I have never loved the perfect hero. The old-school heroes like Superman felt too good to be true. I blame my brothers, of course, for my issues with the pure protagonist. My first RPG character set me on the path for creating a flawed hero, and I have never looked back.
During my first campaign, I was six, my character was not. She was pretty and smart and everything a little girl wants her future self to be. My brother’s teenage friends hadn’t been thrilled letting me play with them. But I had been insistent, and my mother may have told my brothers to keep me busy for the day.
By the end of the epic six-hour campaign—far too long to hold the interest of any six-year-old—I was upstairs playing with my toys while they fought the battle to end all battles. Through the basement door, I heard my name. I took the pony I was grooming, opened the door, and yelled, “What?”
My brother who was running the game yelled up, “Mike just killed everyone else in the party and took all their stuff to split between you two. What do you do?”
Smoothing my pony’s rainbow hair down I shouted, “I kill him and take all the stuff.”
There were some teenage snickers as he replied, “OK.” I closed the door and went back to the pink castle where a new story of love was unfolding.
I smiled as I set the pony down, a warm feeling of pride settling over me. I had just beat Mike, an ever-present goal in my life at the time, and my character now had all the fun things the group had accumulated during the campaign. She was powerful and amazing. I wished I could be like her. (Backstabbing-homicidal tendencies aside.)
Being powerful and amazing makes a great heroine, but I think flaws (including backstabbing-homicidal tendencies) add to her appeal. No one is perfect. Flaws may not always make a character more likable, but they always make a character more interesting.
Flaws are what draw you in.
Our brains are pattern-matching machines. We notice what is different, and a flaw catches us because it is different than our expectations. By adding a flaw, you create an opportunity to snag your reader’s interest. If you do it well, you will hook the reader in. They will want to know more and read more to find out.
Flaws are one piece of fleshing out your characters, but they may be the most important.
The Good. The Bad and The Unexpected.
Although I want to go into more depth about building the flaws in a character. I also want to provide how I take a character from an amorphous concept, a meeple in my brain, to a living—albeit imaginary—entity.
As to be expected it starts with asking a series of questions. I don’t answer these in a particular order, but I do answer them for every character.
- What does the character want?
- What are they good at?
- What do they like?
- What do they hate?
- What do they fear? (Everyone fears something. This fear will drive them to avoid that thing.)
- What are their flaws?
- What makes them different?
- What is their quirk? Twirling your hair, scuffing shoes on the ground, whistling, laughing under stress?
For each answer, I go back through and answer why, how, and when.
For example for the question “what are they good at” I would ask.
Why are they good at it?
How are they good at it?
When did they become good at it?
This step can feel unimportant. You know your character is good at fixing cars, but does it matter how this ability manifests? You just need them to notice that the brake lines have been meddled with.
The more I critique and edit I realize that a reader will notice these holes in characters when a writer skips providing this level of depth. It makes the characters feel shy of being real. A shade of a person instead of an individual. It is these details that move your character from concept to creation.
The way the character would reveal the information about the brake lines would be different if he came from a long line of car mechanics where his skill was learned at an early age with pride, than if he was from an upper-class family who only valued activities that helped him become a doctor or lawyer and car repair was secret passion. He would talk about cars differently if he was forced or required to learn the skill rather than wanting to learn it.
When a writer knows the story behind the answer, it shines through in the nuance of the prose. It makes the character feel more real. A reader can sense these answers behind what unfolds on the page.
Roleplaying resources for character development
As a roleplayer, I have found many non-writer versions of character building. Here are a few that pose some good questions for developing characters for books or games. (Hopefully, with some questions you will not have seen.)
20 Questions for Deep Character Development breaks character development into sections. I particularly like the first couple concept questions: consider what primary emotion your character expresses and defines your character and what emotion your character evokes in others. It is a quick list that adds significant depth to a character in a short time. If you are using it for writing you can skip the Player section, but it has some great things to consider if you do play.
If you are looking for a more in-depth questionnaire, consider The 100 Most Important Things To Know About Your Character (revised) by Beth Kinderman and Nikki Walker. It is meant to be answered by your character and not about them. I think the self-image section can be particularly enlightening for character development especially when answering what your character’s greatest strength and weakness as both the author and as the character. In my experience, the answers are rarely the same. It also has things I may not have considered like if my character is right or left-handed.
Identifying Character Traits
Ash’s Guide to RPG Personality and Background is probably the site I reference most often. Instead of questions, it uses a series of tables to help you identify things about your character. The first section focuses on how the character comes across and the driving force behind the character. The second section goes in more depth probing into who the character is and who they associate with. The last section deals with character background. It is a list of pointed questions that admittedly are a little RPG-centric, but I add an additional level when going through them asking if this enhances the plot. By doing so I often clarify the purpose of my characters in regard to the story’s plot.
My favorite section on the site is the mysteries. Nothing like some secrets and intrigue to pump up the intensity in a story. Each character should have secrets kept from each other whether intentionally or not. There should always be a sense of more behind everyone from the guy selling popcorn at the theater to your antagonist.
(Another fun site to check out if you are looking for some great random generators to jump off with is Chaotic Shiny. It has everything from generators for everything from cultures, to alphabets, to cities. Not to mention a plot generator if you are looking for a quick prompt.)
Writing is no game
In role-playing, these are simply a set of questions to answer. You create the story of the character up until you start to play and as long as you can weave in whatever you decide it doesn’t matter how you answer. A character for a story doesn’t have the same freedom. Your characters must connect to the main drive of the story and to each other. They need to heighten one another like waves joining to crash as one large entity against the shore. Their traits and flaws must speak to your plot and not just exist because it sounded interesting or fun. In so many ways creating a character for a game is easier, but the limits of writing can make the development so much more satisfying.
The beauty of flaws
Nowhere is this more true than the negative aspects of your characters. The flaws you choose should drive each of your characters forward in the plot. Lisa Cron’s Story Genius has great pointed questions for developing a story around your main character’s flaw. However, the other characters’ flaws are just as important to driving your story forward. They should be what causes the issues the character has to overcome or cause the strife between the characters.
Remember to layer on multiple negative characteristics. Everyone has something they fear and hate. Everyone has more than one flaw. Emphasize those that move the story forward but have other flaws and weaknesses. People are a sum of many flaws and weaknesses and your characters (humanoid or not) should be as well. Then decide which ones must be overcome to resolve your plot. Not every flaw needs to be conquered by the end of the book. Your characters do not need to reach perfection. They just need to change.
In my first read of 2018, Turtles All The Way Down, John Green creates a beautifully flawed girl struggling against her phobias and obsessive-compulsive behaviors. The romantic optimist in me hoped she would overcome it all, but as I read the final words, it was satisfying that she didn’t. She was more real and alive because she was still imperfect as the story came to a close. Give yourself and your characters the blessing of being imperfect and staying imperfect. (Plus, it gives you room for your character to grow when the publisher wants a sequel.)
My Little Pony vs. The Dragon by EMA Timar
Come Let It Shine by Nicole Honeywill
RPG Books by EMA Timar
Pathfinder Books by EMA Timar