Rosanne Dingli

Rosanne Dingli

Friday, November 25, 2011

A weak character can make a strong protagonist

Most writing manuals, courses on creative writing and authors' handbooks tell the writer to create strong characters. This makes one visualize tough personalities, imperturbable people who march through the written pages like nothing can flap them. Like they are made of steel. Titanium. Sterner stuff than we meet in our daily humdrum lives.

Strong character
Hm - on the other hand, authors are required by their audience to be believable. To create characters one might enjoy meeting. Or fear, or avoid, or love or admire, in a realistic way. To populate novels with memorable characters is certainly the requirement of today's demanding reading public.

Strong characters - two words one often finds in book reviews. Still, one has to wonder what strong really means. Exploring this in depth is vitally necessary to those who write character-driven stories: stories that stay in the heart not merely because of heart-stopping action, but because of the heart-rending emotion and psychological drama through which the author has led the protagonist.

We all have personality flaws and weaknesses - and secretly, we like to find similar failings in books, especially novels. Relating to a heroine who falls for the wrong bloke, but comes through victorious in the end makes for entertaining reading to some. Relating to a hero who dithers, ducks and weaves but reaches some sort of decision-making stance by the end can make for a good read. Many readers like it when tough-guy baddies have a chink in their armour. Since there is no such thing as a totally strong and unassailable character in life, we hardly expect to find it in fiction.

Brad Pitt as Achilles
Weakness in character, an Achilles' heel, a flaw or habit that reins in a protagonist and makes her worthy of attention can be interesting, and serve to make a novel that much more entertaining and intriguing.

In my forthcoming romantic thriller, Camera Obscura, my hero struggles valiantly with his weak side. He wonders why he cannot turn himself around, exit his inertia. He finds a woman who - in contrasting ability to his - takes charge of his life, at least for an interval, and makes him dizzy with ... with a feeling he cannot analyze. Oh dear. This man has weaknesses and failures. And yet, I have made that a strength. A strength for the novel and what it means. I hope I have imbued Bart Zacharin with enough muscle to satisfy a reader seeking change.

Perhaps that is what readers do seek: a weak character with failures much like their own, who finds an impasse but manages to overcome it.

Stay with me for the next few months, until Camera Obscura hits the online bookshops. Read chapter one by clicking on this link, and try and figure how I take Bart Zacharin from his state of inertia and make of him a fine hero one would not mind keeping and following.

Tell me what kind of character you like, if you are a reader. If you are an author, do you relish putting your characters through trials and tribulations that make them stronger?

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  1. I don't mind if characters are weak at the beginning, then learn and grow. But I don't like it if they stay weak and don't move on. In fact, my recent novel 'Moving On' was about a woman who did just that. They call these coming of age stories, and I love them.

    I don't like macho heroes who take over the world - or dominate a woman. Ugh!

    Really, I think strong characters means believable 'people'. The gives lots of latitude for all the different types.

  2. Interesting topic. I also find most of my characters have a myriad of flaws. Does this make them weak? But I enjoy working with characters who aren't perfect and who must discover their own answers and strengths as they unravel whatever mystery I have sent them on. I think characters who are strong enough to know themselves and their weaknesses are characters that readers can relate to.

  3. I have to say that I generally find flawed characters more interesting. It's the the way a character grows that keeps me reading. It's a risk though. The writer needs to find that balance between flawed but still likeable or at least someone with whom the reader can empathise. That said even an unlikeable character can make an interesting protagonist. I've read several novels recently which have used that premise.

  4. Rosanne, you raise an issue that is critical to any consideration of what makes good fiction. I would suggest that a character's "flaws" or "weaknesses" are relative to the context. A trait may be a liability in one situation or relationship but an asset in another. If characters are to come to terms with their own strengths and weaknesses, they will need somehow to examine them in relation to their circumstances. And of course this means that the author must do it for them. Or should that be "with them"?

  5. Thank you all for responding in such a considered way... you sound like authors! 8-)

    I can see that this is a topic that merits a long discussion. Wouldn't it be lovely if we all sat around a table and nutted it out?

    I can see that we all agree human frailty and the understanding that we all have flaws are aspects of the human condition that authors know readers like to find in fiction.

  6. Strong characters to me are those who are complex and believable and I need there to be something likeable about them or something I can relate to in some way.The flaws are just as important as the good qualities. Too perfect and I lose interest.