1. FireWater
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    FireWater Active Member

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    Giving characters real flaws without making them unlikable in the process

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by FireWater, Jul 3, 2016.

    No one wants to read a Miss/Mr. Perfect Mary Sue/Gary Stu, or someone whose "faults" are really just endearing quirks. But at the same time, I also know of characters who people genuinely can't stand because their flaws make them seem like assholes, incompetent, idiotic, or otherwise straight-up unlikeable.

    Having unlikeable characters can work in an "unreliable narrator" type of way, or for stories like Gone Girl or Dr. House. But let's just say, for the most part, that most of us in general want to have our readers actually like our characters and want to root for them, write fanfic about them, etc.

    Where's the line between "obnoxious for being too perfect and having no real flaws," and "obnoxious because their flaws make them unlikeable?" How do you create that ideal mix?
     
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  2. Spencer1990
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    Spencer1990 Contributing Member

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    I don't think there is a specific answer to this question. There isn't a formula that says people will like the characters if you do X, X, and Y.

    I believe it all comes down to how well readers can identify with the character, right? Most people can't identify with extremes, but they can identify with subtle, shitty traits because every person alive has them. I think if your readers can see why the character does what he/she does that is less than savory, it will help to elicit that sort of connection.

    Sympathy is the quickest way to make that bond between reader and character. If the character is not perfect, but the reader can be sympathetic, I think you will be fine.
     
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  3. izzybot
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    izzybot Human Disaster Contributor

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    Every real person that you like has flaws. You still like them because for you, the positives outweigh the negatives. Just try to replicate that. (I take the same approach to characters who're supposed to be unlikable but not the worst human beings ever - a mix of positive and negative, just leaning towards negative instead). I mean, you can't please everyone. There are people that I dislike or don't like to be around because even though they're otherwise perfectly pleasant, they have one or two things that I can't stand - and characters will be like that too. House, for instance? I know a ton of people love him but I found him insufferable barring a handful of episodes; for me the negatives outweighed the positives.

    So in a lot of ways it's going to be subjective, but general positive traits like being nice to animals and kids or general negative traits like being emotionally manipulative or inconsiderate are pretty easy to bank on. Justifying your negative traits helps, as well. A character who's nasty and snippy because they're afraid of letting anyone get close again after being seriously hurt, a character whose abusive upbringing ruined their interpersonal skills, a character who's selfish and greedy because they've previously had everything taken away from them, stuff like that. Having them fight their flaws is another thing. They don't have to necessarily win, but if we can see them at least trying to not be an asshole, at least we know that they recognize the problem on some level and they're doing their best. Although again, for some readers that might not be enough.
     
  4. theoriginalmonsterman
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    theoriginalmonsterman Pickle Contest Administrator Contributor

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    Depends on the flaw. What did you have in mind or were you asking what kind of flaws may become an issue?
     
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  5. Oscar Leigh
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    Oscar Leigh Contributing Member

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    House is not an unlikeable character at all. He's rude and stuff, but that's just part of his curmudgeonly charm. From what I know of him, admittedly minimal, he's perfectly likeable.
     
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  6. FireWater
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    FireWater Active Member

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    Izzybot, I love the thing about the ratios and also about having them recognize their flaw and at least TRY to overcome it, even though they can't totally get rid of it. That definitely helps.

    No specific flaw in mind that I wanted to run by anyone. I really just wanted to open a general discussion on the subject in general, to see what kind of perspectives I could get.

    Oscar, I can see what you mean, but others like Izzy can't stand him lol.
     
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  7. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    House is a horrible, nasty, self-centered, narcissistic narcissist. He's delightful to watch, but if I knew him in real life I'd be plotting his death within a week.
     
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  8. izzybot
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    izzybot Human Disaster Contributor

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    House is pretty fitting for this thread, actually. On the one hand, he literally a life or two every episode, which is an obvious massive pro from an objective standpoint. But he's so arrogant and consistently shitty to his co-workers (people who have to put up with him, people who actually care for him, people who've stuck their necks out for him repeatedly) that I so badly wanted to see him humbled that I kept going "jesus, can't House be wrong this one time and get some comeuppance" even if it meant someone would die. I mean, you can't have a much stronger positive than 'literally saves lives on the reg', but for me the negatives still outweighed it.

    A big part of that, I think, is the amount of attention each side was given per episode. Almost any time House was onscreen he was being snide, cocky, willfully obtuse, etc., for what, seven or eight seasons? Meanwhile each case only had a fraction of each episode for us to invest in, barring two-parters or recurring plots, so they had lower stakes than the ongoing main cast relationships. One episode of House, or a movie-length version of House, and I'd've probably walked away thinking "that dude was an asshole, but he sure did save some lives and at least he had some witty lines". Shorter exposure or less attention to a character's negative traits and a story that focuses more on plot than character could trick your reader into coming away with a more positive view of them (or vice versa, of course). I mean, I have a character who's a gun for hire and has killed loads of people, but fingers crossed he's more likable than House because I mostly focus on things like his patience and level-headedness and him being supportive/protective towards a younger character who's in a bad situation.

    House is a divisive character, but I don't think most people who genuinely like him (not in a "he's interesting to watch" way but more an "I love him he's great" way) like him for the objective pro. We all know he saves lives. The people who like him do so - I assume - because they find his usual behavior funny or charming (they have a different sense of humor from me; it can't be helped) or they find his humanizing traits (his injury, his addiction, the ex-wife thing) more effective at redeeming him than I personally did, potentially because of some personal connection to those traits. Likewise, I'd hope that people wouldn't outright hate my murderous guy for his objectively negative murderous ways. So I wouldn't put too much stock in big moral-based traits; I think we're all more prone to connect to smaller stuff. Like Spencer said above, it's easier for normal people to relate to normal traits - we might go "yeah saving lives is Good and taking them is Bad" but we're more likely to be swayed by "man that guy's a piece of shit to his co-workers" or "oh this guy is nice to kids". It's probably more effective to think of the little things. Is this character rude to waitstaff? Hey, I have friends who're waitstaff. What a jerk. This character feeds strays cats? Dude, I love cats, I love this character.

    But then you'll still have readers who don't consider a thing rude to waitstaff or don't care about stray cats, and those actions don't mean much to them. So I guess I'm saying it's all pretty much a crapshoot? Honestly I'm just thinking out loud at this point.
     
  9. Vagrant Tale
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    Vagrant Tale Active Member

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    This may sound really lame, but I have a process for coming up with what I consider legitimate flaws. I simply choose one of the 7 deadly sins first:
    1) Lust
    2) Gluttony
    3) Greed
    4) Sloth
    5) Wrath
    6) Envy
    7) Pride

    Once I choose one, I direct it towards someone or something in that character's life. For example: Joey is an undercover detective who has infiltrated the italian mob. Joey slowly becomes more and more like the mobsters he surrounds himself with, and wants to be one of them. Joey stops reporting to his superiors one day and vanishes into the official ranks of the mafia. Joey's sin is envy. He wanted what they had. It could also be gluttony, since he may not have wanted to give up the glamorous lifestyle, or perhaps it could have been caused by lust, if that lifestyle led to him sexually indulging very frequently in exotic tastes.

    You can usually spot a character in a book or tv show who has one of these, even if that character hasn't done anything "wrong", thus you can also use the 7 sins as more than just choosing a characters' vices, but also to choose their flaws. For example, Eddard Stark dies in Game of Thrones because he holds onto ideas of personal honor he applies to himself, without considering that others may not apply such principles to themselves. He does not listen to the wise counsel given by many others who are trying to help him, possibly believing himself to be above the court politics. Eddard Stark's sin is pride. He is too proud of his honor, even the honor he has deliberately tarnished to keep his honor to himself. His personal pride in believing his is a good man is his flaw.
     
  10. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    I agree with the "recognize his own flaws" idea, and would add that it often works to show that the character him/herself suffers from the flaw more than everyone else. Like, if someone's crabby and nasty to everyone but happy as a clam, it's hard to sympathize. But if someone's crabby and nasty to everyone but the author shows the character being miserable and lonely and only being mean out of defensiveness or something, okay. I can appreciate that character.

    (I've only watched about one episode of House, but I have a feeling this is why he works. He's not a happy person, right? So... we see that he's hurting himself at least as much as he hurts others.)
     
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  11. Sack-a-Doo!
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    Sack-a-Doo! Contributing Member Contributor

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    I can think of two ways to go about this...

    1. Write in a Save the Cat moment. The most unlikable character will get at least a little sympathy if you show him going out of his way to rescue or protect someone. A cat is the cliché used to illustrate the concept, but it can be any living creature including a human. But he has to do it willingly and not as part of a calculated effort to garner favour.
    2. Give him a strong motivation for acting the way he does. Once you know that someone just lost a child or was recently fired or has been humiliated by someone else, it's easier to sympathize.
     
  12. laurasiren12
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    laurasiren12 Member

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    For me, personally, it's all about if I can connect/relate to the character in question. This goes for wither I'm reading a book or watching a programme. In the real world we all have flaws, people we absoutely can't stand (no matter how hard we try to like them) but we get on with it. However like someone else said, there's no way of mixing or creating an unflawed but flawed likable character.
     
  13. GuardianWynn
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    GuardianWynn Contributing Member Contributor

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    To add, I think it is best when they two aspects, (best trait and weakness) are connected. House(since he has been referenced) is a good example as his rudeness seems to be part of how he saves lives. There are episodes in which he is is nicer and people almost die and he himself admits that he is afriad that without his pain and rudness he wouldn't be a good doctor. The logic is that when he is in pain and rude, he is very agumentaive and as such seeks out answers to questions with more dedication. This links the two traits in a very fitting way as far as I am concerned. This makes the weakness feel like less of a gimmick to me.
     
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  14. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    The Girl on the Train does a good job of making a totally flawed character likeable. I don't know quite what it is about her. She's a pitiful drunk, an awful roommate, and jealous of her ex's new wife to the point of harassing them among other things.

    Yet you don't read all that as disgusting, it reads more like verging on empathetic but you don't know why.

    You should take a look at it.
     
  15. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    That's what it is. The character in Girl on the Train suffers from her alcoholism, she's as affected as the people around her.
     
  16. hawls
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    hawls Active Member

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    Whether a character is likeable or not comes down to how they are presented. Or "represented" as people on reality tv like to point out after their 15 minutes of fame.

    A flawed character needn't acknowledge their faults to be likeable. It comes down to what the author chooses to show and what the author chooses to acknowledge about that character.

    You may have seen clever edits on youtube of films that make R2D2 or Harry Potter the villains of their respective franchises. Yes, it's just clever editing, but you can see what I mean that by choosing what to show and what to leave out you can make a loveable character seem like an unsympathetic psychopath. You might search for the edits that make Joffrey out to be the hero of Game of Thrones for an example of making a hated character likeable.

    What the author shows about the character, and the characters he or she interacts with, will ultimately determine whether the character is likeable or not. Certainly influences their potential to be liked by someone. Some people are weird though. Some people are going to like utterly repulsive characters whether you intended them to or not. Boggles the mind.
     
  17. Simpson17866
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    Simpson17866 Contributing Member Contributor

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    That is exactly what I do :)

     
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  18. deadrats
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    deadrats Active Member

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    Some characters we love to hate. Check out the short stories "Bullet in the Brain" by Tobias Wolf and "A Good Man is hard to Find" by Flannery O'Connor. You should be able to find and read them online. These have examples of unlikable characters without redeeming qualities. Most of the time, I think writers strive for some sort of balance. Even our bad guys can to show a moment of kindness or sometimes their evil ways are justified or explained somewhat. But some writers can also pull off a character that is pretty much all bad guy.
     
  19. BWriter
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    BWriter Member

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    Personally I love flawed characters, broken even, as long as it seems real. Throwing a few flaws in to fill out a character doesn't cut it for me because to often they get forgotten or passed off as change in a character. I am coming off of reading a lot of Bukowski and almost all of his characters (at least from what I've read) are dicks and they don't suddenly become nice. Better for them to be assholes all the way with a few redeeming moments that draw the reader in. Besides it's a challenge to get readers to love a scumbag.
     
  20. taariya
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    taariya Member

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    Personally, whether or not I like a repulsive character often speaks to how well the characters I'm meant to like are developed. This typically happens when the "good" characters are bland and boring because they haven't been given enough flaws or made enough mistakes to make me anticipate and dread their failure, become emotionally attached to their suffering or struggles, or root for them to change and reform and succeed.

    For example, Charlie Bucket from "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory". He's BORING because he literally acts like a saint--never a selfish thought or action, never a moral conflict, never a departure from trite traditional moral values. The Charlie from the original acted greedy and impulsive at times, being a poor little kid, and in the end nearly loses everything because of it before ultimately redeeming himself. He's more interesting and likeable because he's flawed.

    Or, The Lion King. I've always sympathized with Scar. First of all, Scar's name before being called Scar was "Taka", which literally means trash or waste in Swahili. Can you imagine having a name like THAT and then being relegated to having no name at all and being called by a physical defect? And then your one chance at real respect and power is ruined by your self-righteous older brother having a kid? And then said brother threatens physical violence against you because you didn't show up to the baby shower and don't give a shit about his status? Everyone tells me that's the way it goes in a lion pride when I explain that Mufasa was an asshole, but then what's so wrong with Scar killing him if that's "how it goes"? The king is whoever defeats the old king, and in my book killing him is a pretty good way of doing that. He had an ambition and a goal, he was self-aware enough to recognize his weakness was his lack of physical strength, he took the steps necessary to work around that and accomplish his goal, he had mercy enough and prudence enough to exile the nephew instead of just killing him to be completely secure...and all of a sudden he's the bad guy, he's messed up?

    I'm sorry, I'm just really passionate about that because I don't understand how more people don't root for Scar.
     
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  21. taariya
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    taariya Member

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    Sorry, for some reason my posts keep double-posting.
     
    Last edited: Jul 12, 2016
  22. hawls
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    hawls Active Member

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    I wasn't being serious with the last few lines of my post. That was probably not clear and that's on me.

    Like I said, whether a character is likeable or not comes down to how the author chooses to present them. It has nothing to do with the character's morality. You basically echoed me when you said that you connect with characters who are properly developed by the author, rather than their obvious status as "good guy" or "bad guy".

    It can even come down to how much potential we can see in a character, how many layers we can peel back, or how many angles we can view them from. Obviously the viewing angles increases by how many dimensions the character has.

    Didn't Scar specifically tell the hyenas to kill Simba?
     
  23. taariya
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    taariya Member

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    Yeah but in my opinion he didn't do enough to ensure that it actually happened. If I really wanted a kid dead I wouldn't entrust it to my stupid minions, I'd do it myself. But maybe that's more a testament to Scar's cowardice/stupidity than anything... So yeah.

    Anyway, I also wasn't serious in my reply, just trying to demonstrate with examples that when characters are likeable to the audience it comes down to how they are represented, not necessarily what flaws they have.
     
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  24. Gazzola
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    Gazzola Member

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    I loved this idea. Next time I'm rechecking one of my stories I'll pay attention if my characters demonstrated one of those sins and add a few more signalers for it.

    Aside from monstrous actions, a lot depends on the reader's personal opinions. I loved House even if he was the most flawed character in the series, but when Foreman fired Thirteen because he 'didn't want their job to come between their love' - and it never crossed his mind that she might hate him for it - his arrogance made him irredeemable to me. However there are people who really are that entitled and would have no trouble with Foreman's actions.

    The main character has to be likeable for me to want to continue reading a novel, but I happen to like when an unlikeable character makes me root for him because he has an objective I really want him accomplish, even if his reasons are completely selfish.
     
  25. big soft moose
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    big soft moose Active Member

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    One option is to give them perceived flaws / or back story which make them seemingly unlikeable but then win over the reader through their actions being at odds with their history .. for example doc Klien in Tim Wilocks' Green River Rising, is in prison for raping his girlfriend ... which is a pretty unlikable crime - but a) everyone arround him has done worse, and b) he turns out to have been pretty much falsely accused
     

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