Flawed Characters

unnamedI’ve always had this problem, making my characters real, making them flawed like you or me. Even that is hard to write down. It’s one thing to know I’m flawed (hello, have you seen me trying to have a normal, adult conversation in a social setting that is neither business nor educationally related) but another to write down things like: doesn’t deal well with jealousy; sometimes sees the worst in people before looking for the best; still has an excruciatingly hard time saying no to people whose opinions are valued.

Once, at my husband’s work Christmas party, a local successful author was there with her husband who was receiving an award. I badly wanted to talk to her, introduce myself. Her husband had been trying to get us to connect for a while. So I did what any self respecting author would do, downed the last quarter of my champagne and mosied over.

I swear I had only two drinks the entire night, yet the words that fell out of my mouth were, “Hi, I’m Shane’s husband. I mean wife. Wife! I know my own gender!” Ack. Here I am, zipped in this fru fru new dress, high heels and makeup on, introducing myself to someone in my field as my husband’s husband. I quickly looked away but my dignity was nowhere to be found.

She was generous, of course, which fits exactly what I’ve heard about her. She simply said, “Hi, I’m this guy’s husband.” She too, dressed in her sparkly frock, was obviously not. There was still no salvaging any conversation. I  booked it out of there and to the car.

Flawed. Funny maybe, but a representation that things go south for me…mostly by my own doing. Yet, this is something I have had trouble developing for my characters.

You can’t just say, “Sarah, while pretty and engaging, was a whiner who didn’t care what sort of man she married or what habits he indulged in so long as he could foot the bill for the expensive clothier on fifth street.” Well, I guess you could. It’s just that the work would suck. You can’t tell an audience that there’s just something wrong with your character. You can’t throw in a Look she’s lazy or See here he’s shallow. You can’t do it even if you really, really want to.

This is the work part of writing. This is the stuff that doesn’t necessarily make it into plot outlines or organizational charts as you’re planning a novel. This is the part of being an author where you have to know people, observe them, understand that what Sally, Jim, and Hannah would do in the same situation varies significantly.

In the theme of flaws, I admit this is something I need to continue to work on. A perfect character: great mother, indulgent wife, holding down a lucrative and upward moving job in a sparkling clean house with zero conflict…while we may all want to be that she-who-never-existed, the fact is she’s just not interesting. We don’t want to read about her. A great character is a flawed, imperfect character who reacts to tough situations in unanticipated ways. Maybe I (and you out there) need to remember this in our daily lives, too. We may never be perfect, but we can certainly strive to be interesting. And, perhaps most importantly of all, we can let ourselves off the hook for not being perfect. I think I needed to hear (read?) that today, even if it was scribbled by my own metaphorical pen. You’re off the hook. You’re doing your best. It’s okay to be Shane’s husband (though it does make that birth thing I did a little complicated).

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