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Characterization Isn’t Always Pretty
As a writer and a person, I subscribe to the philosophy of life Gerard Manley Hopkins described in “Pied Beauty.” He glorifies God for “dappled things,” for “all things counter, original, spare, strange,” for “whatever is fickle, freckled,” and for the “swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim” parts of creation.
Most of my characters are “dappled things” because they are flawed, and that’s what makes them interesting—and human. Imperfection can be beautiful, and novelists can embrace this idea to create wonderfully flawed characters readers will remember long after they have finished the last sentence.
Flaws in flawed characters
No matter how you create a character—even a so-called “perfect” and lovable character—at least one reader will have a problem with that character. That, too, is human. On the one hand, readers will say, “They were the perfect couple,” yet they will later rant, “They were too perfect, and it made me want to puke!” On the one hand, readers will rave, “She was such a strong, driven woman,” yet they will later moan, “She made me want to choke her when she did that!” Readers are fickle. Readers are flawed and imperfect; therefore, readers are beautiful, too.
Creating flawed characters is like pulling a slot machine, throwing dice, or spinning the roulette wheel. Sometimes your attention to significant “flawed detail” pays off in a big way, and sometimes it costs you dearly. As I write, I try to concentrate on what real people might say and do in real situations as much as I can, yet readers still tell me, “That was completely unrealistic to me because I have never heard anyone say or do that.” Readers who appreciate reality will thank you for your efforts: “I saw myself in her … As I read I thought that this could happen to me … I know someone exactly like her … she gave me hope.”
Some “experts” who allegedly “teach” others how to write novels evidently don’t want writers to live in the real world either, especially when it comes to writing dialogue. At a so-called “how to write a novel” website, I read that the way people really speak is “hopeless” for use in a novel and that novelists should improve on dialogue. How strange and unoriginal is that? Allow me to write an “improved” piece of dialogue for you:
He: My darling, you look positively ravishing tonight.
She: Why, thank you, most kind sir.
After you finish gagging and you close that Harlequin, you realize that in the real world, you would actually hear something closer to this:
He: Girrrrl, you're lookin’ good!
Flawed characters earn hate mail
Over the years, I have gotten plenty of hate mail, most of it directed at my imperfect, flawed characters. Renee was too bossy and demanding in Renee and Jay. “She treated her man wrong, and he was such a sweetheart!” a reader wrote. And yet, Renee softened her heart, fell in love, and married him. Renee continues to be demanding in Renee and Jay 2, and one reader said, “I hated her because of how she was raising her daughter.” Renee empowers her daughter not to be a victim at any time. Why would anyone hate a mother for teaching her daughter that? Though I had Penny cursing mostly in her narration and in her mind in Something Real, some readers wrote, “Church people don’t curse at all!” Really? At all? Penny is plus size and Dewey is as wide as he is tall, and they fall in love. A reader wrote, “I didn’t see the attraction at all.” Could this mean that the reader wasn’t attracted to Dewey? The two characters feel the attraction, and that’s all that matters. According to one reader, Nisi is too introverted in I’m Your Girl: “That woman needed a backbone!” Nisi is a shy librarian. How much backbone does she need? Katharina in She’s the One is “an absolute shrew!” Well, I am recreating Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, and Katharina is supposed to be shrewish in the beginning until Pietro tames her in the end. Readers found Shari in I’ll Be Your Everything to be “indecisive, fearful, and unsure of herself.” Shari impersonates her boss while her boss is on vacation. If she is caught, she’ll lose her job. Why wouldn’t Shari be indecisive, fearful, and unsure of herself?
Readers sometimes hang on to a flaw that I give a character on page two all the way to the end of the novel even though I have “resolved” that flaw on page 150: “I didn’t like her because of what she did in chapter one.” My character changed. Flawed people often do that. It’s what makes flawed people fun. They can change. Perfect people can’t change. They have to be perfect all the time. My character got past whatever it was you didn’t like. Why can’t you? Sometimes readers don’t grow nearly as much as our characters do by the end of the novel.
Flawed on purpose
Will I continue to populate my novels with flawed characters? Definitely. Will I continue to get hate mail? Probably. Does it bother me? No. I don’t write novels in the hopes that I won’t get hate mail. I write to get a reaction from my readers. I want to tick them off, make them laugh, make them cry, and make them wonder. I want to keep them thinking and interacting with the imperfect people in my world. It’s my job to take my readers’ emotions on a roller-coaster ride into a world unknown to them, and I’d be doing my readers a disservice if the people they meet in my novels weren’t interestingly flawed, damaged, or dysfunctional in some way.
One reader hated one of my heroines with such a passion that she wrote me a dozen times to tell me. I replied to her once: “If you want to read an impossibly perfect romance starring impossibly perfect people, write your own. If you want to read an imperfect yet possible romance starring ordinary and flawed people, read my next novel.”
If you create characters who are “spare, strange … fickle, freckled … [and] adazzle, dim,” you may catch some heat and receive some hate mail. Shrug your shoulders when that happens because it probably will happen. Flawed characters might not always be pretty, but they can certainly be pretty durn interesting and entertaining to read about.