Once more Danielle chooses to briefly cede control of her blog’s content in the name of vocal variation.
Her character Bruno had his time in the sun near two months past, and in the process suggested – or, stated outright, rather – that he thought me under-qualified to produce an Ever On Word-caliber post. “Allyn’s not really blogger material,” said he; “deer-in-the-archer’s-sights minstrel”, he called me. And while I shall now state outright that this is utter nonsense, how he came by this impression is wholly understandable; is, in fact, directly related to the topic of this piece: The all-important character flaw. (“Hyperteller,” I’ve been instructed to say, “this one’s for you.”)
Why is it considered so vital that fictional characters be given
“an imperfection, oft concealed,
impairing soundness; or revealed
for any and all to detect,
their vague shortcomings and defects”?
(In a minstrel-run world, all dictionaries would by definition include rhythm and rhyme, didn’t you know?)
From all I’ve heard, the reason most frequently cited is that perfection is an odious bore, but I feel that explanation may go slightly astray of the mark. Rather would I say that perfection is inhuman. And while characters may be anything from regular humans, to magically reanimated humans, to Fey folk or Sky folk or some imaginative combination thereof or, I don’t know, talking rabbits, they are all of them by humans written and read. And humans do not relate well to those in which they can see nothing of themselves.
What sorts of flaws ought an author to choose, and how?
Firstly, consider the story. What are the characters needed to do? Which flaws would drive them toward that action, and which flaws would impede them? Does it take an inquisitive person to open the box that transports them to the alternate dimension they’re destined to save? Might that same curiosity compel them to spend valuable time investigating a hidden room when they should have been running for their lives five minutes ago? You want the plot to flow, but never too smoothly – not for the ones who must live it.
Second, consider the backstory. What have your characters’ lives been, up to this point? What people and circumstances have influenced them, over the years? We are none of us made in a moment, but a culmination of all of our moments thus far. Our pasts will inform our present flaws. Goodness knows that’s where the majority of my issues stem from; a repressive apprenticeship under the late greatest minstrel of all time can make deer-in-the-archer’s-sights mental cases of us all.
Thirdly, consider beyond the cosmetic. For every author who’s followed tips one and two and views this third as rightfully redundant, there’s likely another who needs this said loud and clear. One might not think to look at me that I am so terribly flawed. Certainly, you would not think it to hear me. In accordance with retellings of the legend that inspired me, I was given a voice of unparalleled beauty; and, whether Danielle really intended it or not, a face to match. I happen to have little in the way of physical flaws, which I daresay some writers might frown upon. (I’ve not always been terribly pleased about it myself, actually. I’d just as soon not be fussed over and admired.) And certainly a cast full of men and women who all happen to look like the children of Adonis and Aphrodite will severely lessen that relatable humanity we hoped to attain. But to rely too heavily on imperfect appearances to do a proper flaw’s job helps nothing. Superman with an unsightly wart on his nose is still the Man of Steel; unless the wart is full of Kryptonite, you haven’t really accomplished anything.
Lastly, consider the flipside. As in the hypothetical example of the inquisitive fellow mentioned three paragraphs ago, a flaw can be more than a flaw; it can double as a virtue, as seen o’er and again in my world of “The Ballad of Allyn-a-Dale”. Little John’s disinclination to communicate much can make him difficult to talk to (and even more so to drag anything out of), but it adds to his air of Bodyguard Supreme and leaves space for the rest of us to get a word in around Will Scarlet. Talking of Will (who always is), one of his chief flaws is a refusal to stop and think a thing through before charging right in. On the other hand, his manic mind moves so fast that he’s actually the only one able to keep up with himself (…mostly), and so can more or less successfully plan on his feet. As for me, a deep-seated sense of insecurity had me feeling rather weak and useless, betimes; and yet there came a point where that very weakness was my only weapon to wield against the dark forces endangering Avalon.
I shudder to think where my world would be if I had been the strongest, the bravest, confident and capable of anything. It would have lessened the story. Paradoxically, it would have lessened me (…or made me my father; but he has his own failings, never you fear).
When it takes a weakness to make a character stronger, the one flaw you don’t want to write is perfection.