Amanda Pavlov on Flawed Characters Readers Still Root For
Writing Deeply Flawed Characters Readers Still Root For
All people are flawed. But we don’t instantly appreciate deeply flawed characters. Maybe that’s because we often feel shame about our imperfections, hide them and deny them more than we try to understand and accept them.
So many stories feature protagonists with superhuman strength, remarkable intelligence, and ideal circumstances who always do the right thing—especially when the world needs saving. But I gotta be real--just writing that sentence had me yawning.
Give me the messy characters. I want to read about people who I can actually relate to. But writing complex characters is harder. Be prepared to hear “I couldn’t connect with this character” a lot before your final draft. So how does one strike the right balance between a character with relatable issues and a character readers won’t root for?
Start with what you know. Think about people you like—or maybe even admire—who have made terrible mistakes. What traits draw you to those people? Are they clever, ambitious, or just particularly interesting? Those are the kinds of qualities you must infuse your protagonist with to balance their shortcomings.
If you really want a layered character, don’t stop with the people you know. Be vulnerable and consider some of your own vices. When I conceptualized Lisette, my protagonist in MIND LIKE A DIAMOND, I gave her struggles that mirrored my teen self, like a biting sarcasm that could quickly veer into actual meanness.
Teenage me used humor to shield my sensitive heart. I thought if I made fun of myself first, others wouldn’t have any ammo. That part didn’t get me in much trouble, but I also made fun of my friends more than I should have. My flippancy resulted in jokes that landed like insults more often than I’d like to admit. Sometimes people pushed me away as a result, which became a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy for me. I’m not proud of my past mistakes, but I wanted to write about them for teens who may be struggling with the same problem. My adult perspective really informed how I addressed the power of words in MIND LIKE A DIAMOND.
What are your weaknesses, or how have you been impacted by the low blows dealt by others? Clearly, those moments are painful to consider. Still, even if I’m writing something entirely outside of my experience, I find allowing certain emotions in my body helps me capture it on the page.
Good writing is not easy. Anyone who extols the image of the glamorous author with their idyllic life is sorely mistaken. Even now, it’s difficult to admit I understand Lisette’s struggle because it has been mine. But push through that discomfort. Authenticity elevates a story from just good to something special that can really touch people. It’s my sincerest wish that readers connect with Lisette, not just for what makes her amazing but for what makes her human.
I want everyone who reads MIND LIKE A DIAMOND to leave with the feeling that falling down doesn’t define you. It’s whether you get back up, rise like a Phoenix from the ashes, that determines who you are.
Speaking of rising to the occasion, make sure your hero has competencies as well. Flaws are wonderful, but make sure you save space for some positive traits. For instance, I decided Lisette should be a muscular gymnast because I wanted her to be a character who could believably finish a wildly physically challenging haunted house.
I also envisioned Lisette as a very intelligent protagonist who would use both cunning and charm to persevere through challenges. It’s unlikely that readers will want to follow a coldblooded bumbling fool for three hundred pages (unless you’re a comedic genius). But a character who has a wall built up AND can climb up walls like Spiderman? Now that grabs their attention.
Keep in mind you don’t have to follow all of this advice to write a deeply flawed character that readers will still cherish. Your story is your story for a reason; take whatever advice works for you and dismiss the rest.
For instance, it may be important to tell us why a character is deeply flawed, but it may not. Some very complex struggles don’t necessarily have a cause. Ultimately, it’s crucial to convey how your character feels and how it impacts their actions. The worst thing you can do—whether your character is morally perfect or morally ambiguous—is make their actions confusing.
Ask your beta readers and/or critique partners if it’s clear why your character is acting a certain way. Nothing will improve your story like honest, sharp readers. Value them and be a good beta/CP in return to show them how much you appreciate it.
There was one scene in MIND LIKE A DIAMOND I must have rewritten over a dozen times because it required Lisette to be particularly cruel to her best friend. Over and over again, critique partners would cite her actions as confusing, so I kept working on it, trying to clarify what brought her to this point. It was important for me to illustrate, both in building up to the scene and in her reaction to her own behavior, why she did what she did.
All of the rewrites ultimately resulted in one of my favorite lines in the entire book, so, yeah, keep asking for feedback. Keep rewriting pivotal scenes until you are ridiculously happy with them. Someone will still probably dislike them, but at least you’ll know it’s not because you weren’t intentional with what you wrote.
Speaking of being intentional in your story, I highly recommend giving your character a clear moral code. It doesn’t need to be anything admirable, just consistent. We like characters we can understand, and when they have a code—even if it’s only to protect those closest to them or not harm the innocent—it helps ground us in their worldview.
Another thing your deeply flawed character needs is a clear, external goal in addition to an internal goal that they may or may not be aware of. Characters who only have internal goals can work for quieter stories. Still, to really get your reader invested, I recommend letting them know what the character wants (and making it tangible) so the reader can really come along for the highs and lows of the journey.
Additionally, external goals tend to feel higher stakes, and high stakes are everything when you’re asking readers to invest in someone who isn’t particularly heroic. Stories with antiheroes are often transformative journeys; make sure the one you're telling is large enough to justify the new person your protagonist becomes.
In MIND LIKE A DIAMOND, Lisette must complete all thirteen realms of the haunted house before time runs out to win ten thousand dollars. If she doesn’t win the money, then she’ll be evicted. Her goal is not particularly noble (it only really impacts her and her mom), but it’s clear, and the stakes are high. If she were only competing for an internal goal—such as wanting to prove she can rise to the challenge—the story would still be interesting, but it might not be as clear.
So, to summarize: a deeply flawed character should most importantly be believable. Search for real-life examples to complement your imagination. Give them positive traits, a clear moral code, and an external goal the reader can really root for. If you can make them especially funny or clever, all the better.
Most importantly, when you finish your story, let me know because I want to read it. If there's one thing I love more than deeply flawed characters, it's the authors who take the time to write them right.