Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Walking the fine line between “flawed” and “annoying”

By Rick Blechta

If you haven’t read Tom’s excellent post from yesterday, you might want to drop down below this post to check it out. It brings up some important points in basic character development.

His post, as often happens here on Type M, inspired mine for this week. As all writers do, I’m always concerned that people can relate to my characters. They can be good or bad and readers can respond to that, but the last response I want from them is indifference, or maybe incredulity. So far I’ve never been called for the latter, but have swung and missed on the former.

I totally agree with Tom that characters need some sort of flaws to remain interesting over the course of a novel, much less through a whole series. Adding flaws to characters is something that’s not all that difficult. The big questions are: How far does one take it? And how far is too far?

I can’t remember the title of the novel, and besides it was written by a friend so I wouldn’t tell you, but I sadly could barely finish the book because the character had flaws that I found completely irritating to the point where I wouldn’t have minded if he’d come to a quick and gruesome end. Not a good thing in the first novel in a projected series.

Way back in the dawn of time here on Type M 2006, I wrote a post about a situation that arose in writing my fourth novel, Cemetery of the Nameless. I was well into the novel (probably around page 70) when I realized I did not like my protagonist one little bit. He was irritating, to be honest. I didn’t set out to make him that way, he sort of took on that mantle all on his own. And no matter how I tried to change him, he kept whining. Not good.
I did consider killing him off early on and then letting someone else take over as the protagonist. That might have even been an interesting writing exercise. Problem was, I only felt comfortable writing in first person at that point, and the difficulties to get my novel out of this mess using this plot device seemed, well, strained and a heck of a lot of work.

I eventually decided to “recycle” a character from my second novel, The Lark Ascending, and even though she tended to be “difficult” too, at least I didn’t find her annoying and her addition to the cast really allowed me to take the story to another level.

The problem is, what if a writer doesn’t recognize that they’ve made the most important character in their story annoying? And worse yet, what if the book’s editor has the same issue?

I suspect this is what happened with my friend’s novel. I do know he would describe his protagonist as “crusty, opinionated and irritable but endearing” and my response was he’s also dead annoying. Needless to say, I didn’t read any more of the series.

I’m sure a lot of us ink-stained wretches spend the dark hours of the night worrying about stuff like this. I know I do.


Thomas Kies said...

Excellent post, Rick! And you're right, you walk a fine line with a flawed hero! It can be a difficult balancing act (thank goodness my editor and publisher keeps me in check).

Sybil Johnson said...

I think it's particularly important to have a likeable protagonist in cozy mysteries. They can and should have flaws but, as a reader, I want the main character to be likeable since I'll be spending a considerable amount of time with them. The other characters in a series can be a little less likable, I think, but the main character needs to be someone I'd want to spend time with if they really existed.

I threw a cozy mystery across the room once because I was so frustrated and annoyed by the main character. This was the second book in a series. In the first one I tolerated the main character, but by the second I was just plain annoyed. The only time I've done that. Hopefully, no one does that with one of my books.

Rick Blechta said...

Tom, I have my wife to thank for that service. She's got a nose for, um, stuff, and because we've been together for so long and are musicians, we're used to rather blunt criticism. I once handed her the completed manuscript for one of my novels and she read for about 10 seconds, turned to me and said, "Do you really want to begin your novel with a sentence this poor?" Ouch! But she was right. Depressing…

Sybil, I think you're right. Cozies have a different set of demands placed on them, and you really do have to buy into the main character(s) and protagonists must be relatively good of heart. Noir, on the other hand, has "rules" completely the opposite. The protagonist must have lots of personality history "warts", some of which help him/her achieve what the plot is going after. Rash generalizations, sure, but pretty accurate, I believe.

Sybil Johnson said...

Rick, I think you're right about cozies and noir "rules". I know when I read more hard-boiled stories I'm not as concerned about liking the main character.

Patricia Carter said...

Character recycle can be a challenging task. It also has some potential to damage the story if not used carefully.
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