flaws so that they don’t make readers dislike a character, but I’ve found that most of the time what carries the characters I like in spite of their bad sides is just that they are all-around strong personalities. It’s pretty simple. A little boldness, determination, or pluck in the face of hard times will make up for a fair bit of bad behavior. Inner conflict and self-awareness will counter a few bad decisions or ill-chosen reactions.
The hard part, sometimes, is coming up with what flaws you want your character to have. You don’t want to just tack them on like it’s Pin the Tail on the Donkey, either…they have to feel like they fit the character, like they stem from somewhere in their past or the side of themselves they keep hidden. Anyway, here are some ways to choose flaws for your characters:
- Take any of your character’s “good” traits and turn it into a flaw. I’ve written entries about this before on this blog. Make determination turn into stubbornness sometimes, or edge heroic deeds with a little narcissistic tendency. Make a good sense of humor into a defense mechanism or courage into simply not thinking through consequences before acting.
- You know those zodiac descriptions listing what your birth sign is supposed to mean about you? Well, a lot of it is an ego-stroke about how cool you are if you’re this-or-that sign, but they do list negative traits, too. Read for the bad stuff, and come up with a few things that fit for your character.
- Plan ahead. What character flaws would benefit the story? If your protagonist is too cocky and makes mistakes early on, will that be a great way to land her in the bad circumstances you’ve got lined up for the middle of the book? Great. Make her cocky. Think about why people do dumb stuff, make choices that are obviously not good for them, etc. Some inner issue that person hasn’t overcome is often a contributing factor.
- Balance characters against those closest to them. You have a solid idea what one guy is like, what his hang-ups are, etc., but you’re not sure about his brother, who is another central character. In the case of brothers, you’ve got a long history between them and the same household circumstances and family history growing up. That’s a heck of a place to start from. If one brother dealt with the family one way, how would that affect the other brother? And if one brother has a particular strength, can that be an area of weakness for the other? How do they compensate for one another, where do they clash, etc.?
- Dialogue. How does your character interact with other characters? Is he funny? Cutting? Brusque? Does he interrupt? Does she take the lead in conversation? Listen more than she talks? This is what your character is putting out into the world of your story, how he or she is affecting the folks around him/her. Pay attention. What is your character giving away about the not-so-nice side of his personality?