Nobody’s Perfect

First a reminder of two events: tomorrow (Thursday, January 17th) at the New York Society Library in New York City, and Sunday (January 20th) at The Studio Around the Corner here in Brewster, New York–although that one may have to wait for the snow date on February 3rd. For details, click on In Person here on the website. If anyone can make it, I’d love to see you!

On November 16, 2018, Emma wrote, I’m an aspiring 13-year-old writer and really appreciate your blog! I was wondering if you had any advice on developing character flaws. I kind of want my characters to be ‘perfect,’ but I know that’s not realistic and the readers need to be able to connect with the characters. Thanks for any suggestions!

Melissa Mead wrote back, Have their flaws grow out of their strengths. For example, if they’re very smart, they might look down on people who aren’t. Maybe without even realizing that they’re doing it.

Kit Kat Kitty wrote back, too, Characters can also have flaws because of the situation they’re in. One of my characters was raised in a strict order, so she has no idea how the rest of the world works, so she needs someone to help her. Her aunt also died to save her, so she feels like she has to do something to make her dead aunt proud. She’s also amazingly headstrong. My other character was the sole survivor of a massacre in his village, so he doesn’t like to attach himself to people, although he is a lady’s man. And my other character was taken from her parents when she was a child to be raised in the same order as the first character I mentioned, so she has trust issues, and some identity issues, and her lover dies.

I am not very nice to my characters, am I? So the point is, characters can have emotional scares or be thrust into situations they can’t handle to bring out their flaws.

Yay, Emma, for wanting to give her characters flaws! We all have ‘em; our characters need ‘em.

Early in the life of the blog, people kept posting about Mary-Sue characters, and I asked who or what a Mary Sue is. Some on the blog were kind enough to explain: a Mary Sue (or Marty Stu) is perfect! She can solve any problem, and almost everyone loves her. Those who don’t are eventually revealed as villains. You can read about the Mary-Sue trope on Wikipedia.

My husband and I have been watching The Amazing Mrs. Maisel–definitely high school and up–on TV, and, in the second season, I’ve noticed that the writers have given Mary-Sue attributes to their eponymous MC. For example, a brilliant but eccentric artist, after meeting Mrs. Maisel for just a few minutes, is so smitten with her that he shows her his masterpiece, which no one else has been allowed to see. She hasn’t done anything so extraordinary as to merit this honor. Grr…, I thought, about a show I generally like.

We don’t want our readers to be similarly irritated.

I agree with both Melissa Mead and Kit Kat Kitty. Flaws can come from strong points and from backstory.

They can also come from plot. Here on the blog I seem to go back often to “Snow White.” Snow White is about as Mary Sue as a character can get, since the prince falls madly in love with her even though she seems to be dead!

But she has flaws baked into the plot that we can exploit. The dwarfs warn her not to trust anyone who comes to their cottage, but she seems incapable of taking their advice and repeatedly opens the door. She lets the evil queen lace her bodice and comb her hair and feed her a poisoned apple. Earlier in her story, she has no suspicions about her stepmother’s character. What character flaw or flaws can we derive from her behavior?

∙ She’s stupid. This is low-hanging fruit because she sure seems stupid.

∙ She is determined to see the best in everyone and willing to go to great lengths to prove she’s right, hanging onto the conviction that the old lady didn’t mean to lace her up so tight and wasn’t aware of the comb’s properties. She may even worry that the old lady, in her innocence, was herself harmed by the comb. When she shows up for the third times, Snow White is relieved.

∙ She’s defiant. When the dwarfs tell her not to let anyone in, it’s inevitable that she will.

∙ She’s almost as vain as the evil queen. She wants to be laced up tight to make her waist as small as possible and wants the curls that the comb is guaranteed to provide. The apple is touted as great for her complexion. She can’t resist.

I’m sure there are other flaws that can explain her behavior. For an early prompt, list three more.

The next step is to consider which of the flaws interests us most and which expands our plot and gives us new ideas for conflict.

We can use the same strategy for minor characters, like the dwarfs. What flaws can they have that might lead Snow White to welcome the old lady? We probably don’t need to develop all seven in depth. One or two will do. So what might their flaws be?

∙ One may be a neat freak. If anything is the slightest bit out of place when he and his fellows come home from mining, he has a tantrum. Snow White is scared to move when she’s alone.

∙ One has a terrible temper. The other dwarfs and Snow White tiptoe around him.

∙ One is grudging about her presence and makes clear that she has to earn her keep by cleaning and cooking.

∙ Another is a slob. Snow White is forever cleaning up after him.

And so on. There must be more.

For another flaw-creating strategy, we can make a list, and you all know how much I love them. We can write down every fault we can think of. For this, we don’t want super-villain flaws, like a desire for world domination. We want garden-variety shortcomings. Here are a few:

∙ absentmindedness
∙ forgetfulness
∙ being a tad self-centered
∙ talking too much
∙ overconfident
∙ under-confident
∙ can’t keep a secret

For another early prompt, list twelve to twenty more. It may help to think of the foibles of people you know and even of yourself. What drives you crazy in them and in yourself?

Once you have your list, cast your eyes along it. Mark the ones that appeal to you. Jot down some notes about how you might give one or more of them to your MC and how the flaws will contribute to your story, and also how these flaws mesh with what you already know about her.

Then, as you continue writing or move into your story, remember to bring them in as your flawed character acts, speaks, and thinks.

Here are three prompts, in addition to the ones above:

∙ It’s November. Your flawed MC and her flawed best friend take on NaNoWriMo. Write the tale of their month. Use their flaws both to help and hinder them from reaching their goals. Decide if one or both of them succeeds and if they’re still friends at the end.

∙ Pick three different flaws for Snow White–or any fairy tale MC. Write a synopsis of the story three times, showing how the flaw influences the way the plot develops. If you like, choose one and write the whole story.

∙ I just looked at the Wikipedia entry for the Hindenburg disaster. Sabotage was suspected as a cause but never proved, and there were other, technical possibilities. Along these lines, read up on the Hindenburg disaster or any other terrible event. Develop flawed characters who influence the way history plays out. This is fiction, so you can change anything–introduce a dragon or zombies, set it in the future or the Middle Ages. Write the story.

Have fun and save what you write!

  1. I’m a teenage writer who is in the process of editing my second book (first novel). I’m curious about my next step in the process to get published. (I want to publish traditionally, but am not sure how/if I should get an agent.) Are there any agents who take teenage authors? How can I edit it to make sure I have the best novel possible to send to an agent? How can Beta Readers help me in that process?
    Sorry for all the questions, but I have a couple more about the content of my story: my book ends bitter-sweetly, where one of the MCs dies. The other MC basically vows to avenge his death. How can I make my book so that readers are both content with the ending and want to read the next book in the series?
    Okay, last question: The MC has to tell her parents what happened to the dead MC. His death involved magical creatures, although they live in modern day South Carolina. What is a good way for the parents to respond? She doesn’t tend to be a lier, so is it reasonable for them to believe her outright, especially if her siblings agree with her story?
    Okay, I’m going to list out my questions:
    Are there any agents who take teenage authors?
    How can I edit it to make sure I have the best novel possible to send to an agent?
    How can Beta Readers help me in that process?
    How can I make my book so that readers are both content with the ending and want to read the next book in the series?
    What is a reasonable way for the MC’s parents to respond to the other MC’s death? Is it reasonable for them to believe the MC, even if she claims that monsters killed the boy?

    Thanks,
    Emily
    P.S. I’m a huge fan of your novels! My favorite is probably the ones about Elodie. Will you ever write any more of those mysteries?

    • While I’m thinking about Emily’s questions. I just thought I’d mention that while I haven’t seen The Amazing Mrs. Maisel, a friend got to be in the background of one scene as a photographer. That must be so much fun!

    • Hi Emily! Let me try to answer your questions one by one:

      1. I started querying as a teen too (well, I guess I’m still technically a teen, albeit not for long now), and I can tell you that agents absolutely represent teen authors. Age doesn’t matter at all, as long as you act mature and professional. If you’re really worried, you can always take your age out of the query; that’s what I did and what a lot of authors do. There are also pitch contests especially for teens, like #TeenPit (https://khopkinswriter.wordpress.com/teenpit/), which might help you get an agent faster.

      2. As for editing, there’s no “right” way to edit, but generally the process should go something like: self edits (where you read the whole thing through and fix any and all problems that you can find yourself) -> sending it out to critique partners/beta readers (typically multiple, if you can find them) and getting feedback -> revising based on their feedback -> repeat as necessary until you feel like your book is the best you can get it. And it also helps to do one last readthrough to check for spelling/grammar issues before sending it out to agents. If there’s any specific part of editing (plot, pacing, characters, etc.) that you need help with, Gail has a bunch of posts on the blog, and I’m sure all the readers here can recommend many more.

      3. Beta readers are incredibly useful in that they can help spot problems in your story that you can’t see yourself. Often writers are too close to their own work, and it takes a fresh look from an outsider to truly fix any deep story problems.

      4. I think the key to an ending that wraps things up while leaving room for further books is that *something* gets resolved. It doesn’t have to be everything, and you can definitely leave some loose ends, but a significant part of the main conflict should be resolved, or at least evolved to turn into a new conflict. A popular option is to resolve the main conflict, and then introduce a brand new one at the end. The ending of Rick Riordan’s The Lightning Thief is a great example: the quest is over, the lightning bolt is retrieved, but SURPRISE! it’s revealed that Chronos (the series villain) was behind the whole plot, which was just the first part in his plan. The characters will have to deal with him eventually, but they’ll get one peaceful summer first.

      5. I think the parents’ reaction depends a lot on their personality; do they believe in the supernatural (even just slightly) or are they die hard skeptics? Unless they already lean towards believing, I would say they probably wouldn’t believe her. Even if she’s not a liar, there’s just too many logical explanations that would work better than monsters. (Mistaking a wild animal or human murderer for a monster, hallucinations, intoxication (if she’s the type), etc.) But if it’s necessary for the plot, the reader will probably suspend their disbelief for a bit.

  2. Emmeline Whitby says:

    Hi! Thank you so much for the suggestions and for posting my question! I really enjoy your books and blog, and I was so excited when I saw this post. I showed my family the post the second I saw it 😁. And thanks again to Melissa Mead and Kit Kat Kitty for responding.

    P.S. I changed my name to avoid confusion 😉

    • Well, I hadn’t really helped yet, but you’re welcome! 🙂 Looks like Raina covered things really well. One thing I thought of that might be different for teen authors is that you might want to check if there’s minimum age for signing legally binding contracts.

        • Gail Carson Levine says:

          I agree that Raina’s answers are wonderful. My only question is: Why do the parents have to believe the MC about the monsters? Does it matter if they don’t?

          I’m so glad you enjoyed the mysteries. Alas, more Elodie books are unlikely. STOLEN MAGIC found few readers (except for you!), and my publisher isn’t interested in another one. I’m sorry–I love the characters, especially Meenore.

          • That’s sad! I love Stolen Magic, and I’m sad that there won’t be any more Meenore. The Elodie novels were some of the first ones I found that introduced me to your writing.

          • Kit Kat Kitty says:

            That’s so sad! I don’t usually buy many books, but I bought both Stolen Magic and Two Castles. I love them both.

          • I want the MC to have a good relationship with her parents, so that’s why I want them to believe her. Two of her sisters were also involved in it, so I want the family to be close. If they don’t believe her, they might think she was crazy and killed the boy MC. His body was left in another world, so the police won’t find it. I’m not sure how to handle all the police investigations. Any tips on that?
            Also, I’m so sad that there will be no more Elodie novels, and no more Meenore.

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