As a kid, I watched the old “Batman” series every week. Bruce Wayne was a suave, urbane philanthropist until the Batphone rang. Then he transformed into Batman, and it was off to the Batmobile to rid Gotham City of the Joker, the Riddler, or Catwoman.
As a new writer, I used to treat my main characters like super heroes. They had to be likeable, ethical, and heroic, possessed of perfection and without a single flaw. That was a sure recipe for a bad novel. If your main character is a super hero, what’s the point? Where’s the tension? When a crisis emerges, he will simply put on his Bat suit and vanquish his adversaries.
Writers understand intuitively the need to create flawed main characters. And yet, we fall in love with our characters. We get emotionally attached and pretty soon we build a protective shield around them. We know we must place our main character in peril at some point. We know the problem might even be of the main character’s own making. And yet, we don’t want to see our precious main character get hurt. Or look stupid. Or hurt other people. After all, Batman would never get drunk and cheat on his wife (to my knowledge Bruce Wayne was not married, but you get the point). Batman would never hurt his best friend. Batman wouldn’t turn his back on his parents. We make our main characters too good, even though we know a fundamental trait of the main character is imperfection.
Look at character sketch templates and you will see a variation of these key questions:
- What is your main character’s greatest weakness?
- What is your main character’s greatest fear?
- What is your main character’s darkest secret?
- What does your main character want that she doesn’t have?
- Who is stopping her from getting it?
I’m not suggesting you create a detestable main character, though Scarlett O’Hara was one of the most memorable main characters I’ve come across. I’m suggesting you give your main characters some flaws. Throw them into dangerous situations and see what happens. Force them to make difficult choices. Give them some complexity.
Super heroes don’t have weaknesses, but main characters must have them. Your main character must overcome obstacles, conquer weaknesses and, above all, emerge transformed in some major way. And that doesn’t mean dressing up like Batman. Excuse me, I hear the phone ringing. To the Batmobile!
Are your main characters too good? What do you do to make them flawed?