Warts and All

The title of this post comes from a (probably apocryphal) story about Oliver Cromwell asking to have his portrait painted without any of the flattering techniques of portraits of the time–he wanted to be shown as he really looked, ‘warts and all’. I’ve been thinking a lot, lately, about what this phrase means to us as writers–about how we go about constructing characters who seem truly human, not representations of some impossible ideal.

Now, we all know that we can’t make our heroes and heroines too perfect. No one wants to read about a character who is unfailingly wise, kind, thoughtful, considerate, and whose hobbies include reading to the blind, feeding the homeless, and caring for small fluffy bunnies. We all want heroes and heroines with real, human flaws. And yet it’s a delicate balance, I think. Because we can’t make our heroes too flawed. Tip the balance from flawed into purely unlikeable, and you run the risk of turning readers off just as surely as a fluffy-bunny-loving hero would.

It’s a balance that I’ve been wrestling with in my own WIP, because my heroine is definitely flawed. Probably the most flawed of any main character I’ve written. My point (I swear!) isn’t to drone on about my own book and struggles, so I’ll be brief: before my story opens, my heroine was engaged to a soldier in the British Army. (The setting of this book is regency-era, just after the close of the Napoleonic wars). She broke off her engagement to be with another man–who turned out to be a completely unprincipled rogue. Then her former fiance, the man whose heart she broke, was killed in the Battle of Waterloo.

All of which is a fairly heavy backstory to burden a character with. She of course feels incredibly guilty and ashamed of the mistakes she has made–who wouldn’t? And yet how to keep her feelings authentic without crossing the line into their being too much and too off-putting to readers? No one wants to read a book that constantly oozes guilt-ridden angst. That’s the issue I have wrestled with.

As often when trying to sort out a tricky writing issue, I’ve been going back to my books on writing craft. Our own Donald Maass’s The Fire in Fiction has some excellent advice on this very topic. If you haven’t yet purchased and read your own copy, I highly recommend it. But I’ll give you a few of the points I’ve found most helpful here:

  • Show your hero/heroines strengths. And show them early on–definitely within the first five pages, ideally within the very first page. A strength doesn’t have to mean they have the ability to save the world–it can be as simple as caring about someone besides themselves, worrying about someone else’s happiness and well being. Or just showing–despite all adversity–an attitude of determination or hope for the future.
  • A sense of humor. Your flawed hero should have one. It’s as simple as that. There is nothing like self-deprecating humor and self-awareness to enable a reader to forgive–and even identify with–a character’s flaws. Show that your hero is able to laugh, both at the world and at himself.
  •  Less is more. Keep the internal monologues to a minimum when your hero/heroine is reflecting on their own flaws and personal struggles. A single brief sentence is often more effective–and certainly a lot less tedious to read–than an entire paragraph of overwrought self-analysis.
  • Hold back. Introducing a character’s backstory and inner life is a tricky business. We all want to grab readers from the very beginning, to let them ‘get to know’ our main characters early on, so I think the tendency (at least my tendency) is to let it all spill onto the page right up front. But it’s far more effective, I think, to go with more of a drip-feed approach. Hint at your characters’ flaws, at their troubled backstories early on. But don’t dump the whole story into the first chapter. Tease it out, let it come to light organically, bit by bit as your story unfolds.
  • A sense of purpose. Your hero should also have one of these. However haunted by the past she is, she should also be trying to overcome it. Whether by righting past wrongs or simply trying to move forward into the future.

So those are my tips, the techniques I’m using to craft my flawed heroine’s voice. Will they work and ensure that she’s a character my readers will want to stick with and follow? I hope so–because I really do like her a lot. Warts, flaws, and all.

What about you? Where as a reader (or writer) do you find the ideal balance between a character’s strengths vs. their flaws?

Cute warthog sculpture from The World at Home.


About Anna Elliott

Anna Elliott is an author of historical fiction and fantasy. Her first series, the Twilight of Avalon trilogy, is a retelling of the Trystan and Isolde legend. She wrote her second series, the Pride and Prejudice Chronicles, chiefly to satisfy her own curiosity about what might have happened to Elizabeth Bennet, Mr. Darcy, and all the other wonderful cast of characters after the official end of Jane Austen's classic work. She enjoys stories about strong women, and loves exploring the multitude of ways women can find their unique strengths. Anna lives in the Washington DC area with her husband and three children.


  1. says

    Most of my characters tend to come to me pre-packaged, balanced as soon as I tear off the wrapping paper. I count myself very lucky there, and credit that bit of fortune to my years as a role-playing game enthusiast. Creating complex characters and getting into their skin was something I and my friends did every Friday and Saturday for over a decade, so that part’s usually easy for me.
    When I don’t luck out, and have a 2D character I can’t do away with, I revert to a piece of advice I read a while ago. (Apologies for not remembering who wrote it.)
    Give your characters personal goals (not necessarily related to the story), then give them character flaws that prevent them from getting what they want. It’s the quickest route to conflict, and the quickest way to learn who these people in your story are.
    Jeff Clough´s last blog post ..The Language of Basketball Confuses Me

  2. ABE says

    As for The Fire in Fiction: don’t just read it. Underline all the relevant bits until you have added significant weight, in graphite, from all the marginal notes. And use the exercises to get out of slumps.

    It is very hard work to follow the suggestions for improving characters and scenes, but they end up so much better.

    You are correct: balance strengths with flaws – ideally flaws that are unique; sneak the backstory in; and feed an occasional small fluffy chinchilla.

    Going back to the writing books with all my annotations is like a visit with all my good teachers – and gets the story flowing again. Thanks for the reminder.

  3. says

    Flaws are like cooking spices; the ideal balance depends on what you’re trying to accomplish. If you’re writing an action/adventure story, flaws can be as insignificant as a phobia of reptiles (“Snakes. Why did it have to be snakes?”), but if you’re writing a Russian Novel then flaws can be the primary source of drama and the drivers of the plot. As a reader, my rule of thumb is that I must find a character engaging enough that I become emotionally invested in her success.
    Marion Harmon´s last blog post ..Rush Rush

    • says

      LOL, ‘why did it have to be snakes?’ One of my all-time favorite movie lines. And a very good point–genre definitely makes a difference in introducing character backstory and flaws.

  4. says

    This is perfectly timed, Anna. The rewrite I’m working on is focused on revamping the opening, with an eye to my protagonist’s goals and motivations. I was definitely top-heavy on showing his flaws. These are such great reminders. Thanks!
    Vaughn Roycroft´s last blog post ..Taking the Longview

    • says

      You’re welcome, Vaughn! I think striking that perfect balance is a large part of what makes openings so very challenging to write. Good luck to you!!

  5. says

    Thank you for sharing your struggles with striking the fine balance in creating a flawed, but likable protagonist. This is something I’m still working at. I find it more difficult to keep the hero balanced. I favor beta heroes rather than alpha heroes. It can be challenging to create an ideal guy who is also sufficiently flawed.
    Roxanne´s last blog post ..Farewell to Ann Curry

    • says

      I agree, Roxanne–crafting heros is definitely tricky in that regard. I think I tend to rely on troubled pasts and internal conflict for making my heros flawed but (I hope) still likeable

  6. says


    I have an unusual structure in my novel. The first scene is in the peak action at the end of the timeline, and the strengths and weaknesses of all three protagonists stand out by the third page. Anna (soon to become Frida): brilliant, deep, passionate – but crushed by alcoholism. Rafi: Empathic, understanding, athletic, talented, but socially clumsy. Dimitri: wide as a football field, deep as Astroturf.

    I think that having this information makes the reader care about my characters and want to find out how they reached the crisis point.

    Anna (the blogger, not the character), thank you for highlighting this important part of writing.

    Ronald Fischman´s last blog post ..Hysteria (2002)

    • says

      You’re welcome, Ronald! That sounds like a great mix of complex characters you have. I agree, starting your book at an action high-point can be a very effective way to introduce your characters and draw readers in.

  7. says

    Great advice, Anna. Lending complexity to characters is certainly something I struggle with. Giving a character a flaw or a terrible problem is easy enough to do but when I’ve done that with a handful of characters, I’m left with a lot of loose ends to clear up. But that’s why I write!
    Mary Incontro´s last blog post ..Writing vs Author Platform

    • says

      That’s a good point, Mary. We should always try to do something with the flaws in our characters–use them to inform the characters’ journey and the plot.

  8. says

    AHHH! Super neat article, Anna! I really enjoy characters who are thoroughly flawed. I find it very interesting when “real” heroes and heroines take on challenges and adventures. I’m also a huge fan of character development. If a character changes very little over a story or series of stories, I am not happy. I like it when people find out new things about themselves and when they implement new habits and attitudes. That is how I write, as well. I enjoy making my characters squirm at tough situations and then growing right on through them!
    L.M. Sherwin´s last blog post ..Leaves Talk: Happy Friday!

  9. says

    Great contributions, all. My problem is that my characters become so complex and nuanced

    -ad everything

    that when I was in a writing group, the other members would start arguing about my characters’ motivations like they were gossiping about people we all knew. I’d be sitting there listening, like, um, what happened to the story?

    The key–for me–is story structure. Robert McKee’s book Story has been invaluable. My malleable, almost ridiculously human characters only come to life if they are players in a very clear story. Otherwise their motivations are all over the place.
    Helen W. Mallon´s last blog post ..Dining Out: A Lap Full O’Wine

  10. says

    Sense of purpose is so important! We’ll tolerate much more from a character if we feel like he or she is working toward something worthwhile, and it gives us a reason to root for them despite their flaws.

    And just as you need to show strengths fairly early, you need to show flaws and weaknesses too. Otherwise, you risk the character’s stupid decision or moment of failure seeming to come out of nowhere later in the story, and could confuse or anger your readers. Flaws are ingrained things, and they inform wrong or hasty decisions.
    Kristin Laughtin´s last blog post ..Don’t let the rules get you down

  11. says

    I’m working on this issue too, Anna. This heroine has a special place in my heart, but I can’t help thinking I’d have made my task easier if she were a fluffy-bunny lover rather than so horribly self-deluded. I’ve reread that bit in Don’s book multiple times and am hoping for the best, but beta readers are going to have to tell me if I’ve pulled it off. I have no objectivity.
    Jan O’Hara´s last blog post ..The Relationship Between Honeymoons, Eyes-Open Sex, and Writing

  12. Zoe Beech says

    I love this. My protag is a jerk… and his big heart is initially pretty well-hidden, so this is great advice..