by Mary Kate Pagano
I’ve gotten super into podcasts in this past year (file under #latetotheparty). Why? I think I thought they were all nonfictional musings on things. I didn’t realize there were a plethora of podcasts out there dissecting my favorite books and TV shows. Now I know, and I listen to them voraciously. And two things have come up recently on said podcasts I wanted to discuss, and relate back to writing.
In particular, flawed characters.
Example #1: Ron Weasley A Harry Potter podcast (that I absolutely adore, for the most part) went on a Ron rant not too long ago. Which is fine! Characters are there to be discussed and criticized. But then one of the podcasters went so far as to say she didn’t understand why Ron was written that way. “He’s just so insecure,” she went on to say. “And makes such bad decisions.”
Example #2: Xander Harris It’s not secret I’m a huge Whedon nerd, harking back to my love of the Whedoniest of all Whedon things, the TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer. So I listen to those podcasts, too. One such cast went on a Xander rant not too long ago, similar to the Ron one I’d just heard. “His masculinity comes off as so fragile,” she said. “He’s so wrong in this instance, and this one, and this one. I don’t understand why he was written this way.”
To which I would love to reply: characters are supposed to be flawed. That’s why they’re written that way.
Does Ron do some unreasonable stuff throughout the Harry Potter books? Yes, absolutely. But if you were to take that stuff out? Make Ron the perfect friend, perfect student? How boring would Ron be?
Does Xander do some terrible stuff throughout the course of Buffy? Does he say some problematic things? Of course he does. But if you were to take that out? Well, there’s some sexist insults I could definitely do without. But a perfect, empathetic, understanding Xander would not only feel unrealistic — it would be boring.
Your characters should have flaws, and those flaws should be shown frequently throughout your stories. This doesn’t make these characters bad — it makes them human.
A caveat — when writing a flawed character, eventually you should give them proper motivation for said flaws. Why is Ron so jealous and insecure? Because he started his life as the youngest son who’s constantly overshadowed by his brothers, then becomes the best friend who’s constantly overshadowed by his Chosen-One and Genius BFFs. Why is Xander the way he is? Fragile masculinity is definitely a factor, but then there’s also his horrible home life. Having motivation for how someone is how they are doesn’t excuse them of their flaws–but it does make them believable.
Look, I’m not saying we shouldn’t discuss character flaws — we should! and do! — but to go as far as to say “I don’t like that he was written that way” — how else do you write a fully three-dimensional character except to give him or her flaws?
In short: perfect people are boring, and terrible for fiction. Give me flawed characters, give me people who say and do troubling things, give me all the shades of gray you can fit into one person and then let me decide if I’m on this person’s side or not. It’s what I look for when I’m reading — and what I strive to do in my own fiction.
Guest post contributed by Mary Kate Pagano. Mary Kate Pagano has been voraciously reading and writing since she learned how, but it’s only in the last six years or so that she’s drummed up the courage to actually attempt to publish a novel. She has three finished YA manuscripts under her belt and will be querying all once she’s satisfied with them (which is taking some time). You can find her writerly and readerly musings over at www.wanderlustywriter.com.