Some really good advice from Rosslyn Elliott: Why Your Novel Characters Need Real Flaws

Wouldn’t it be great if all my flaws were minor? But they’re not. And neither are anyone else’s.

As C.S. Lewis writes in The Screwtape Letters, even our greatest strengths are likely to become weaknesses under some circumstances. The same strong will and resourcefulness that helped Scarlett O’Hara survive the Civil War also made her a conniving homewrecker.

But we all know Scarlett O’Hara’s name, even though thousands of historical romance heroines have faded into oblivion. We remember Scarlett because Margaret Mitchell did a brilliant job of creating her heroine to walk the edge of likability. Scarlett’s flaws are all too real, and that means there are parts of Gone with the Wind in which we do not like her.

What is a real character flaw?

It’s a flaw that affects those around your character in a significant way, a weakness with serious consequences, not just angst or temporary hurt feelings.

Here’s the catch. When a leading character does things a reader doesn’t like, there’s a chance the reader will throw away that book. Or write a really negative review.

A writer may be tempted to solve this problem by creating a cosmetic character flaw. It hurts no one but its possessor. A cosmetic flaw is a victimless flaw. Even if it’s contorted so it causes some manufactured, preferably unintentional pain to other characters, the cosmetic flaw doesn’t cause any negative feeling in the reader.

Here’s an example from real life: what’s the clichéd answer for the classic job interview question: “What is your weakness?” To be safe, you’re supposed to say “I’m too hard on myself.” That’s a cosmetic flaw. Because the reality is that if you’re truly a perfectionist about your own work, chances are you may also be too hard on others, not just too hard on yourself. And that is when your cosmetic flaw turns into a real flaw. Real flaws are ugly and they hurt people.

Every cosmetic flaw is a victimless half of the real flaw it replaces. Here are two examples:

Cosmetic character flaw: Insecurity. Its real counterpart: envy and sabotage

Cosmetic character flaw: Fearfulness. Its real counterpart: disloyalty under pressure

We’re free to use cosmetic flaws if we want to write fiction that leaves no mark on its reader. But enduring books contain characters with real flaws, whether those books are hilarious comedies or moving dramas. If our goal is to stir deep emotions or joyful laughter, to show real love, to comfort the lonely, to make readers think or remember…our characters need real flaws. We can’t play it safe with our readers’ sympathy–we have to let them go to the edge.

My question for you:

How has the issue of reader sympathy affected your writing? Do your protagonists have real flaws that could bother a reader?

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Rosslyn Elliott lives with her husband and daughter in the southern United States, where they enjoy working with horses and pampering their dogs. She earned her BA in English and Theater Studies from Yale University, and her Ph.D. from Emory University.

She has won awards for both her fiction and non-fiction, including the 2011 Laurel Award and the 2011 Lime Award for Fairer than Morning, which was also selected as one of Lifeway Fiction’s Ten Favorite Reads for 2011.

Rosslyn’s second novel Sweeter than Birdsong was just released by Thomas Nelson Publishing. Her fiction is represented by Rachelle Gardner of Books and Such Literary Agency.

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