Four Tips For Writing Flawed Protagonists by Laurel Osterkamp
Let’s welcome back Laurel Osterkamp as she shares with us “Four Tips For Writing Flawed Protagonists.” Enjoy!
The best books have flawed protagonists.
There is just no wiggle room on that. I think we can all agree that readers must believe a novel’s main character could exist in real life. If they’re too perfect, then they’re not believable. Thus, flawed protagonists make for more compelling stories and provide fully-formed character arcs.
And yet, how many of us set out to create a protagonist without any flaws?
It’s more likely that halfway through the writing process, we might realize (with horror) that we can’t relate to our protagonist because they’re just too perfect. Now, what do we do?
If you don’t want to have to go back and majorly revise, start writing your main character with flaws on page one.
You can use these tips to help create flawlessly flawed protagonists.
- Make the flaws relatable.
Choose a flaw for your main character that many of us might share.
For example, maybe they’re prone to bragging, or they’re indecisive, or perhaps too stubborn. Whatever you choose, the flaws should be based on realistic human characteristics; that way, your readers can empathize.
For example, take the classic protagonist of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Lizzie is a strong-willed, independent woman who is always eager to share her opinions. That’s cool, but the flipside is that she can be too judgmental, and occasionally, her pride keeps her from finding love.
How many of us have done the same sort of thing?
It’s Lizzie Bennet’s flaws that make her one of the most beloved, memorable characters ever.
- Make sure their flaws are not too extreme.
If your protagonist’s flaws are too extreme you run the risk of turning readers off.
For example, in Paula Hawkins’s thriller The Girl on the Train, Rachel is an alcoholic whose life is only about spying on people from a train and drinking.
She is an unreliable narrator, trying to piece together her past. Hawkins walks a fine line with Rachel because she is such a hot mess that at first, the reader might not feel super invested. But later we learn that Rachel’s flaws are not the only thing that defines her.
Hawkins gives Rachel other qualities, like kindness, bravery, and empathy, to make her unique and well-rounded. In addition, we learn enough about Rachel’s past to make her downfalls understandable. Plus, Rachel is trying to get better.
That leads to step #3.
- Show how they are trying to overcome their flaws.
It can be fascinating to see how a flawed protagonist tries to overcome their flaws. In fact, that can be the basis for an entire story. It’s also a great way to create an engaging arc for your main character.
For example, in Octavia Butler’s novel Kindred, Dana is a smart, resourceful, and resilient Black woman forced to travel back in time and live as a slave. Dana doesn’t have many flaws, but she can be shortsighted.
There are times when she gets caught up in asserting her independence, and then she closes herself off to understanding the plight her ancestors went through. She must also control her temper, or risk putting herself, and the other slaves, in danger. Her struggles in these areas provide a fascinating character arc.
- Give them moments of strength and victory.
Showing that your character can overcome their flaws and succeed can be quite emotional.
In Wally Lamb’s I Know This Much is True, the protagonist, Dominick, states in the first chapter, “I never claimed I was lovable. I never said I wasn’t a son of a bitch.” And over the course of the novel, Dominick shows that he can be a real jerk. But it’s never too extreme (he’s not abusive) and he’s always trying hard to be a better man.
By the end, when he reckons with certain truths about himself and his life, his moments of strength and victory are incredibly moving. Dominick’s success becomes our success, and what reader doesn’t want that?
You should never be afraid to create a flawed protagonist.
In fact, without a flawed protagonist, your novel will suffer.
So go ahead, and give them some flaws…your novel will be more engaging and memorable because of it. By using these tips, you’ll create characters that your readers can relate to and root for.
About the Author
Laurel Osterkamp is from Minneapolis, where she teaches and writes like it’s going out of style. Her short fiction has been featured in Tangled Locks Literary Journal, Bright Flash Literary Journal, and Metawoker Lit, among other places. Her latest novel Favorite Daughters was recently released by Black Rose Writing. (Click here to see the novel on Amazon.)