Cardboard is for recycling

Posted Aug 26 2010, 2:41 pm

Cardboard characters. They’re flat. Uninspiring. We forget them as soon as we put the book down.

Inspired by both our Book Hungry Book Club’s recent review of THE HUNGER GAMES as well as by a slew of outside-my-comfort-zone reading, today’s blog post is devoted to what makes a character leap from the page and stick in our minds long after we put down the book.  Katniss Everdeen, the main character in The Hunger Games, isn’t perfect. She’s dirty and unkempt, likely to hold long grudges, not above manipulating circumstances to her own advantage and prone to immature outbursts with a bow and arrow, and yet – it’s unanimous – we ADORE her.

Say what you will about TWILIGHT, Edward Cullen is a compelling character.  The man’s a monster in love with his food source. I promise you, were I ever to stumble across a walking, talking Hershey Kiss, there would be no conflict, no attempt to deny my nature as the world’s worst chocoholic. I’d have devoured my “Bella” from the first whiff of chocolatey goodness.  End of story.

Jeff Somers’ Avery Cates is a character I can’t seem to stop thinking about. Jeff blushes at this, but I’ve had dreams about this guy (uh, that would be Avery, not Jeff. Sorry!) and there is nothing remotely romantic about him. He’s a killer, a hired assassin who will shoot his best friend, not because he likes it, but because it’s necessary. This killer-with-morals thing works so well for Cates, I closed book 4 and immediately emailed Jeff, demanding and threatening politely inquiring if there will be a book 5.

What’s the secret? What’s the magic ingredient in building characters so strong, you can imagine yourself hanging out with them?  In a word – flaws.  The more flawed the hero is, the more we like him, want to be with him, feel for him.

Flaws intrigue us, capture our imaginations. And then, our imaginations take over. We imagine (delude?) ourselves capable of fixing those flaws, that we are the only woman in a hundred years that a vampire can’t drink, the only job since Unification that Avery Cates turns down.  (Poor, deluded Patty.)

Sounds simple enough, so I tried it.

In my first novel, a YA hockey-dad-murder mystery, I gave my eighteen-year-old hero traits like arrogance and stubbornness and thought he was flawed.  Uh-uh. He missed the mark.  My sons, and a number of seventh-graders who’d received special permission to use this story as the subject of their book reports, didn’t like Jared. They called him – wait for it – arrogant, stubborn, and selfish.

Not what I was going for. I mistakenly thought giving him some negative traits meant he was more lifelike. But I failed to provide any reason for his traits. I never connected them to his back story nor cultivated any conflict out of them in the present.

What are flaws, anyway?

I’ve learned since then that character flaws aren’t the same things as traits or even bad habits. Flaws are deeper, more systemic and therefore, that much more compelling.  For example, if your character complains a lot, that’s a habit, a surface detail. If she’s a glass-half-empty person, that’s a trait and maybe goes skin-deep. But if you write her in such a way that her every interaction with the world is filtered through a deep belief that she’s unworthy, now you’ve got a flaw that goes all the way to her core.

Flaws emerge from a character’s background and from flaws, the story’s central conflict emerges. If Cates lacked his code of morals, he’d simply be a psychotic mass murderer and there would be no point in reading further.  But he questions and wonders and struggles.  Likewise, if Edward were a normal vampire, one who never questioned the point of drinking human blood, who murdered without guilt or regret, Bella would have died and there would have been no story.  Katniss Everdeen has done some pretty harsh things in her short life to survive.  But she is not a murderer. When thrust into a last-one-standing-wins competition, she has a very basic choice to make – kill or be killed.  How she fights that battle INTERNALLY is why this story is so good.

Flaws guide your character’s responses to a situation. Vampires drink human blood to survive. That’s a normal situation. Vampires who feel guilty over murdering innocent humans do not drink human blood.  This is a flaw. When this vampire meets a delicious-smelling human, BAM! Instant conflict.

Likewise, assassins kill. That would be a normal situation.  Assassins who feel guilty about all the people they’ve killed are flawed. When this assassin is recognized by a reporter he has not been sent to kill, will he kill her or not? Cates spares her life, telling her he’s not completely uncivilized. And that had me choking up.

Truly compelling flaws don’t even have to be flaws… at first. Think Mr. Spock from Star Trek. Is the pursuit of logic a bad thing? Nope (and I’m certain many men wish their wives lived less by emotion and more by cold, hard, reasoning). Yet, Spock’s devotion to logic often led him to heartless decisions.

In my current WIP, main character Dan is a compulsive liar. He does not lie because he enjoys it. In fact, the more he lies, the more guilt he feels. So why lie? He lies because he believes he must to protect his family and continues enduring the guilt.  His background supports the need to lie and from the lying, the rest of the story emerges. I find him compelling and hope my readers will, too.

What say you about cardboard characters?



7 responses to “Cardboard is for recycling”

  1. Great post! I, myself, once wrote a short story about a character that was unlikeable, believing that flaws and bad traits were the same. Boy, was I wrong once the beta comments came back! Lesson learned…cardboard characters definitely need to be recycled into new, better, and yes, flawed peeps.

    FYI: If I ever ran into the M&M’s, no matter how cute the Yellow guy is on the commercials, I would be chasing after them yelling, “Get in my belly!”

  2. Great post! I think you hit on a key def. of a flaw – it has to be tied into the backstory so the character doesn’t come across as a jerk or unlikeable!

  3. abby mumford says:

    patty – this is great! i starred it in my google reader. i’ll definitely be coming back to re-read it from time to time because you’ve just articulated something that was nagging me with my current WIP. the lack of a flaw.

    also — have you read LIAR by justine larbalestier? talk about an unreliable narrator. so well done.

  4. Matt Delman says:

    I can say little else except this:

    Slam dunk.

    • Patty says:

      Karla, M&M’s? I love them, too. Come to think of it, I haven’t met chocolate I didn’t like yet.

      Laura, you’re right. Finding flaws that connect to the backstory help stop us from shooting ourselves in the foot. I did that with my hockey murder mystery and the result was an inherently unlikeable guy.

      Abby, no I haven’t read LIAR, which I first thought said, LAIR and – nevermind. I need to wear my glasses more. Glad you found it useful!

      Matt, THANK you!

  5. Tim King says:

    Dan sounds vaguely like Michael Corleone. So that can’t be all bad.

    I’m a big believer in deep, realistic characters, and I agree that you have to dig deep—way deeper than most people think—to get to them. A number of stories I’ve recently read seem to throw choices and decisions at characters, but without any consistency in the psychological patterns behind those decisions. (Wow. This is good stuff. I should be writing this down.)


    • Patty says:

      You do! I made that mistake with the first novel I wrote (and described in this post.) Jared, my hero, had a bunch of traits but no real reason for making the decisions he made. But Dan, on the other hand, is a deeply flawed young man. Every decision he makes is colored by his guilt and regret, as well as by his intense desire to protect his family. What’s even more interesting is when I think of Jared and Dan, I think of Jared in “words” but of Dan in real images.

      That’s how I know I’ve done a decent job at characterization.