Stick-in-my-Craw Character Flaws

Wednesday, August 01, 2018
I consider myself pretty flexible when it comes to fictional characters.

You want a boy wizard who can do real magic? Build me an authentic fantasy world and I’m down with that. You got a teen warrior girl who can take down a whole bunch of other, way more experienced warrior-types in competition? Give me enough of an emotional narrative and I’m buying that, too. But there are a few character missteps that drive me crazy, so crazy that I want to stop reading. And you do not want an agent, editor, or a publisher to stop reading, too. So my tip for today is simple: steer away from a flaw that might stick in someone’s craw.

The Character Who Behaves Completely Out of Character

I cannot tell a lie; this switcheroo makes me want to throw a book across the room.

You know the character I’m talking about…the protagonist whom we think we know (because the author has spent at least half the book giving us all kinds of details that support the character’s…well, character) suddenly does something that goes against everything we know about him or her.

The trope along these lines that’s like fingernails on a chalkboard to me is the unpopular outsider character who falls for friendly overtures from the popular character. Like the girl who has serious trust issues, the loner in the school, team, or squad, who is out-of-the-blue befriended by the super cool, "it" kid in the school, team, or squad. And the poor, downtrodden character falls for it hook, line, and sinker because this time, it’ll be different. (Spoiler alert: It’s not.)

Yes, Stephen King pulled it off in Carrie. And granted, he went on to be STEPHEN KING, with Carrie made into a cult classic movie. But that doesn’t mean every novel with high school or middle school kids in it has to have this character line. Give your outsider characters a new twist on this trope, and give your readers a book they’ll want to dive into (instead of throwing across the room).

The Window Dressing Character

Okay, I’m not throwing any books across the room on this one; I’m too bored to make the effort.

This is the character who’s thrown in to make the story pretty. Or to add diversity. Or because you can’t have a gang of one sex without tossing in at least one of the opposite sex to make plots interesting. So you have the girl who has very few lines of dialogue. Or the Asian kid who shows up in every scene and yet has no real reason to be there. Or maybe it’s a dog or mouse or a robot who pops in every once in a while because kids like stories with animals (or robots). But whomever or whatever the character is, he, she, or it is boring or unnecessary. So give your characters a purpose—even if it’s just comic relief—and keep your readers interested.

The Really Unlikable Protagonist

Granted, this might be subjective. What’s unlikable to one reader may be relatable to another. But here’s the thing: a reader needs to root for the protagonist, and there are just some traits that make a character pretty unrootable. (Yeah, that’s not a word, but you know what I mean.)

Still, I might be able to root for a despicable bully if there’s enough of a backstory to show why he or she is a despicable bully. AND if the character organically grows and changes over the course of the plot.

Or if a protagonist starts out whiny and pulling the poor-pitiful-me act, I’m going to need…okay, I’m probably not going to spend time with this character. Because let’s face it, y’all.

Nobody likes a whiner.

(Wait up! What character flaw sticks in your craw? Writers want to know before they send the manuscript out!)

~Cathy C. Hall (who's busily revising a manuscript because--yep, you guessed it. There are character problems.)


Sioux Roslawski said...

Cathy--You are making me rethink one of my characters in my manuscript. Is she just window-dressing, because I need a little sister?

Whoopsie. I'll have to make sure she's got a definite reason to be there.

(And you've made me curious. What's your novel about?)

Cathy C. Hall said...

Sioux, it's a middle grade novel about a famous person. (I'll send you the deets; you're the perfect beta reader for this one!)

Margo Dill said...

This is a great list. Stereotypes drive me batty. It's hard if you are writing a book true to life, because let's face it, stereotypes exist for a reason, but I think this is a case where everyone has to dig down deep and find what makes every person unique and that includes every character!

Suzanne Pitner said...

Thank you for these great reminders. Right now I'm struggling through a book in which the main character is a big yawn. These kinds of books always make me take a second or third or umpteenth look at my own characters with a critical eye.

Cathy C. Hall said...

Exactly, Margo. And you're right, too, Suzanne. When I read a book like that I wonder how it got published; most of the time, it's because there's a great concept. Then again, sometimes, is just a puzzlement. :-)

Lisa Ricard Claro said...

Spot on, as usual! You probably don't remember---but I do---that you caught me more than once with a wallflower character. I learned from you many moons ago to cut out those space suckers. And the last one, the unlikable protagonist, is a lesson some of today's screenwriters should take. I get that they're trying to write quirky, interesting, multi-faceted characters, but sometimes it's too-too, and instead of being any of that the character is just unlikable. That was how I felt about every single character in the movie Ocean's 8. I usually love Sandra Bullock no matter what she's in, but her character in that movie was just so awful, as were the other characters. I left the movie disappointed because I disliked all the characters and had no one to really root for. In the earlier Ocean's movies with George Clooney, at least his character was charming. No one in Ocean's 8 was even close to charming.

Hm. That was quite the rant. Apparently I'm more passionate about this than I thought. :)

Cathy C. Hall said...

Better to rant here than throwing a TV or laptop across the room, Lisa! Hahahahhaha!

But yeah, I get you. (Didn't see the movie, but conversely, if I really like a character, I'll sit through a so-so plot. Series TV seems to understand how important it is to have compelling, rootable characters.)

Dang. Rootable really should be a word...

Jane Hawkins said...

Oops. I need to do another revisions. And by the way, while reading a book I began to highlight some of the beautiful language then I remembered it was a library book. Yikes. Yes, I will confess.

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