Redeeming Flawed Characters
Welcome back, loyal listeners! This week, we’re joined by novelist Jennifer Kincheloe, author of The Secret Life of Anna Blanc. Our topic is redeeming flawed characters. As always, you can listen and watch below. Don’t forget to hit the “thumbs up” button on YouTube and to subscribe and leave a review on your favorite podcast app. It really helps us out. Of course, nothing helps us out more than good word of mouth. If you like us, please tell your writer friends about us.
What do we mean by a “flawed” character?
A real human being. Everyone has blind spots and shortcomings. It could be self-delusion, poor money management, jealousy, a low IQ, addiction, or violence. My protagonist in THE SECRET LIFE OF ANNA BLANC is naïve, self absorbed, impulsive, and she lies. But readers come to love her over the course of the novel because she risks her life to save prostitutes. She doesn’t judge them. And she has a great capacity for love. The goal is to create a protagonist that readers can relate to. Perfect protagonist seldom (if ever) come off as real. They’re “plastic.”
Why is it important for a character to be flawed?
Otherwise, they don’t seem human. In order to breath life into characters, they must be flawed. Little flaws make a character loveable. When we love someone, we cherish their quirks. We may not be enamored with violent behavior or drunkenness, but we might adore a cowlick that makes their hair stand on end or propensity to hum off tune. Even in real life, we don’t trust people who seem too perfect. Either we resent them or feel like they are hiding something. Flaws give the character something overcome. A character who is afraid of heights but must climb up the face of a cliff to have someone he loves is far more brave than a professional rock climber who scales such things for fun.
What types of “flaws” work well? Why?
Little flaws make characters endearing. White lies. Bad hair. Chronic hiccups. Awkwardness with the opposite sex. More serious flaws make characters relatable and interesting. What types of flaws work well depend on whether your character is a man or a woman.
Are there any “flaws” writers should avoid?
I think the answer to that question is different for male characters and female characters. For men, I would say no. But some flaws require more mastery of the craft. Vladimir Nabokov and his book Lolita come to mind. It’s considered to be one of the greatest books of the 20th Century, and yet the protagonist is a child molester. We despise child molesters. They are so despised that murderers and drug dealers look down on them and beat them up in prison. And yet Lolita works. I think Nabokov’s use of the unreliable narrator helps make this protagonist palatable. We see things through his twisted eyes, and come to sympathize, even as we cringe. But, if Nabokov’s child molester was female, I don’t think readers would accept her. In our sexist society women are supposed to be sweet and good. The more a reader buys into that paradigm, the less comfortable they will be with female characters who don’t fit that mold. Little flaws are OK, but if a female character is too flawed, some readers won’t tolerate it. I think that’s why some people had trouble with “Girl on a Train.” She’s addicted to alcohol and has let it ruin her life. Also, she’s kind of a stalker. If you read the negative reviews of that novel, a lot of them just don’t like the character. Being a strong, interesting character is very different from being a well behaved character. And society likes well-behaved women. Whenever you have a seriously flawed female character, you have to handle it very carefully, and even then, you are going to lose some readers. Gone with the Wind is an example. Scarlet is a great, interesting character. She’s iconic. She has lots of flaws, but she has redeeming aspects, too. Scarlet is charming, beautiful, and courageous. She passionately loves Ashley, who simply lusts after her and doesn’t return her love. But she doesn’t meet society’s ideal of womanhood. She isn’t sweet and she isn’t selfless. Some readers say, “wow how interesting.” Other readers hate the book because Scarlet isn’t the feminine ideal. Here are some quotes from Goodreads reviews.
SCARLET O’HARA QUOTES
“Scarlett was far too annoying for me to ever like this book. I did however love Melanie.”
“I hate the characters (except Melanie).”
“Melanie was the sweetest person I have ever read about. She is the true heroine of the story as she is the one who teaches Scarlett how to love.”
“Melanie is the one character who has any redeeming value.”
“Scarlett has no redeeming qualities whatsoever.”
“I couldn’t get into the novel when I saw the story through the eyes of such an odious person.”
“… A tale of a snotty brat who pouted when she didn’t get her way.”
“Scarlet is a raging evil snarky miserable bitch and I hate her… Scarlet was a whiny, conniving miserable human being and I don’t give a crap if she “only did what she had to do as a woman.”
That doesn’t necessarily mean a reader who doesn’t like a female character is sexist, but I think sometimes that plays into it.
What do you mean when you say redemption?
I have two ideas about this. From the very beginning of the novel, you need the reader care about the character. If they don’t have redeeming qualities up front, you lose your audience. Second is the character arc. Hopefully, over the course of the novel, a protagonist will learn something or change in some way. This can be a redemptive arc. My character in THE SECRET LIFE OF ANNA BLANC makes the journey from being self-absorbed to doing something totally selfless.
How do we provide an opportunity for our characters to be redeemed?
Type 1 Redemption. MAKE THE READER EXCUSE FLAWS
1) Make the character very, very good at something.
2) Make them passionate about something. If they care, we care more.
3) Historical context, i.e. if they are a product of their time. Jaime in Outlander rapes and beats his wife, yet he is the hero of the story. Sometimes, if you don’t have at least some racism or sexism in a historical novel, it doesn’t ring true.
4) Make the character a victim or have them suffer.
- In my book THE SECRET LIFE OF ANNA BLANC, Anna:
- Has a dead mother
- Has no love from her family
- Is expected to look perfect all of the time.
- Has very limited opportunities
- Has no autonomy
- Is the victim of sexism at every turn.
GIRL ON THE TRAIN. Rachel Watson is the victim of infidelity and a lying husband. We forgive the fact that she’s a sloppy drunk and a stalker. Also Rachel is so persistent in investigating Megan’s death.
Type 2 Redemption – GIVE THE PROTAGONIST A CHARACTER ARC – Becoming a better person through the course of the novel
Character arc is integral to the plot. Character is revealed by how the protagonist reacts to situations. Put them in a crisis and they may discover new virtues or resources within themselves.
Should the redemption in any way be tied to their flaws?
Type 1 Redemption – making a character likeable from the beginning, it doesn’t have to be tied to their flaws.
Type 2 Redemption – absolutely. Again, that’s part of their arc.
Why is it important for a character to be redeemed?
Type 1 – so we care
Type 2 – It provides a satisfying ending. The best books are character driven, and in these books, characters must change. The character arc separates good books from great books. In classic detective fiction, there is no character arc for the detective. Hercule Poirot doesn’t change in Murder on the Orient Express. Now a lot of mystery writers are adding a character arc to make their books more compelling and so we engage more with the main character.
Must a character be redeemed, or is it possible to end the novel without any form of redemption for them?
If they are not redeemed, the danger is that the reader can stop rooting for them, or even look forward to their demise. I think for most writers of genre fiction, you need to redeem your characters. BUT in literature, you can get away with anything if you are a genius. In Flannery O’Conner’s Everything that Rises Must Converge. Her characters are odious, and I don’t think they could have held my attention for an entire novel (it’s a short story) But one dies. One suffers a loss. In the last paragraph, the surviving character suddenly appreciates the dead character in his own selfish way. He’s still odious, but he’s suffering and there is the glimmer of change. But I wouldn’t say he really changed. I think of Vile Bodies by Eevelyn Waaah (phonetic spelling of Evelyn Vaughn so I don’t mess it up). The characters don’t change and some literary critics say that because the characters don’t change, it’s not even a novel. In the movie version, they change the ending to give the characters and arc.