Guest Blog: The Flawed Road to Reality
The Flawed Road to Reality
Writing is often a cathartic experience. Something of ourselves bleeds into every scene and speaks through every character. During this process, especially when it comes to main characters, we’re tempted to limit the unattractive aspects of a given personality. The motives for this temptation vary depending on the writer and the character in question. However, it’s clear that when we give in to this temptation, the character and ultimately the story suffer.
Quirks for characterization, flaws for character.
First, let’s examine the difference between a flaw and a quirk. When attempting to tell the difference, I try to imagine the likely reaction of the audience. If the character trait in question is more likely to garner sympathy than ire, it’s likely a quirk or a limitation. If the opposite, it’s likely a flaw. I’ll use Althas Greycastle, the main character from my own work in progress, as an example.
Althas is likely the most powerful man in the world of Pydara. His ability to manipulate emotional energy gives him great advantages in conversation and the power to bend the fabric of reality to his will. He has few limitations, but those few are severe. The strain of using emotion this way takes its toll on his body; he is the only Empath in world history to live beyond 40, and he is unlikely to make it past 45. In addition, he’s always either in pain or unable to feel some of his extremities.
So far, I’ve described limitations. Althas tends to be judgmental about people’s fashion choices and tastes in art. He’ll likely remark on it in his mind whenever he enters a new location, and the experience can result in a few humorous exchanges. Enter a quirk. These features flesh out a character, adding depth to their presence in the narrative. Some characters hate coffee (which by some standards could be a character flaw), some are clumsy, some think pink and green look awesome together, and so on.
If we want to explore actual flaws, we need to go a little deeper. Althas wants to make the world a better place, but he often chases that goal through questionable paths. Most notably, he pushes and pulls on people’s emotional states to manipulate them into obeying him without knowing it. In fact, he reaches for this ability first when he comes across a problem to solve. He trusts no one, instead relying upon his abilities to push them toward his own preferences and schemes. This flaw fits well inside Althas’s personality because it’s a natural extension of the way he thinks, as well as a natural temptation that afflicts the powerful. In addition, it creates morally ambiguous situations and questions that require deep thought. Speaking of moral ambiguity….
Real flaws have consequences.
Sticking with Althas (He’s not really a big jerk, I promise folks!), we can look beyond his lies and manipulation to see possible “real world” consequences. It’s important to remember that our intrepid Empath is shooting for good outcomes; his motives have no malice. However, Althas is a mover of nations. Let’s say he interferes with the way another nation chooses their leader, mostly because they’re easy to manipulate. One unintended consequence, of course, is that leader becoming the pawn of someone other than himself.
Or consider something more mundane: If Althas lies to someone and they find out, they will likely respond in a way that makes his life difficult. If he pushes on one person to do his will, he may be hurting someone else without realizing it. Hubris is one of the great flaws that afflicts the intelligent and powerful. For a flaw to have real impact, it must incur consequences within the framework of the story.
So How do we build realistic flaws into our characters?
My own process stems from the characters themselves. This time I’ll pick on Karalin Adyma, the new Queen. Karalin, a young Empath herself, grew up in Althas’ shadow, and her predecessor, Shyskam, disgraced himself with his own paranoia and erratic behavior. As a result, she feels the pressure of expectation from one side, and the need to feel relevant from the other. She is both intelligent and powerful, with a stubborn streak a mile wide and deep. These features on their own are not necessarily positive or negative. However, the same desire for relevance that drives her to reverse some of her predecessor’s policies causes her to take unnecessary risks or refuse counsel.
So Karalin’s personality organically grows flaws. Her inexperience convinces her she can do things she can’t. Her frustration with Althas keeps her from taking his advice. Adding a character flaw without thinking about their personality can result in behavior that is out of character for that person. I’m currently binge-watching “Brooklyn 99,” so I’ll use Detective Boyle to illustrate what I mean.
If you’ve never watched the show, Boyle is the buddy-cop sidekick for Jake Peralta, the main character. He’s congenial, spineless, and sweet. There’s a lot to like about Boyle, except when he’s sucking up to Jakee, and he never once says a cross word to anyone. If Boyle suddenly developed an anger problem, it would conflict with his personality. If such a thing were to happen, the writers would be hard pressed to justify it. Anger would add another dimension to his character, but that dimension would have no real substance.
To avoid this trap, follow the logic of the behavior back down into the person doing it. If you can’t, then you likely need to flesh things out a little more. Sometimes, authors create a backstory for a character specifically to generate sympathy. If you’ve done this, you may have difficulty generating real character flaws and may need to revisit the character’s past.
The same past that drives someone to be brave, can also make them reckless. The same desires that drive the need for sexual intimacy can shut down emotional intimacy. The same needs that generate healthy ambition can also drive unhealthy pride. Don’t be afraid to wrap your character’s flaws around their strengths like threads in a tapestry; you’ll be surprised at how real they become.
Real people are messy.
There’s nothing neat about life. When my daughter was born, it was the most terrible and wonderful thing I’d ever witnessed. Sometimes, I want to sell my house and disappear into the wilderness forever, and other times I feel good about my life,swelling with gratitude. I’m wrong a lot; so often I wonder how I made it to adulthood. In the same day, I can work for ten hours, come home, read to my daughter—but later be too lazy to pour myself a drink.
We are brave and stubborn, clever and stupid, strong and frail. So write your characters to reflect these traits. Make them wise or tepid, make them powerful, make them thoughtless, make them brave, make them clever, make them idiots. But most importantly, make them human.
John Paul Sterling is writing fantasy, science fiction and unsolicited opinions. When he’s not writing or working his nine to five, John can be found chasing his daughter around the house or matching wits with his wife.
HIs debut novel, “Sons of Compassion,” is due in 2019 and follows Althas Greycastle, an Empath on a mission to unite the disparate human cities of the Fertile Basin behind his daughter, Karalin Adyma. Despite the fear and suspicion that follow his kind, Althas had managed to create, largely through deception, a space to live for himself and Karalin. The emergence of another Empath, however, rips the foundations out from under his life, and Althas is left scrambling to adapt. Old friends turn, new friends rise, and the two struggle in a continent spanning game of chess, with nations and cities as their pawns. To survive, Althas must face the truth about himself, his legacy and his future.
Follow him on Twitter @sterlinginks and Facebook.