Have I got a treat for you!
Here today is best-selling mystery author and owner of Acorn Book Services Lauren Carr, with some sound advice on character flaws, or lack thereof.
Perfect Characters Do Not Equal Perfect Characters
By Lauren Carr
Recently, an author I know received a review for his book which read that his protagonist was “too good to be true.” In some ways this is a compliment, in other regards, it is not positive because it means your character does not ring true or is not realistic, which can cause some problems with readers.
Before publication, the author had asked me for an editorial review of his book and I had pointed out the same flaw. The author responded to my criticism with, “Yes, he’s perfect.” He chose to keep his character that way and the reviewer had noticed the same flaw.
I understand completely where this author was coming from when he expressed the desire to create a character who was perfect and without flaws: Been there. Done that.
It was the search for un-flawed characters that prompted me to write my first murder mystery.
Up until then, I had written humor columns for newspapers. Yet, my love was murder mysteries. Like my mother, I would devour them. Believing that the ability to write a murder mystery was beyond my artistic grasp, I never dreamed to attempting it—until I became totally disgusted with a flood of murder mysteries with protagonists that were downright dysfunctional.
Talk about flawed! They were rude drunks, violent, cussed enough to make a sailor blush, slept around with everything that moved—Sometimes all of the above. I’m talking about the protagonists—the heroes of the books. We haven’t even gotten to the villains.
It was my disgust with these characters that made me decide I was going to create a murder mystery detective with honor—someone who readers could respect.
Have you ever heard the phrase, don’t knock it until you try it? While I did create a perfectly respectable detective, he was also quite … What’s the word? Boring.
Like it or not, there’s no one out there who’s perfect. Since no one is perfect, then when you create a perfect character who lives a fantasy life that real people can only dream of, no one will believe it. Your character and his life will be “too good to be true.”
Not only will no one believe your character, but they also won’t be able to relate to him or her. If your readers can’t relate to your protagonist, then they won’t be able to get into your book.
That’s not to say that those long line of mysteries that I was trying to read years ago had it right by making their characters so flawed that they were dysfunctional and impossible to respect as characters.
That’s going overboard.
On the other side of the coin, your readers need to care about your characters. If your characters are so flawed that you have no respect for them—which is generally the case of how I felt about them—then your reader isn’t going to care about what happens to them.
There is a middle ground between perfect characters and dysfunctional ones.
It is possible to make your protagonist flawed enough for readers relate to them without making them seemingly ready for a straightjacket.
Here are some tips:
Use Common Everyday Flaws. Think about faults that a lot of people have which aren’t necessarily dysfunctional traits. That way, readers who have these same flaws will rejoice upon seeing them in your protagonist and immediately relate to them. Example: Cameron Gates in my Lovers in Crime series loves junk food and ice cream. She detests health food and practically rebels against healthy eating.
When creating your character, be realistic about what obstacles your character will encounter in his situation and use them as conflict. In the Mac Faraday Mysteries, my title detective Mac suddenly comes into a multimillion dollar inheritance. Here is a man who has lived on a budget his whole life. Suddenly, he has the funds to do anything he wants. His flaw: He can’t stop keeping track of his money and he has difficulty relating to decadence, even though he is surrounded by people for whom decadence is a lifestyle. The result is Mac shaking his head at those around him, while his new friends and neighbors are amused by his worn jeans and T-shirts.
In Blast from the Past, Mac and Archie Monday get into an argument when she takes Gnarly, his dog, in to the groomer for his monthly appointment. Finding out how much it costs, Mac is horrified to discover that he is paying more annually for Gnarly to get his hair done than he spends on his own haircuts. This argument makes for an entertaining exchange between the couple that I’m sure many married couples have.
In my latest Mac Faraday Mystery, The Murders at Astaire Castle, Mac gets thrown into his latest adventure when he disobeys the signs warning him to keep out of an abandoned castle that he discovers he owns. His flaws in this mystery: Mac Faraday’s curiosity and hating to be told what to do. How many of us hate people giving us orders?
It is those imperfections that make Mac relatable to readers.
Even near-perfect characters have flawed family and friends—use them. Do you have a perfect family and perfect friends? If so, you must be living in paradise.
As much as we hate to admit it, there are people in our lives who don’t always have our best interests at heart. They have their own agendas. If you desire to make your main character what I call a fantasy type character who always does the right thing and makes the right decisions, then throw people into his life who don’t care about the right thing: a friend who stabs your hero in the back, a wife who cheats on him, or a dog who doesn’t respect him.
These characters would play the role of antagonists who are going to mix things up.
Now, I make this last tip with trepidation because, as a mystery writer, I hate it when I see a mystery series become more about the protagonist’s chaotic family and friends than about the mystery—where the murder mystery takes the back seat and becomes almost a subplot.
This post is not to say that we as writers can’t create characters to play out our fantasies—handsome and always looking to do the right with family and friends who always have our back. Isn’t that how we all want to live? But think about it. As much as you would like to live your life without any flaws or conflict, would you really want to read about it?
Or would you rather read about a handsome multimillionaire whose dog doesn’t respect him?
Very insightful, Lauren. Thank you so much for sharing with us today.
If you’d like to connect with author Lauren Carr, you can find her online:
Author Site -> http://mysterylady.net/
Facebook -> https://www.facebook.com/lauren.carr.984991
Twitter -> https://twitter.com/TheMysteryLadie
Amazon -> http://www.amazon.com/Lauren-Carr/e/B001JP4F0Q
Acorn Book Services -> http://acornbookservices.com/