Make Flawed Characters Likable

Today’s guest is Kristin Neva, an author and blogger who writes small-town fiction set on Upper Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula.

Kristin’s first book, Heavy, co-authored with her husband, Todd, journeys through the first year after Todd’s ALS diagnosis as the Nevas struggle to find meaning, hold on to faith, and discover joy in the midst of pain.

She will give a copy of her book Copper Country, A Copper Island Novel, to someone who comments, so please sign up.

3 Ways to Make Deeply Flawed Characters Likable

If you’ve ever interviewed for a job, you may have been asked about your greatest strengths and weaknesses. It’s a trick question. They’re looking for chinks in your armor.

You may have answered with a weakness that can only benefit your potential employer — “Sometimes I’m so dedicated to my work that I forget to eat lunch and I get really hungry.”

It’s a non-weakness.

If our characters are too perfect, our readers will write them off as unrealistic. Readers want flawed characters.

Some flaws are endearing. In a romance, we cheer for the nice guy who likes the girl but tries too hard. We laugh at the absent-minded professor and the clumsy detective.

But when we write about deep themes, we may want our characters to have deep flaws, even at the risk of making them less likable. A sarcastic waitress. A judgmental woman.

Flaws may be part of the character arc or necessary for the conflict, but the protagonist must still be likable.

Here are three ways to make deeply flawed characters likable:

  • Have her save a cat

In the 1978 Christopher Reeves movie, Superman literally saves a cat stuck in a tree in one of the opening scenes.

In my most recent novel, Copper Country, my main character has a sharp edge to her tongue. To make Aimee more likable, I inserted a intellectually disabled young man into an early scene with Aimee working at a diner so she could demonstrate her kind heart.

“I got three dollars and fifty-seven cents.” Mikey strewed crumpled bills and loose change on the counter.

“That’ll buy you whatever you want.” It didn’t matter how much he had, because Aimee always covered the rest from her tips.

  • Make the character recognize and regret her flaw.

In my first novel, Snow Country, Beth is interested in Danny, but she recoils when he tells her about his sexual past.

One of my beta-readers didn’t like my main character because she was judgmental, but that was one of the main conflicts driving the book. So I had Beth recognize and regret her flaw.

“I’ll go now.” He stood.

“Don’t go.” She held his forearm and pulled him back down to the chair. “I’m sorry I was judgmental. I don’t want to be like that.”

Her judgmental-ism continued to be an issue in the story, but her being self-aware of the flaw makes it more palatable.

  • Show potential for change.

Readers will tolerate a flawed central character if they see potential for change.

In my first novel, my main character Beth is not only judgmental, but also lacks confidence. Beth had just been jilted a few weeks before her wedding, and she is understandably upset. She is 25 years old, and she’d like to move on with her life, but her mother is super controlling.

My beta-readers were not really rooting for her, but they couldn’t quite put their finger on why not.

I learned that readers do not like weak characters. They’ll root for underdogs only when they show courage. But the central character arc of my first book was Beth developing sisu, which is the word Finnish-Americans use for resilience in the face of adversity.

Ultimately, I rewrote the opening scene in which her fiancé dumps her during their burrito lunch, giving her a little more spunk than she had in earlier drafts.

“We can still be friends.” He wiped his desk with a napkin.

Well, I like my friends so that’s not going to work, she thought. “Let me help you clean that up.” She swept both burritos into the garbage can.

“Hey, I was going to eat that.”

“I was going to marry you.” She plunked the can down next to him. “Go ahead. Eat it.” She twisted the engagement ring off her finger and was about to throw it at him, but then thought better of it. She stuffed it in her pocket and left.

Those are just three ideas to make flawed characters more likable. I’d love to read other ideas from you.

Comment below and we’ll enter your name in a drawing to win a copy of Kristin’s new novel, Copper Country.

Learn more about Kristin and explore Copper Island at KristinNeva.com

 

The Crescent City Mysteries

Today, I’m interviewing Holli Castillo, whose background runs fromholli - author pic competing as a gymnast at the 1984 New Orleans World’s Fair, to working in many positions in theatrical productions, including performing as a Can Can girl.  After she received her JD from Loyola University, she joined the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s office. She quit the D.A.’s office when she had her first child, and is now an appellate public defender.  Sounds interesting to me.

 Jim:  How was it going from the DA’s office to public defender? Aren’t those on opposite sides of the aisle? 

 Holli:   They are the opposite sides, but the knowledge and skill translate well from one to the other. The D.A.’s job is supposed to be to present the truth and let the jury make a determination of whether the defendant is guilty or not. The defense’s job is to make sure that no one cheats in getting a conviction.  That isn’t the way it usually works out. Having done both, I can say both sides have the exact same goal–to win at any cost.  It’s not really so different in the end, and the law is the law.

 Jim:  At what stage did you decide to write?

Holli:   I have been writing stories since I was in Kindergarten and novels since I was in 6th grade.  I didn’t decide to try to write something for publication until I quit the D.A.’s Office to stay home with my first child in 2000.

 Jim:   holli - gumbo-2And how long did it take you from when you first started writing until Gumbo Justice appeared in 2009?

 HolliIt took about 4 years to write the novel.  But then Katrina hit in 2005 and in June of 2008 I was in a head-on collision with a drunk driver and was on my back for a year.  So it actually took 9 years, but only 4 of that was writing.

 Jim:  As with most of us, some personal history influences what gets written.  How did your experience in the District Attorney’s office color your novels?

 HolliNearly all of my ideas are sparked by real cases I’ve handled, either as a D.A. or a defense attorney.  The D.A.’s Office definitely gave me the inside track on how a prosecutor’s office works, especially the office dynamics and criminal procedure.  I can include all aspects of criminal prosecution in my novels.  My protag knows how to do everything I know how to do, she knows the same lingo, she knows how to cheat, etc. holli - jambalaya-2

  JimJambalaya Justice won an award before it was published.  Tell us just a little about that.

 HolliI entered it in the PSWA contest for unpublished fiction and it tied for first place. 

 Jim:  And the third in this Crescent City Mystery Series is called Chocolate City Justice. First, I have to ask, is New Orleans known as the Chocolate City?  I’ve never heard that term applied to New Orleans.

 HolliThe title comes from a speech our mayor made on the first Martin Luther King Day following Katrina.  He gave a grandiose speech about how at the end of the day, New Orleans would be a Chocolate City again, referring to the fact that more white people  were returning to the city than black people.  It caused quite a stir.

Jim: Well, I’ve learned something new today.  That’s good.  Tell us a little about Chocolate City Justice.

 Holli:  Ryan has just been assigned a real plum by prosecutor standards, a child’s birthday party massacre caught on videotape.  But as most things in New Orleans, nothing is what it seems and the case starts to turn into a nightmare.  And then along comes Katrina.  Ryan plans to evacuate, but does an unexpected favor for a friend, causing her to miss her window to escape the storm, ultimately putting her on the radar of the gang she’s prosecuting for the birthday party shooting.  But Ryan isn’t worried.  She’s handled some of the worst criminals the city has to offer, and hurricanes never hit New Orleans. Right? 

 Jim:  And when will that be available?

 Holli:  We’re still working on a release date, but I can safely say this year, sometime in 2014.

 Jim And lastly, where is the best place for us to buy your books? 

 Holli:  They are on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and my publisher’s website, www.oaktreebooks.com

 Thanks so much for having me!

Jim:  It was my pleasure, Holli.

 

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