Writing strong yet flawed female characters: A man’s advice

This is a guest post by George Hamilton

This guest post has been written due to an invitation from Melissa Storm after I commented on Jill Cooper’s recent guest post on Melissa’s blog. I would like to thank you for this opportunity, Melissa.

When John Steinbeck wrote East of Eden, he created one of the most flawed female major characters ever seen in Cathy Ames, who lied, manipulated and murdered her way through life. While Cathy was at the extreme end of flaws when it came to female characters, in recent years we appear to have moved to the other extreme, where many female leads have no flaws.

The rise of the superwoman

I believe this growth of novels with female leads who have no flaws has partly come out of the girl power period, where some felt that in order to help girls to become strong and confident young women, it was necessary to give them female characters who were strong and confident. This was very much promoted by pop bands and chat shows.

But if the characters are strong and confident from the start to the end of the novel, then what internal fears have they overcome? What growth and change has there been? If none of these things have happened, then how are the characters depicted in the books helping ordinary girls and women to imagine themselves with their real fears and flaws in those situations and to learn through the fictional characters’ experiences how they might overcome them?

If all they are learning from are tough-as-nails female characters who always get the job done, then this is likely to encourage a false bravado that, when the chips are really down, will dissipate into a cloud of dust.

I believe male authors are particularly guilty of this trend, and they do it in two ways.

One of my favorite authors writes male characters with great flaws, the type of flaws I can see in myself, so that I can empathize with them and wonder how I would deal with the situation they get into. If they were so super good at solving everything, I would feel so detached from them that there would be little point in placing myself in their situation, since only supermen could solve it. However, there are a lack of females in this writer’s novels, and where he does include them, they tend to be very minor.

I believe this writer is displaying the “silence of the men syndrome.” This is where a man becomes afraid of disagreeing with women because it has not served him very well in the past, so he adopts a silence on anything contentious when dealing with females. He knows of the girl power idea that women are only strong, but he writes flawed characters, so rather than disagreeing with the purveyors of this idea, he just leaves women out.

The other type of male writer I notice comes from the “agree with them because it’s beneficial in the bedroom” school (this was the advice given to a male only audience on an Oprah show about how to treat women, and the entire audience of men jumped out of their seats cheering—I’ll have more to say, a lot more, about these arch-manipulators in a future novel), and it shows through in their writing. In their novels, the males will have the flaws (which usually means they’ll have the best parts), and the females will be super efficient at all they do. If the women do have a flaw in these writers’ novels, it will usually have to do with loving a man that’s not yet right for them. They will then set about changing the man, which means that the real flaw is not with the woman, it’s with the man.

What are the main benefits of giving your main character a flaw?

Real people can relate to and transport themselves into the experiences of flawed characters more easily than they can do with perfect characters, as I have discussed above.

Giving the main character a flaw that puts them at odds with another leading character gives the novel an almost constant level of underlying conflict, which is more natural than the conflict we put in through plot devices. This is the case in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, where the father’s flaw is his inability to trust anyone, and this is at odds with his son’s willingness to trust. I talk about this in my blog post: To create natural conflict in your story, insert a major difference between your main characters

I like to give my main character’s flaws that will lead them to have internal struggles over whether they have what it takes to achieve the overall story goal set for them. This means that the characters will usually have to muster strengths that they didn’t know they had before they can succeed. If a character’s own internal struggles are affecting the way in which they approach and solve the problem at hand, then it makes for more interesting plot nuances and can lead to stronger themes, as the character flaw is often related to the theme — see my guest post at The Creative Penn: How To Illustrate The Theme of Your Novel and my blog post: Splitting a theme from a well-known event and using it in your story.

The current female lead I am writing, Dr Ludmilla Toropov, is flawed in that she is a gold-cross-bearing daughter of the nation who doesn’t recognize at the outset that she has been manipulated into her unquestionable support for the state due to this award. This has estranged her from her rebel student daughter. When a deadly virus sweeps the world, wiping out millions in days, she can either watch hundreds of her patients die or defy the state that nurtured her. One choice will pit her against her daughter; the other could land her in a gulag jail.

I hope it can be seen from this that Dr Toropov’s internal struggles and her ability to change are going to be more important than any superhuman qualities that she may possess.

We’ll get so many more interesting female leads if we give them flaws that they can own, flaws that are not due to someone else, but down to them. With that type of flaw, it’s the female lead who will have to grow and change, and I for one will enjoy experiencing that transformation.

With that in mind, I’d like to end with a question: Who have been some of your favorite flawed female characters?

[jbox]About this post’s author: George Hamilton currently lives in London, United Kingdom. He discovered his story-telling abilities as a child. Whilst sharing a bedroom with his two brothers, he would pretend to be a radio, and they could switch the channels to hear a different story. He started writing seriously about 20 years ago, but with other work commitments and the learning curve to become a better writer, it took many years to produce books of the quality of his first two published novels, Secrets From The Dust and Carnival of Hope. George is currently working on another novel. George’s website, Facebook fan page, Secrets From The Dust, Carnival of Hope.[/jbox]

Yvonne Hertzberger

As a writer I try to give ALL my characters flaws and room to change and grow. My female characters are usually strong, but we often don’t know that right away. The same is true of my male characters, but in somewhat different ways. Only minor characters who do not have a part to play in forwarding the story are not developed beyond their introduction.

I do have a prejudice, as a reader, in favour of female authors, though. I tend to agree that male authors seldom develop characters, even male ones, to the degree that makes me want to spend time with them for long. I do think it’s a gender difference. Guys like action, gals like characters. Not exclusively, of course. There has been a shift recently in male authors writing good female characters but in general male authors go for plot over characters development, male or female.

    George Hamilton

    “male authors go for plot over characters development, male or female”. Interesting angle on this debate, Yvonne. I agree that is part of the problem. I hadn’t considered this, as I tend to read novels where plot and character development are both important. One of the writers I am thinking of does develop his male characters, but then the females are invisible.

Ava

Good post, George. I’m a romance novelist and it wasn’t until I flawed my characters up that they became interesting. I just got to thinking, these women were so perfect what hope was there for the rest of us? So my book features a heroine who is impetuous, sometimes childish and somewhat insecure. I love her and so do many of the people who read my book :-).

    George Hamilton

    Thanks, Ava. I’m glad to hear that your readers love your heroine. That’s because with all her flaws she’s probably a lot more like them.

Ria

Developing characters have always been hard for me. I would settle on some flaw and then say, “Nah! That would make him/her suck.” But I guess art is all about taking risks.
Thank you for sharing such valuable insights.

    George Hamilton

    Thanks for responding, Ria. I think if you try to match the main character’s flaw to your theme, that can help. Like the example I gave from Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road, where the character was unable to trust. Good Luck!

      Ria

      I did that with my protagonist. My still developing novel is named Rage and the protagonist is a girl who has intense anger management issues. The only problem crops up with the supporting characters. At least I got that right. 🙂

Angel King

Thanks for the insight. I definitely see the truth of what you’re saying. Ironically, in my current novel, I forgot to flesh out my male main character’s flaws. So this was a timely reminder.

    George Hamilton

    Thanks for responding, Angel, and good luck with the novel.

Andreas Smith

Wow, I never thought about the points that you discussed here would make sense to me. Writing is complicated stuff, but your analysis about female characters are spot on!

    George Hamilton

    Thank you, Andreas, I’m happy that you got something useful out of the post.

Mishelle Disney

Creating characters that people can relate to are hard already, but thinking about the psychological aspect of character writing is on another plane. I commend you for this post

    George Hamilton

    Thank you, Mishelle; I’m glad you enjoyed the post.

Comments are closed