Diana Y. Paul is joining me on the blog to talk about the importance of creating realistic characters – warts and all! I hope you enjoy her wonderful guest post. Diana is the author of Things Unsaid.
You Don’t Have to Like My Characters!
by Diana Y. Paul
Why are some readers drawn to anti-heroes as main characters? Maybe it’s because anti-heroes who can handle pressure with determination give readers hope. But with anti-heroes or disturbingly flawed characters, it’s easy to go too far…even to the dark side. But how I love the dark side!
The flawed character can be unappealing. Like a joke taken too far, however, it’s hard to entice a reader back once this happens. Characters, like people, are flawed for a reason. As an author, I want the reader to understand poor decisions, hostile behavior, sour relationships. And that is my biggest challenge.
The protagonist can be someone who makes you want to run away just like an anti-hero. But anti-heroes are becoming increasingly popular (think: Olive Kitteridge, “August: Osage County”, Maine, and the recent television shows “How to Get Away with Murder”, “Dexter”, “Breaking Bad”, and “Mad Men”.) Like real people, characters must have flaws to be credible and three-dimensional. Yet too much nastiness and the reader may shut down, disconnect, become frustrated by the narrative.
As a novelist I always want my characters to stand out from the page. There has to be a balanced view, even of the antagonists, because they think they are doing the right thing, even when they aren’t. The more complex the character, the more freedom I have to reveal some trait that could have made them a better person, given the right circumstances. In my debut novel, Things Unsaid, my clueless and obtuse protagonist has more beneath the surface than what we first see, the “why” of who she is.
Without the WHY, a reader is unable to connect. I imagine my characters’ past wounds: why they are who they are. In the case of Jules, the main character in Things Unsaid, her unbreakable sense of obligation to her parents jeopardizes her own family as well as herself. I had to ask myself why she was so blind-sided. What Jules initially thought were her virtues, were actually flaws. The story ultimately reveals the ill-fated deal she made with her dying parents, her husband and their daughter. Those flaws then needed to be transformed into her strengths.
Flaws, therefore, are not necessarily problems. They are a fundamental part of who we are. The reader can hopefully see a glimmer of light even in the antagonist: the person she could have been – a more loving and forgiving individual. The past is not an excuse for negative behavior, but it can be a portal to understanding why she is the person she has become. If flaws cannot be relatable, no matter what other positive traits the character has, the reader will simply find your character repugnant and repulsive. It is a fine line between believable and repellant.
Here’s where the novelist’s “double vision” comes in. I must write from the character’s viewpoint, sympathizing with her, while at the same time being perfectly aware of what outside readers think of her. I get to see both points of view at once!
In the end, I am not afraid to take readers into the dark corners of the psyche, before there is light. I have found my voice and my niche: writing family drama with a healthy dose of darkness and secrets exposed. You don’t have to like this family.