Likeable Flawed Characters

As writers we hear that the main character (MC) must be “likeable” and “sympathetic” from the very first page, but why is this important? And how can we show this while also showing our character’s flaws?

Each novel’s plot, characters, theme, and even genre may be different from another’s, yet they are always linked by one thing: the MC’s struggle to achieve his goal and our ability, as the reader, to identify with the underdog.

In order to get the reader to identify with the MC, ask these questions:

  • What genre is your novel?
  • Who is your target audience (TA)?
  • What problems does your TA encounter?

If you write contemporary romance, a substantial portion of your TA is women over 20 years old. Some of the problems women face can include:

  • Marriage (First, Second)
  • Neglect by Spouse/loneliness
  • Separated from parents and/or friends due to time constraints or children
  • Divorce
  • Children from infants on up
  • Exhaustion
  • Aging parents
  • Unfair treatment at work
  • Spousal abuse
  • Drugs and alcohol abuse
  • Medical issues
  • Unemployment
  • Death of family and friends

Really, this list is endless. But my point: the more items your readers can identify with–those same items that your MC is struggling with–the more sympathetic they will become with the MC because they can imagine themselves struggling through the same situations.

Subconsciously, this process gives the reader hope that they too will be able to overcome adversity.

Example:

In the backyard concealed by towering cypress, Ariel stacked her husband’s clothes, both clean and soiled, into a small bale. She doused the barnyard perfumed stack with a cleansing stream of clear lighter fluid. She struck the match. With the flick of her wrist, the flaming stick sprung from her gloved fingertips, tumbled in the air, then set the pile ablaze. “The Country Club doesn’t allow manure!”

“I’m completely naked!” Thad stalked toward her. “You’ve burned everything.”

She picked up his golf bag, filled with his favorite wood and lucky nine-iron. “Not everything.”

Discussion:

I doubt if you think Ariel is a nice person at this point, or that you’d want to be like her, or that you sympathize with her at all. After all, she’s burned all of her husband’s clothes and it appears that his clubs are to be next.

So how do we fix this scene setup? How do we make Ariel likeable?

According to Jordan McCollum, the key is this: “We have to know what it’s like, or be able to imagine what it’s like, to be in this situation” to make the MC sympathetic and likeable.

To do that we have to understand Ariel’s motivation:

  • According to the Enneagram, Ariel is a Challenger.
  • Her basic fear is of being harmed or controlled by others.
  • Her basic desire is to protect herself (to control her own life and destiny)

So, what if Ariel’s husband is a scratch golfer (handicap close to zero) but he had to give up his chance to become a pro (his dream) after his father’s death to run his family’s ranch? What if, since her husband has taken over the ranch, the already failing business is in foreclosure? And her husband has become depressed to the point that he neglects his hygiene, their marriage, and their daughter?

Make it worse: What if their daughter won’t be able to attend the Ivy League college she’s been accepted into because of their financial status now?

Make it primal: How is Ariel going to save her family?

Discussion:

Can you relate to Ariel now? Has a job change or conflict affected your life negatively? Or your spouse’s? Have you been uprooted from the city and forced to live in the country or vice versa? Have you experienced bankruptcy or foreclosure? Have you been within reach of a goal only to have it ripped from your hands? Your spouse’s (significant other’s) hands? Your child’s dreams gone? Have you dealt with depression of a spouse? Have you inherited a family business you felt obligated to overtake, but didn’t want? Have you been desperate or angry?

Back to Ariel:

Fear and Desire tag team to create conflict. And because of Ariel’s fear of being harmed and her desire to control her own life and destiny, coupled with stress, her strength (“can do” attitude) morphs into her flaw (“might makes right”).

With nowhere to turn, Ariel starts making decisions for her family to save them all, even if that way is extreme (flawed).

In Ariel’s mind, her husband needs a severe wake-up call. She loves him, she wants to save him because the man she loves is hurting and that in turn hurts her (her fear).

Then the catalyst happens, the local Country Club offers a substantial purse to the winner of the golf tournament and it’s open to all community members?

Suddenly there’s a goal and, ultimately, Ariel has renewed hope that she’ll be able to save her family.

Aren’t you rooting for her already?

Re-written Example:

The pamphlet tucked into Ariel’s back pocket read: Diamond Meadows Country Club Golf Tournament, $50,000 Winner Takes All, Hole in One Bonus, Community Members Welcome

In the backyard, concealed by towering cypress, Ariel stacked her husband’s clothes, both clean and soiled, into a small bale. She had to snap her husband out of his depression since he was too far gone to see the facts. She needed him. Their daughter needed her father.

And she needed Thad’s full attention to do that.

She doused the barnyard perfumed stack with a cleansing stream of clear lighter fluid. She struck the match. With the flick of her wrist, the flaming stick sprung from her gloved fingertips, tumbled in the air, then set the pile ablaze “The Country Club doesn’t allow manure!”

“I’m completely naked!” Thad stalked toward her. “You’ve burned everything.”

She picked up his golf bag, filled with his favorite wood and lucky nine-iron. “Not everything.” She handed him the pamphlet.

When he looked up from reading, his pupils were dilated–the roundest she’d seen since he’d won his last golf tournament three years ago. “What if I fail?” he asked.

She inhaled, then let the air drift out of her tight chest to swirl with the grey smoke hanging in the sultry air. She slung the clubs over her shoulder and wrapped her free arm around his bare waist. At the realization of what she’d done, she wanted to laugh but didn’t. “You’ve got nothing to lose.”

Notice how I didn’t give much more information, only a tease to let you know that Ariel isn’t malicious, just desperate, and caring, and she’s relying on her strength/flaw to reach her goal.

It is the writer’s job to convey this “underdog” tone and capture the attention of the reader from the beginning. Readers are hungry to see the MC squirm, struggle, and ultimately attain their goal. By having the character care the reader will follow.

How have you expressed the underdog tone in your first paragraph?

Happy  Writing,

Cyndi Faria

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6 thoughts on “Likeable Flawed Characters

  1. What excellent examples, Cyndi! The first draft of my WIP had both hero and heroine who were flawed, but neither were they likeable. I’m working on changing those things now. I loved them the way they were, but I understood where they were coming from.

    I may not be the highest wattage bulb in the package, but I burn longer so I’ll get there.

    Thanks for sharing another great post.

    Patricia Rickrode
    w/a Jansen Schmidt

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