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: [Read more…]