The Good and the Bad in an Emotionally Engaging Character

I just finished writing The Viscount’s Runaway Bride, and while writing it, I learned something new about writing the emotionally engaging character, which I’ll share with you in this post.

good-and-bad-in-a-character

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People Have Flaws

And characters should be no different.  Now, I know right away that a flawed character will earn criticism from some readers, but guess what: every single person has a weakness.  These weaknesses, when used to enhance the plot, can make the characters three-dimensional, and three-dimensional characters are relatable.  They are real.  We might not like everything about them, but they come across as authentic.

For example, my hero acted before thinking in a certain matter, and he’s easily manipulated.  Those are two huge flaws.  In real life, however, don’t we all know someone that has a tendency to make decisions before thinking them through?  We might even consider such a person “impulsive” and “stupid”.  We might consider a person who is easily manipulated to be “spineless” and “in need of a brain”.

Another example, the villainess in my book is the manipulator, but only because she honestly thinks she is doing what’s best for the hero.  She is well aware of his flaw to being too naive for his own good.  (In other words, she sees how “impulsive and stupid” he can be in certain situations, and what she’s trying to do is help him make the right decisions.)  But her flaw is that she wants to control him.  I’m sure you can think of someone in your life who has a tendency to be bossy because they think they know what’s best for you or someone you know.

My point to all of this is that characters, even our heroes, can be more realistic if they aren’t perfect.

People also have strengths.

Characters should have strengths, too, and those strengths can help provide a balance to their weaknesses.  In fact, I think a story is even stronger if one character is strong in an area where the other character is weak.  You get those two together, and they provide an excellent balance.

For example, let’s say you have a character who excels at resolving conflict.  I’m sure we can think of someone who is good at this kind of thing in real life.  This is the person with a cool head who seems to know the right thing to say at the right time.  This character is a peacemaker and can soothe over things for the other characters in your story.

Another example, let’s say you have a character who is a good judge of people.  In real life, we might know someone who seems to have a gut instinct about other people.  This person can’t often explain how they know whether someone can be trusted or not until after that person does something that makes us think, “Wow, that person was right!  I can’t believe it.” This type of character can be used in a story to foreshadow future events in a story.  The character doesn’t necessarily have to point out the “danger” another character presents, but the character can warn others of a situation or event that is going to happen.  (For example, I’m thinking of a movie where a character warns others of a catastrophic natural disaster.)  This character can cue the reader into something that becomes important later in the story.

No One is 100% Bad or Good

This ties into what I said above about strengths and weaknesses.  Characters, even a hero, can do something wrong.  The hero, of course, will redeem him/herself.  The hero won’t stay stuck in that wrong statement/action.  Sometimes I think a story can be more powerful if the hero makes some tragic error in the middle of the story that makes the reader think, “Oh no!  How will he/she ever recover from this?”

When I was in the 8th grade, there was a book I read where I started to panic over a decision the character made.  I got sick to my stomach because I couldn’t see a way that things could be satisfactorily resolved.  I looked up from the book and remembered that it was fiction.  At that point, I was able to relax.  But see what happened?  I was so engaged with this character that I was right there with that character in the middle of that horrible moment.  Obviously, this tactic won’t be used in every story you write.  You would end up with stories that all seem the same. But this is one tool that can be used in storytelling.

Another thing you can do with a hero is take advantage of the weakness.  We all have areas where we’re more likely to fail.  This can cover a wide range of things.  In the case of the hero that is easily manipulated, the hero can be convinced to make the wrong decision by another character’s influence.

The villain, however, might stay stuck in it.  Not all villains are the same, nor should they be.  Just because your character is a villain, it doesn’t mean that character has to be all bad. Now, the character might be irredeemable.  There might be no way you can make the character likable.  But even a drop down dirty character can be right about something.  For example, the villain might accurately point out the hero’s weakness.

I actually find a villain who has a sympathetic angle to be the most interesting characters in a story.  A villain can be overtly bad in the beginning of a story, but as the story progresses, the villain shows something good, it can be a game changer in how the reader responds to that character.  Suddenly, the character isn’t as awful as originally thought.  Personally, I love villains like this because they aren’t cardboard cutout characters of what you would normally expect.

Bottom Line

Utilize these strengths and weaknesses to enhance your story as it advances the plot.  Focus in on those traits that directly impact the story.  Doing so will also add to the depth of the character.

About Ruth Ann Nordin

Ruth Ann Nordin mainly writes historical western romances and Regencies. From time to time, she branches out to contemporaries romances and other genres (such as science fiction thrillers). For more information, please go to www.ruthannnordin.com or check out https://ruthannnordinauthorblog.wordpress.com.
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22 Responses to The Good and the Bad in an Emotionally Engaging Character

  1. Marcy says:

    I read a book by Debra Holland in her Montana Sky series about the minister’s son and his girlfriend-fiancée-whatever- and I took an instance dislike to her and her father. They were keeping secrets from Joshua and his parents concerning her heritage. In mystic Sky the bride mentions building a bigger fancier church. I took an instant dislike to her with her new found wealth and worry about Sweetwater Springs and changes she will bring. I dislike her and her father ~~ no real reason for the feeling but I view her as a flawed, spoiled brat ~~ although everyone in the book likes her.

    Stupid of me isn’t it????

    • No, I don’t think it’s stupid at all. Reading is something personal. That’s one of the reasons I became addicted to reading as a teenager. I could make my own judgment calls about characters, and it was okay to do it.

      There have been characters I didn’t like in books who were the hero or heroine, and we’re supposed to like the hero and heroine. 🙂 I think when a character doesn’t resonate on some level with us, it’s okay.

      On a personal note, I’ve been surprised on occasion when someone will ask me to make a villain in one of my books the hero in a future book. I have some villains I see redemptive qualities in, but there are a couple that have none at all. I just can’t give that character a happy ending no matter how hard I try. While some see something good in that character, I don’t. How weird is that?

  2. Isn’t that the truth? Like Harry Potter: basically a nice guy, but he has a tendency to get a little overexcited and mixed up in things. Or Zahara, from RC: she’s sweet, but she does have a tendency to doubt herself.

  3. I’ve run into a few ‘perfect’ people through the years … and let me tell you, they are the most obnoxious people you could ever hope to meet. So imagined perfectionism is one of the biggest flaws there is – in my opinion. Those people, I doubt there’s any redemption for. But like you, I love it when the bad guy can be turned around. Or at least enough that I like him.

    One of my favorite characters was Lex Luthor in Smallville (never got into the movies much). Before he turned really bad, he was my favorite person in the show and I always hoped someone would, as the song says, save me (or in Lex’s case, him).

    Great article, as always, Ruth. 🙂

    • I loved Lex Luthor in Smallville! He was my favorite of all the characters. I stopped watching the show around the time they started bringing in a bunch of other super heroes. It lost the flavor the show started with for me. So I didn’t see how Lex progressed into the bad guy. I did think he was highly sympathetic in the beginning, and I wanted to see good things happen to him.

      When I say perfect characters, I meant the character was too good to be true. They are ultra sweet and wonderful. You did give me a good idea about working on a character who thinks he or she’s perfect, though. Or even someone who is the perfectionist within him/herself. Hmm… 🙂

      • Glad I wasn’t the only one, Ruth. I stopped watching too, when they started making him really bad. Seeing that progression wasn’t fun for a Lex lover like me, lol, so I just didn’t watch it anymore until (I think) the last season.

        Oh, I know what you meant by a perfect character. I am just so sleep deprived lately, my response wasn’t as clear as I’d have liked it to be.

        Working on a character who thinks he’s perfect is kind of a challenge, but the story I’m working on now has one who definitely thinks he’s pretty great. I’m walking a fine line in trying to not make him too obnoxious – since he’s also the hero, lol. In fact, I’m rewriting a scene that was sure to make a lot of readers hate him … and in the second chapter, no less. 😀

  4. I think it’s great when a villain can later be turned into a hero. (I still can’t figure out how the villain in Fire Wizard could possibly be redeemed, though. I wish I could just let that go. LOL.) Some villains do things that are so despicable that readers would never forgive them. So when you’re writing a book with a villain, sometimes it’s good to think ahead and wonder if maybe you can set it up so the villain can be redeemed later. That’s what I love about fiction. There are so many possibilities.

    You have your work cut out for you if you’re going to redeem a certain couple of ladies. 😉

    • I do have my work cut out for me, but I see it as a challenge. I enjoy pushing the limits on what I already know about storytelling and seeing if I can do more with it. 🙂 It’s fun to delve into the complexities of human personalities.

      It’s been a while since I read Fire Wizard. How did the villain become that way? I barely remember him. I remember the house located out in the middle nowhere and the intensity of the kiss between the hero and shero a lot better. 🙂

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