I always have too many writing projects on the go. Currently, I am:
- Editing my 125,000-word novel down to 120,000 so that it can be published before summer and available for summer reading lists,
- Stopping and starting my online novel Broken Mirrors (rather more stopping than starting at the moment),
- Just finished a one-act Christmas play and polishing it as part of a book of short plays,
- Turning my recently finished novella into a play so that they can be published together in one volume,
- Helping my publisher-husband flesh out the idea of a literary journal for new creative writers in the Cowichan Valley (where his company is based), and
- Doing character sketches for a YA fantasy trilogy I plan to write this summer.
On top of this, I am just winding up teaching a creative writing class and will be starting a new one in February; I’m working on my certification as an editor; I’m starting a bi-monthly writing workshop for people who want to submit to my husband’s new literary journal. AND, of course, there are the writers’ groups and readings that I attend. You know, it’s a good thing I retired from my day job!
But today it is #6 on the list on which I want to focus my attention. The most interesting and compelling characters are the ones that are the most flawed. Think Holly Golightly, Don Quixote, Severus Snape and Harry Potter, Holden Caulfield, Mr. Darcy, the Artful Dodger and Fagan, Lisbeth Salander, Macbeth and King Lear, the Wife of Bath. Hell, even Max from Where the Wild Things Are. The list is endless. When I was a kid, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, it was a real insult to refer to someone as “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm”. She was a sickly sweet, always positive, always upbeat, far too perfect little girl. It is hard to create a relatable character that has no dark side.
This post will be the first in examining what makes people, and therefore characters, flawed. I will borrow liberally from the book Into the Light: Codependency, a Spiritual Journey by my very good friend Neil Douglas Tubb. The book is out of print, currently, but if you are interested in getting a copy, let me know and I will see if Neil has any more kicking around.
THE WORLD IS A DANGEROUS PLACE
“When I come to the edge of my known universe, when I come to the end of where the light shines for me. It is from this point on that I have to be a risk taker. It’s when I have to go blindly off into something or someplace I have never seen or been before…when I step off into my darkness and it is the darkness of my unknown, it is then that I grow. It is then that I come to know. It is then that I notice the light.” NDT
For a variety of individual reasons, many of us grew up believing that the world is a dangerous place and we are alone in facing it. Let’s look at one of my favourite characters–Harry Potter. Harry grew up locked in a closet under the stairs and raised by people who despised him and feared what he represented. Harry truly lived in a world that was out to destroy him and, because of his upbringing, he believed that he was alone in that battle–that he had no right to ask anyone to risk their lives to help him. In the real world, Harry would have likely been diagnosed with Reactive Attachment Disorder:
“Even though some of the causes for reactive attachment disorder are unavoidable, the message to the child’s psyche is the same, “my needs don’t matter.” This hard-wired belief is very challenging for a child or teen to overcome – the belief that he or she doesn’t actually matter can impact nearly every facet of his or her life.”
According to Village Behavioral Health, these are some of the symptoms of children with attachment disorder:
Relationships: In relationships, a person who has RAD may be bossy, untrusting, manipulative, and controlling. They may have challenges giving or receiving genuine love and affection. Their unstable peer relationships are tenuous at best, as children and teens with RAD blame others for their mistakes or challenges.
Behavioral: Destructive, irresponsible, impulsive, and defiant behaviors. Children or teens with RAD may steal, lie, abuse others, start fires, behave cruelly to animals, or act in a self-destructive manner. They also may avoid physical contact with others, and engage in drug or alcohol abuse.
Moral: Teens with RAD may lack faith, compassion, and remorse for their actions.
Emotional: Children who have RAD may feel sad, moody, fearful, anxious, depressed, and hopeless. These children may display inappropriate emotional reactions.
Thoughts: Children and teens who have RAD may have negative beliefs about themselves, life, and other relationships. These children and teens are unable to understand the concept of cause and effect. Additionally, they may experience inattention and challenges with learning.
The symptoms in bold and italics are characteristics we see in Harry. The first time I thought about this, my reaction was “No way. Harry is not any of these things.” Yet, there are examples of every one of those symptoms I outlined above in Harry. He is just such a likeable and relatable character, we gloss over his flaws even though his flaws and his struggle to overcome them are what make him so likeable. His arc is satisfying because he overcomes failings that we recognise in ourselves. JK Rowling is masterful at creating wonderfully flawed characters.
How can you make use of this? Feel free to make your characters as messed up as you like. It will just make the reader that much more satisfied when your characters conquer their weaknesses. Not to mention that flawed characters are much more fun to write.