ONE MISTAKE newer novelists make is understandable in the extreme. We think of our main characters as heroes. And because of that, we tend to make them … well, heroic.
By “heroic,” I mean that we make them perfect. First-time novelists are often tempted to create characters that have straight teeth, clear skin, hair with plenty of volume and no split ends, and the sorts of bodies rarely seen without the benefit of Photoshop.
They are strong, smart, always know what to do and are able to do it.
And that doesn’t work very well.
After all, Christian charity aside, don’t you absolutely hate—hate and want hurtful things to happen to—the sort of person I just described? And even if you don’t hate those types of characters, do you find it even remotely possible to identify with them?
Nor do I. Nor does anyone.
You, I and every single human being you or I know, have known, or will ever know, have one thing in common; we all have flaws.
And another thing most of us have in common is that we tend to fix upon, and magnify, our own flaws. We think they are more apparent than they actually are, and as a result we view ourselves as damaged goods.
So, to strike the readers as realistic, and to give the readers someone they can relate to, the main character needs to have, and be to some degree burdened by, his or her own flaws.
I say “flaws” (plural) because that describes most of us. But as the character is introduced, it works better for both the writer and reader if we focus this a bit: a single flaw, maybe two.
Sometimes the opening flaw is physical. Christopher Snow, the lead character in Dean R. Koontz’s “Moonlight Bay” Trilogy, is afflicted with xeroderma pigmentosum, a rare but real adverse reaction to ultraviolet light (including that part of the ultraviolet spectrum present in daylight). This makes him of necessity a creature of the night, and so challenged in his ability to interact socially with most people.
When we first meet Smithy Ide, the hero of Ron McLarty’s debut novel, The Memory of Running, Smithy is obese—maybe not worthy of thirty minutes on The Discovery Channel, but certainly far too heavy for his own good.
Sometimes—and usually—the flaw is internal or psychological. In Stephen King’s novel, 11/22/63, the lead character is Jake Eppling, an English teacher whose wife has left and divorced him for another man (whom she met at her Alcoholics Anonymous meeting). In Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell’s Scarlett O’Hara’s precociousness masks her central characteristic—her internal insecurity. Don Quixote is convinced he is a knight on a heroic quest; indeed, it is this delusion that is central to his charm as a character.
And certainly the main character’s flaw can be both physical and psychological: the wounded war hero who does not think he will ever return to a normal life, or the athlete who finds her life without purpose when an injury keeps her from competing.
So that’s where fiction differs from most other forms of art. Sculptors begin with unflawed marble, and painters start with a perfectly prepared canvas, but if you want your novel to work, you will find your work easier if you open your work with a character who has flaws.