How to make them human

by Rachel

Hi. I've been writing a book for quite a while now and the big struggle I face is how to make my characters act like normal humans. Every human has flaws, but how can I give my character flaws without making them seem bratty or dumb and making the reader hate them forever? Are there such things as likable flaws? Thanks for listening, Glen, I appreciate it.

Answer: Of course there are likable flaws. Sometimes these are the flaws shared by the reader.

Most people like characters who have the same flaws, limitations, anxieties, as themselves. It helps the reader empathize with the character. Most people also like stories in which such characters succeed despite those flaws.

It's true that the flawed-character-who-resembles-the-reader-and-goes-on-to-triumph might seem a bit hokey in literary fiction, but it's a winning formula in other genres, such as young adult fiction or romance.

In fact, if you are writing genre fiction, it can help to figure out who your ideal reader is and deliberately design your main character to resemble them in certain ways.

An obvious, hit-you-over-the-head example would be the recent TV series Supergirl, in which the main character, despite being an alien with superior abilities to humans, suffers from many of the problems and insecurities that plague many of the female viewers. Spiderman is another superhero who works this way. In his personal life, he's a nerd who constantly wrestles with insecurities, family issues, and petty annoyances.

Sometimes you can have a main character who represents impulses that the reader shares but would never act on. For example, in the TV series, Black Adder, the main character does immoral things that many people think of doing but stop themselves. Yet viewers like the character because they share his point of view, even if in secret.

On the other hand, sometimes you want a main character who has flaws the reader does not share. In that case, you still want to build empathy with
the reader. You still want the character to be likable.

We've all had friends who are flawed, but we can love them despite their flaws. Why? Because their flaws are balanced with good qualities, and because we come to know them well enough that the good qualities become more important.

Another TV example... Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory is extremely annoying, but the fact that he saved Leonard's life helps mitigate his annoying traits.

So if you can make the character's admirable qualities obvious as well as their flaws (which make them human) that can also make your character likable. (The worst would be a character who is all-good with no flaws, because it reads as phoney and can make the reader feel bad about their own flaws.)

Sometimes too, we like people with flaws because we can feel a little bit superior to them. That superiority can make us feel protective of them -- as though they were a younger sibling who needed our guidance. Often what stops such a character from becoming annoying is the fact that we see them trying to do better, trying to overcome their doubts and fears. We can empathize with that effort.

I should note that first person narration can sometimes help the reader develop empathy for a character who would otherwise be hard to like.

For example, the main character of A Clockwork Orange is pretty despicable -- habitually committing aggravated assault, murder, theft, and rape. However, by addressing the reader in first person as if they were best friends and sharing many intimate thoughts, the character is able to charm the reader into empathizing with him.

Similarly, Katniss in The Hunger Games would be a pretty difficult person to get close to if you met her in real life. She's so guarded in her feelings, so focused on surviving that she has no time for fun. Again, first person narration helps the reader see her point of view.

Hope that helps.

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