Creating complex characters is one of the biggest challenges we face as writers — especially when we create them out of our imagination. While we are often eager to showcase their strengths and skills, we aren’t always so willing to dwell upon their weaknesses. As their creators, like loving parents, we can be overly protective about exploring their dark sides and/or their weaknesses. In fact, we can be very ginger and even reluctant, when it comes to sharing their failings and flaws with readers. But it’s these very traits that often make characters seem to be made of real flesh and blood.
Angela Ackerman, a writing coach and author of The Emotional Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression, offered some very helpful advice on line about choosing the “right flaws” for a character — flaws that make the character come alive. In a post called, “Making Your Character Complex by Choosing the Right Flaws,” Angela advises:
Create a backstory: Understanding the “why” behind your character’s flaws is key for both you and your reader. It’s knowing what made them irresponsible or obsessive or standoffish that makes them seem human and lets us connect with them. So come up with a backstory for your character: What influenced him/her? What experiences scarred them and causes them to act the way they act? Some or none of this background may find its way into your story, but it can help provide motivation for the character.
Create a battle: Your character wants to achieve something in your story, and as an author, your job is to make that an “uphill battle.” That means the flaws you give your character should undermine his/her efforts and make reaching that goal more difficult than it would be if those flaws didn’t exist. So make sure the flaws work against him/her; this ensures that the character will have to work hard and grow in order to subdue them and succeed.
Create friction: Choose flaws that frustrate and upset the other characters your character interacts with — this creates conflict and friction. The road your character travels should never be easy and one of its biggest stumbling-blocks is the responses other characters have to his/her behavior. These responses may force your character to go inward and struggle to change — another form of conflict that can enrich your story.
Oy veh! Creating characters isn’t easy, but giving them some big, juicy flaws can make them more exciting and real — and add spice to your story. Write on!