Hello readers! Welcome back to another Monday installment of Being a Better Writer! Hopefully it brightens up your day a little. In advance, I apologize for the lateness of this post. I’m sort of taking a slower day in the wake of getting Starforge done as well as pumping out a fic for a contest in a single go. A bit of a breather, really.
In fairness, I kind of needed it. This weekend I took care of multiple things that had been piling up for the last few months. Not major things, but small things that needed to be done but could be “put off” for another day. Home maintenance and the like. There was a bit of a backlog from finishing off the Starforge draft.
So, to do a quick news aside, now what? With Starforge‘s draft done, what’s going to happen next?
Well, I’m going to take a break from it for a while. Those of you that know the process expected this. I’m going to spend at least a month clearing my head, maybe more. Disconnecting from Starforge and working on other projects. Some short stories. The Shadow of an Empire paperback. A new Jacob Rocke story. The Axtara sequel. That sort of thing.
Then, once I’ve had some time to “detach,” I’ll head back into Starforge and start work on the pre-alpha.
So that’ll be what I’m up to for the next foreseeable future. Shorts, work on some new content for an old setting, and work on some new content for a fairly new setting.
Got it? Excellent! Now, on with Being a Better Writer!
So I’ll admit, this post’s title might have raised a few eyebrows. And well, that is deliberate. That’s how you get clicks, after all.
But it’s also a nod to the origins of the post, that being a discussion about a fandom’s love for a particular character while expressing disdain for another. Some of you may have already guessed at the identities involved, because this one has been a common … shall we say battle on the internet, a battle big enough that news outlets have gotten involved. Usually to their detriment.
Okay, I’ll drop a hint: It involves Star Wars.
Yup. And like that, most of you have guessed the origins of this particular debate. Basically, it boils down to Disney trying to make everyone love the protagonist of their new trilogy, Rey, by just about any means necessary. A large tactic in which was labeling anyone who didn’t like the character “sexist.” You know, they just hate “women characters.”
Nice, easy deflection of any criticism. But … it didn’t quite work with a lot of people because those same people that Disney was trying to deflect with accusations of sexism love the character of Ahsoka Tano. Who is … wait for it … also a woman.
Now, the point of this post isn’t to slam Disney’s Rey. Though it will make a few noted observations about what separates Rey from Ahsoka, because there are reasons why most fans of Star Wars like the one and don’t like the other. It has nothing to do with lightsabers, or with the “Poochie” factor (despite what Disney seems to think).
No, what it boils down to is simply something that holds true for all characters, regardless of gender, and yet seems to be forgotten from time to time.
Real characters have flaws. Furthermore, those flaws are acknowledged and part of their character.
Okay, I’m going to step back for a minute. For those of you who don’t know the story of Ahsoka Tano, here’s something interesting: When she first arrived in Star Wars, as Anakin Skywalker’s apprentice in the Clone Wars show, people and critics hated her.
Honestly, it wasn’t hard to see why, though if you don’t know the reasons you might be thinking “Oh, so people hated her at first because she’s a woman, and then only warmed up later when it was cool.”
Yeah no, that wasn’t it. People were curious and excited about her before the first episodes aired. But then they did air, and Ahsoka was … deeply flawed. To the point where a lot of people hated her for it. She was argumentative, whiny, brought a lot of trouble on the other protagonists … and despite being a character that was clearly written to be the child interest for a lot of children to “connect” with, didn’t seem to do much aside from be a stereotypical teen.
So what changed? Well, the character did. Not as a rewrite, or a sudden about face, but as herself. As the series went on, Ahsoka herself acknowledged her own flaws and began to work around them, or improve them. Her argumentative nature shifted as she learned more. She herself caught and recognized the very behavior that had made her so disliked and began to grow. And when that happened, the audience took a sudden change in their opinion of her.
“Oh,” they said. “She knows she’s whiny. And she’s working on it.” Like the other characters (something I stress to point out that Ahsoka wasn’t the only one) she was exhibiting character growth. Not in a straight, unbroken line with no challenges or setbacks, but in bits and pieces like a real “human” (yes, I know she’s a togruta) would.
Gradually, her rough edges were shaved away, or forged into strengths. And this character that a lot of people had thoroughly disliked became one of their favorites. They saw her grow, making mistakes and learning from them to become a better person. In fact, by the end of the show it’s pretty arguable that quite a number of viewers were watching to see her rather than characters like Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi. When she appeared in other Star Wars media, people flocked to the episodes to see her. When she showed up in The Mandalorian, live-action at last, people went nuts because they were both excited to see her played in a live-action setting and to see what had happened to her since the end of the Clone Wars.
The point that I’m trying to make her is that both Rey and Ahsoka were female characters, but only one of them became revered by the fandom. The other ended up a bit reviled, and well … yeah look I get it. Rey basically stumbles from plot point to plot point. She’s not exactly awful, but her character development isn’t anything I’d call good either. Or really that existent, especially after the first film of the new trilogy. She’s just … there. Her plot path is at the whim of the story rather than her character.
Oh, and what flaws she has are quickly downplayed, or the story attempts to make them strengths by later excusing them in hindsight. A sort of “I was right all along” concept instead of “Huh, maybe I was wrong.”
And yes, she’s not the only character who does this. The whole new trilogy was rife with it. Rey is just the best comparison that came to mind because we have a direct comparison with a much-loved character in Ahsoka Tano. Both are similar … but one was given real character development and allowed to have flaws that were embraced as such.
Which is something all our characters—species, gender, whatever—should have. Real flaws. One of the reasons people grew to love Ahsoka so much is because she had flaws, flaws that sometimes cost her dearly. She also acknowledged those flaws and worked to overcome them. Some of them she did. Some she struggled with, or even had to make allowances for. Despite Disney’s seeming belief that “everyone cool should be a Jedi” Ahsoka Tano is loved by fans because she chose to step away from the Jedi Order over differences, and does not consider herself a Jedi as a result.
Point being, flaws make our characters likeable because they make them relatable. We all have flaws. It’s part of being who we are. Furthermore, we struggle and suffer because of those flaws. Make poor choices that we then have to work to make up for. Work to overcome.
So when we encounter a character who seems to have no flaws, or worse, has flaws but them somehow always has their flaws “work in their favor” so that they aren’t really flaws … Well, we don’t enjoy it. There’s a part of us that realizes that life isn’t like that, even in escapism, and so it rings hollow to us.
Plus, fiction isn’t as fun when a character simple “skates” through things. We want to see peril! We want to see challenge! We want to see a character grow! And when you write a character who has no flaws, or whose flaws always turn out to be a strength by the convenience of “plot,” well … The audience gets bored.
Well, most audiences. I’ll admit, there are audiences out there that love the blatant wish-fulfillment of a character who never fails or struggles for more than a moment and has no flaw that won’t later turn out to have been a “hidden strength all along!”
But that’s a specific audience. Most audiences don’t want that. They want to see real characters that grow and achieve. And if they don’t get that, well …
This is why a lot of Disney’s recent attempts to create “strong female characters” have fallen flat and failed to resonate with a lot of audiences. Sands, reviewers called out the plot of their live-action Mulan for having a character “flaw” of “she’s too good at everything and must hide it because woman.” Among other issues, this was one that a lot of people who saw the film complained about. The character’s only flaw is that they’re “too good?” And the antagonist’s only flaw was that she was a woman? And therefore couldn’t be in charge despite there being no one who could stand up to her but a character who’s flaw is her one weakness? That’s Twilight-level “My skin sparkles in the sunlight and is hard as diamonds woe is me for my flaws” level of poor character writing right there.
But even when Disney has given their characters actual flaws lately they’ve still been dropping the ball by refusing to acknowledge them as such and instead trying to paint them as “excusable” because ‘Well it’s the protagonist, so that makes them okay.” Which in a way almost sounds like narcissism: I am the protagonist, therefore this flaw is not a flaw but a feature. Which is a flaw in and of itself, unless the story never acknowledges it as such or treats it so.
Okay, so with all this said … How can we give our characters flaws? Better yet, what do we do once we’ve given them those flaws?
Flaws can come from two places. The first is when we sit down to design a character, coming up with them beforehand. We think about their quirks, their personality, their aims and objectives, and likewise we can think about their flaws. Big and small. It can be something as simple as “frequently forgets to close the door behind them” to something big like “only trust their immediate family … and then trusts them too much.”
If you’re the type to plan when doing this, think about how the flaws can or will affect your story. Will they create conflict? Will they create a way for the character to grow? Will they overcome their flaws, or will they chip away at them, working bit by bit to create a strength (not one, I note, that comes from the plot, but from the character)? Or will they simply adapt and acknowledge it, but be unable to fully “fix” it?
Alternatively, you can have flaws crop up as the characters go along. And again, they can be as small as a tic or a nervous habit to as large as being deeply prejudiced against something. Writers that pants (come up with things on the fly for those of you that haven’t heard that term) can still give their characters plenty of flaws and failings to overcome. Just, as they—you, perhaps—write, think about what’s happening and what your character is like, and give them some drawbacks.
Once we’ve done that? Let the drawbacks be part of the story. Or, to put it another way, don’t just give your characters flaws and call it a day. Let them “use” those flaws. Let them make mistakes. Let them say the wrong thing. Do the wrong thing. Make a mistake.
Oh, and while we’re on the topic, flaws don’t have to be some deep-seated personal issue. Flaws can sometimes be basic or almost not a flaw, just a flaw in a specific scenario. For example the character of Princess Mia in Axtara has as a flaw that she’s young and therefore lacking in experience needed to lead a nation. That is a flaw, but it’s also one she recognizes, and it isn’t due to any bad habits on her part. In fact, in the story she confides to the protagonist that she works hard to become a good leader and know what a good leader is because she acknowledges that she’s young and inexperienced, yet has that future ahead of her.
A flaw can be something as simple as “I am not a good artist” or “I don’t have any experience with this so I’m not great.” There’s a lot of room, and we should embrace it. Use it. Let our characters rise above their mistakes or overcome their flaws through work and exertion.
And sometimes … don’t let them. Real characters, real people, have flaws. We don’t always overcome them. We cover them up, or we find ways to “secure” them so that they don’t strike out, but we don’t always solve them. We just learn control.
So let your characters have flaws. Let them have struggles that are of their own making. Weaknesses to overcome and rise above, or just live with.
You get to make that call. But however you do it, giving your characters flaws and letting them be themselves, with those flaws, will make them that much more human.
And your audience? They’ll thank you for it.
Being a Better Writer is provided free of charge and exists thanks to the aid of the following Patreon supporters:
Frenetic, Pajo, Anonymous Potato, Taylor, Jack of a Few Trades, Alamis, Seirsan, Miller, Hoopy McGee, Brown, Lightwind, Thomas, 22ndTemplar, and Piiec!
Special thanks to them for helping keep Unusual Things ad-free and the Being a Better Writer articles coming!
If you’d like to be a supporter as well, then check out the Patreon Page (and get access to some bonus exclusive content) or if you’re particular to a one-time donation, why not purchase a book? Or do both!
Thoughts? Comments? Post them below!