Wednesday, January 28, 2015

No Characters Allowed

by Clare O'Donohue

Question of the week: Many readers say that they prefer a protagonist with flaws to a model of perfection. Did you intentionally give your protagonist flaws, and if so, what are they? What flaws are you uncomfortable with?

I don't write characters - at least I try not to. Characters are fictional things that exist to serve a plot. They can be (as Susan pointed out) the goody-two-shoes with a moral center so pure that they are never tempted; a P.I. with a drinking problem, an ex-wife he still half loves, and an issue with authority; or the infamous hooker with a heart of gold.

Characters may have flaws but they are imposed on them, a device to make them appear interesting. They are trompe l'oeil, only realistic at a distant glance.

A Star Called HenryWhat I try to write, what we all try to write, are people. And people are complex - filled with contradictions, prejudices, problems, the baggage of flawed childhoods, and broken relationships, as well as dreams, and plans, and hopes for the future.

So, in writing, I don't intentionally create flaws - as in "that guy will be a gossip" - I focus my energy on creating a person, a real person. In writing the first draft of a book, those flaws appear when these fictional people make choices, they screw up, they lie, or laugh in the wrong moment, or cover up a murder.

When it works, it's really cool - as a writer, and as a reader. Jay Gatsby, Raylan Givens, Tom Ripley, and Lisbeth Salandar are a few fictional, and flawed, people that come to mind. I'm just finishing Roddy Doyle's A Star Called Henry, a lyrical poem of a book, inhabited by people so real, so flawed, that they break your heart.

While we might aspire to self-improvement in life, the truth is, our flaws seep out from us, like sweat or blood. They are essential to our nature, the thing that makes us interesting to know. And to write.



Robin Spano said...

Ha! Great title (and post). I love "Characters are fictional things that exist to serve a plot."

Susan C Shea said...

Well said. Our best characters are people who come to life and who become more and more real as they take shape through actions, dreams, and crises. Your choices of examples all resonate with me, too.

RJ Harlick said...

I agree, well said. Our characters are indeed people, each with their own unique personality.