Giving Your Characters Room To Grow

While I was reading this week, I realized my favorite parts of the books were where I could see how characters had done the work, grown, and become better versions of themselves. When I contemplated my own writing projects, I realized that I could do better at giving my characters room to grow.

Flawed Characters

Most characters are supposed to be relatable, and to be human is to err. There are multiple approaches to creating flawed characters.

1. Base them on someone you know

Or, on a combination of people you know. Is your friend/character impulsive and crude? Hesitant and passive-aggressive? Figure out which traits you want to imbue your character with and think to yourself, what would [friend] do?

2. RPG style

Go down a list of traits and give them points in each category. 3 points of impulsiveness, 7 in excitability, and 4 in forgetfulness.

3. Play against their strengths

There was a Tumblr post going around, talking about how Shakespeare’s Macbeth was a man of contemplation, while his Othello was a man of action. Had Macbeth been more decisive or Othello more contemplative, their tragedies may have been avoided.

Give your character strengths, and then put them in situations where their strengths are either not useful, or actively work against them. Are they good at collaborating? Isolate them or put them with people who don’t have their best interests in mind. Is theirs a physical strength? Put them in a battle of wits.

4. Pick a vice or 2

The traditional Christian vices are: Greed, Gluttony, Sloth, Wrath, Lust, Envy, and Pride, but you can go with any set and subset.

5. So perfect, it’s its own flaw

If they’re so perfect and noble, if they always do the right thing, then they likely have problems relating to others. Even if they’re understanding and empathetic, it can be hard for other characters to relate to them. And that can work as the flaw.

Realistically Flawed Characters

All of your characters should be flawed, not just the main characters and the villains. Although, over-the-top villains that are evil for the sake of evil exist in stories — they aren’t very realistic and don’t interest most readers.

One way to make a flaw realistic is for there to be a reason for it. We’re all a mix of nature and nurture. By giving the flaw a foundation, we have a truth the character can choose to hide from, fight, or accept.

Flaw Foundation Ideas

  • Does their pride rest on the fact they only value themselves for what they can do for others?
  • Are they lustful because that’s the only way they know how to accept love?
  • Perhaps their sloth derives from parents or teachers disparaging any attempts that weren’t perfect, so they stopped trying?
  • It could be their brain chemistry is unbalanced, and they need support to get better.

Overcoming/Embracing Baggage

Note: I am not a therapist, so take this next part with a grain of salt.

As therapy teaches, realizing the foundation of a behavior is only the first step in overcoming it. And while we hope our heroes overcome their baggage, villains and anti-heroes often go down the other path. Healing is gradual and things don’t get fixed overnight. Although trauma can break things, the descent to embracing baggage is usually gradual, as well.

Recognize that most characters don’t go through all of these steps in a single novel — unless that’s the point of the book.

For our villains, antiheroes, and background jerks:

Embrace Baggage

  1. Recognize the flaw (optional)
  2. Embrace the flaw
  3. Justify behaviors that support the flaw
  4. Escalate
  5. If backsliding and consequences happen? Escalate some more!
  6. Trauma? Escalate!

For our heroes and their friends:

Overcome Baggage

  1. Acknowledge the foundation of the flaw
  2. Recognize the behaviors triggered by the flaw
  3. Develop coping mechanisms to avoid, work around, or mitigate some of the effects
  4. Get external support where applicable
  5. Understand there will be backsliding and consequences
  6. Keep working at it

Closing Thoughts

In order to keep these relatably-flawed characters, remember that as people grow and change, some behaviors can get healthier at the same time that others get worse, and vice versa. Or just put them in situations where their newfound strengths are now weaknesses.

Are there any methods for developing flawed characters I missed?
What characters have you enjoyed growing and overcoming their flaws?
What characters have you enjoyed embracing their flaws?
As a layperson, are there any steps for overcoming/embracing flaws that I missed?

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