Saturday, April 6, 2013

F -- Failure, Foundering, and Foibles

A fellow writer recently posted on Facebook that her main character in her work in progress is a "hot mess." Indeed the list of qualities she provided did speak to someone who had many faults. She wanted to know if she should take some time to add some likable traits to the character. The answer: maybe.

Chances are that the character has likable traits already or she wouldn't like the character enough to make the character her protagonist. On some level or another we are all hot messes. Another writer had quickly responded "Sounds like me."

The bigger problem would be if the character had no faults. Everyone has faults -- loads of them. Just as we all have many redeeming qualities. Your character needs to have failures and foibles to make them more real. The reader wants to be able to identify with the character and they often identify best with the imperfections. A character without flaws is unbelievable. Moreover, a character without flaws don't end up in the situations that make a story.

In fact it is often the flaws that make the character endearing. Jane Austen's Emma is quite a flawed character -- charging through life matchmaking everyone around her and believing herself impervious to love. Austen herself wrote that Emma would be a character that no one but the author would much like. Emma, spoiled and stubborn, is completely blind to the dangers of meddling in the lives around her. At one turn after another she falters and fails until ultimately she realizes that through all of this she has been trying to marry off the man whom she loves deeply.

Without all of her failings and foundering there would have been no story about Emma. She would have been a sensible girl who let her friends handle their own affairs and recognize her own love immediately and settled down to a boring (to us) life of raising children and planning dinner parties.

My beloved Laura Ingalls Wilder turned her own life events into one of the most famous series of books ever written. This would be a tempting scenario to paint yourself in the best and most perfect light possible. Instead she readily admitted to regularly being a naughty child with unkind thoughts and a strong jealousy of her sister Mary. We are easily drawn into liking Laura because she shows weaknesses that we all face at one time or another. When she gets sent home from school she had been bad, but she had based her actions on the defense of her sister, Carrie. She is confused and sometimes embarrassed over falling in love. She IS us.

So ask not if your character is too bad. Ask if that character is bad enough.


  1. Such thought provoking posts that ring of realness is why I'm nominating you for the Liebster Award. Visit me at for details and to answer your 11 questions. Congrats!

  2. My problem is almost the opposite, I have made the antagonist a real... Douchebag. I even have a hard time writing about him, I guess I need to give him some REDEEMING characteristics! :)


  3. I agree, a character wouldn't be relatable he/she didn't have faults.