25 December 2010

Flawed Characters

Neil Gaiman wrote about his gloriously cranky cat a few weeks ago, and concluded,
When Zoe died, it was really easy to explain to people how much you could miss a sweet, gentle cat who was nothing but a ball of utter love. I'm going to have a much harder time one day, months or even years from now, explaining why I miss the meanest, grumpiest and most dangerous cat I've ever encountered. 
If you look in his boat, you'll see me there paddling right beside him.  I've got the kind of cat who makes people think thrice before coming over.  She once sent a friend, white-faced and wide-eyed, fleeing from my bedroom (appropriately enough, I'd sent said friend in there to retrieve Neil Gaiman's Sandman, which she'd sadly not yet read).  When I inquired why she'd emerged on the porch sans book and in a wretched state, she informed me it was because my feline had given her the hairy eyeball and growled a growl that said, "If you're still in this room two seconds from now, I shall be ripping your limbs off."  And she'd have done it, too.  She once chased my mom out of the apartment for the simple offense of trying to clean the house.  I've had to wrap her in blankets, towels and once a cloak to prevent grievous bodily harm; ended up with severe bruising and quarter-inch deep fang marks when I stepped between her and the husky she was trying to eviscerate, and she's even terrified a vet into a corner.

She is on Santa's NAUGHTY list.  All caps.  She's not just got issues, but subscriptions and a full set of back issues.  And yet, I love her more than any other cat I've been owned by, and I'll miss her fiercely when she's gone, and I won't be able to explain why.  People will probably assume I'm suffering from Battered Cat Servant Syndrome. 

That's not the case.  It's just that she's a Flawed Character.  So was my pony, who was known for beer-begging and his 1001 Clever Tricks for Unseating Unsuspecting (or Suspecting) Riders.  I still miss that little bastard.  My most cherished pets put me in mind of what John Clare said:

And e'en the dearest--that I love the best--
Are strange--nay, rather stranger than the rest.

And that brings me to writing, because there, too, I'm a sucker for Flawed Characters.  Neil Gaiman's Dream, for instance, wasn't some majestic, perfect being - for all his power to shape our dreams, for all his mystique and morality and incredible powers, he was still something of a stuffy jerk who failed horribly at relationships: with women, with family, with just about anyone.  I mean, seriously, when his son Orpheus lost Eurydice, he couldn't even give him a reassuring pat and a sympathetic shoulder to cry on.  No, he just gave him a lecture:
"You are mortal: it is the mortal way. You attend the funeral, you bid farewell. You grieve. Then you continue with your life. And at times, the fact of her absence will hit you like a blow to the chest, and you will weep. But this will happen less and less as time goes on. She is dead. You are alive. So live. "
It's great advice, fantastic advice, and I've followed it more than once.  But diplomatic and empathetic it ain't.  And that's Dream: wise, but clueless when it comes to interpersonal interactions.  Which is one of the many reasons I loved him so.

There's R.D. Wingfield's Jack Frost, a first-class screw-up who's constantly in trouble with the brass and only solves cases through improbable strings of coincidences and fortuitous mistakes.  There's Terry Pratchett's Rincewind, a dyed-in-the-wool coward who only lusts after potatoes and boredom.  Elaine Cunningham's Danilo Thann, a pretty rich boy who's so full of himself that if he were a sofa, he'd be so overstuffed you couldn't even sit on him.  They've been my friends all these long years, not despite their flaws, but because of them.

They're Flawed Characters, y'see.  And Flawed Characters can be incredibly endearing.

Why do we love them so?  They're memorable.  They're interesting.  They're unpredictable (or predictable, but whose flaws put them into unpredictable situations).  Their flaws provide a nice contrast, making their good qualities shine all the more.  They're imperfect, like us.  We can relate.

Awesome! you think.  I'll just slap my characters with a really severe character flaw or two!

Not so fast, there, you.  Consider carefully before you go tacking flaws onto a perfectly good character willy-nilly.

First, remember that the really great Flawed Characters are a mix: they're not all flaw.  You'll have a rough go of it if you've got all Flaw with no Character.

Watch out for ye olde hackneyed cliches, like the prostitute with the heart of gold.

Flawed Characters haven't usually got a single flaw, but a few, with one standing out above all.  And their good qualities endear us to them despite it all.

And, most importantly: be careful with character flaws.  Don't just throw one in so you can say, "Look, Ma, my character's flawed, too!"  If you're choosing from a list of potential flaws, you're doing it wrong.  Flaws should arise from who that person is and what they've experienced in life.  Otherwise, all you've got is a bad version of deus ex machina, and that's not a good thing.

Just don't force it, is what I'm saying.  We're not rolling characters for a D&D campaign where every Merit has to be balanced by a Flaw.  These are story people, and some will naturally be more flawed than others, and some may not even seem flawed at all.  And you know what?  Despite what people say, that's not all bad.  I mean, Neil Gaiman's Death was about as flawless as it gets, and yet she still shines.  She's fun, she's fascinating, she's a great favorite - not because she's flawed, but because she's unexpected.  I mean, Death as a cute and perky Goth chick?  But she works.  She totally works.

If you've got a character who's interesting without obvious flaws, don't go foisting flaws upon them just because you think that's the Done Thing.  Let your Wise Readers tell you whether that character works or not before you go fiddling with flaws.

 But if a Flawed Character comes into your life, allow yourself a little unconditional love and run with it.  Don't minimize their flaws, flaunt them!

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the guest post, heart sister! I knew this coffee spot was in good hands this week!


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