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.