It’s Good to be Bad – Writing Flawed Characters

By: Aryanne Ferguson
This article asks if good characters make bad fiction. Off the top of my head I can think of a few deliciously bad characters who you can’t help but love to hate:

  • The White Witch from The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe
  • Scar from The Lion King
  • Shere Khan from The Jungle Book
  • Cathy Ames from Steinbeck’s East of Eden
  • Humbert Humbert from Nabokov’s Lolita
  • You-Know-Who from Rowling’s Harry Potter series

However, I can’t think of a deliciously good character.  In fact, in the fanfiction world, there’s a word for a character who is always good, always does the right thing, and is never selfish: a Mary Sue. Mary Sue’s are idealized to the point of the ridiculous – they’re higher on their pedestal than any real person can ever reach.  And what’s worse, purely good characters are boring.

So, Reader, is it more fun to write good or bad characters? For me, the fun is in writing flawed characters. Yes, I’d like my readers to sympathize with a characters so that they stick around to read what happens next, but that doesn’t mean the character is even mostly “good.”  I once wrote a short story about an ass who was the manager of a small store—he stalked his former boss and came close to sexually assaulting one of his employees in the store’s back room – and wow did I enjoy writing the moment where he got his comeuppance. Take several antagonists who aren’t exactly snow white, but are still fascinating:

  • Walter White from Breaking Bad, enough said
  • Sherlock Holmes, addicted to opium and acts like an ass, but I can’t count the number of adaptations
  • Holly Golightly from Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, her only goal was to marry rich
  • Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye, too self-important to interact with others

Bad things happen to bad people, good things happen to bad people, and people want to read about both when you write it!  Reader, try dreaming up a character by thinking of them as “basically good” or “basically bad” and then expand from there. Flaws are good – they make your characters human.

Still aren’t convinced? Let us know what you think!

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