In classic literary analysis, a character flaw is an internal character weakness that brings conflict to the character's world and sometimes brings about his downfall. Shakespeare's Hamlet has a character flaw in his indecisiveness. Because he can see all sides of the issue of his father's death, he cannot make a clear decision about whether and how to strike back at his enemies. Character flaws are important because they show the basic humanity of the character, making them accessible for readers to relate to them while they may still be portrayed as "larger than life". It's easy to tag the character with major flaws, for example: he's a loner, she's a leader, he's a wounded soul, she's a survivor.
My advice is not to think big here, but to think small that becomes big. Connect with your reader first. Readers connect with small, specific things better than with big broad themes. For example: he compulsively stirs his coffee thirty times, it drives her crazy. Why does he do it? It primes him to think about his daily to do list. He needs to do it. What does this generalize into? He needs a moment of lead time before he makes decisions. On the other hand, she makes snap decisions, and he hates that she doesn't take the time to think. Do you see room for growth and understanding in each character? Plus, some great conflicts?
Because stories depend on characters and readers connecting with those characters, the best stories have characters that despite their flaws are easy to connect with or are unusual or special in some way. As an author you can make use of a small flaw such as a mannerism or habit to reveal character and give the reader a focus for connecting with your characters.
We see human mannerisms every day, and since they are so common, we may no longer pay attention to them. If you become adept at describing mannerisms in words and you infuse your characters with unique mannerisms, your readers will make stronger connections to your characters, making it easy for your readers to visualize the story events as they happen.
Think back to when you were a student in elementary or high school. Recall some of your teachers, recall how they walked around the room, how they engaged the class, how they spoke. In high school I had a chemistry teacher who called everyone "babe", boys, girls, other adults, even the principal. "Hey babe. How are ya babe? Okay, babe this is what we're going to do today." After a while you just shake your head and ignore it. Or, stow it away for use in a future book.
Go to a sporting event, lecture, or just hang around in any public place and you can observe useful mannerisms to put in your books. Look for: tapping fingers, wiggling feet or legs, chewing cheeks or lips or nails, flipping hair out of eyes, running fingers through hair, cracking knuckles, pursing lips, puffing breath. Listen for: repeated words and phrases, unvoiced hums, clicks and other noises. If you don't have time to go out to observe, choose a film and watch it with the sound turned off.
Personal habits are what make us who we are. They are ways that we approach problem solving, ways that we handle stress, ways that we goof off. Many of our personal habits developed during childhood. Some could even be attributed to genetics, since mannerisms and habits are often shared amongst family members.
Your main characters should each have at least one identifiable mannerism or habit that is unique to them. Preferably, the mannerism or habit will reflect their character and put them into conflict with other characters. It doesn't matter whether your character's habit is long standing or more recently acquired, or whether it is a good habit or a bad habit. It does matter how you show it and how it affects other characters or impacts the story.
Evaluate the meaning of your characters habits. What does the habit say about the type of person your character is?
Is it an addictive habit? One that he can't shake?
Does it change him from a Dr. Jekyll into a Mr. Hyde or the reverse?
Is the habit something the character learned to please a parent or mentor?
What is the function of this habit? What does it do for the character (good or bad)?
How detrimental is the habit to the character?
Is it second nature to him? Does he do it without thinking?
How regularly does the character perform the mannerism? What are the circumstances?
How does the habit affect other characters? Does it drive them crazy, or is it comforting?
Does the habit highlight a talent or strength?
Has the character ever tried to break the habit?
Is this a new habit the character is working on?
Answer some of these questions for your character to help connect this small habit to the larger picture of who your character is and why he behaves the way he does. A small habit often indicates the beginning of a larger problem. The small character flaw is what makes it possible for your reader to connect with your character and that can be crucial to your story.
For more lessons and practice with characters and their flaws, check out my upcoming class:
You are What You Say
February 1, 2013 - February 28, 2013 with Outreach International RWA - Click here to register
This workshop examines the elements needed to reveal character through dialogue. Using character development techniques you already know such as goals, motivations and backstory, learn how to reveal strong characters through their words and connect those words to other elements in your story. Successful novels have an increasing amount of dialogue over narration, forcing dialogue sequences to do more and more of the work of telling the story. Learn how to reveal important information about characters, turning thoughts, appearances, and actions into spoken words. Workshop includes lessons on using dialogue to build tension and anticipation, reveal story secrets, enhance setting and hit readers in the gut with emotion. Includes lessons on dialogue tags, and blending dialogue with narration. Examples from bestselling novels offered as models. This workshop includes a 1-hour chat with the author midway through the workshop
Hey, you knew it would one day come to this, didn't you? If not, then you're still dreaming. Shh....don't wake those painfully shy authors from their blissful dreams. They'll find out soon enough it's not possible for publishers to do all the promotion necessary to introduce a book to the reading public. Let's talk quietly while they sleep on. Another reason for talking quietly is that I know most of you who are reading this are pretty shy, too. You probably don't go around gushing constantly about your latest book or carrying extra copies in your trunk just in case you manage to make a sale somewhere along the way during your daily activities. (If you do, good for you!).
It has come to this: self-promotion. You've got to get out there and sell yourself and sell your books. If you get cold sweats just thinking about self-promo for your books you are not alone. Many authors, even well-known ones, have to work hard to get the word out to the book-buying public. Building your readership doesn't happen accidentally, nor does it have to give you nightmares. Here are several low-cost ways to jump into self-promotion without yanking yourself out of your comfy little introvert shell.
First, let's be honest and say up front that your publisher will do very little to promote you. A collective ad in a genre magazine (maybe), sending out review copies (only if it's a hardcover book), and the occasional promotional product giveaways are the rare promotional pushes new and mid-list authors get. Don't count on featured space in bookstores, author signings, or multicity book tours until you are earning lots of money for the publisher. So, what can you do from the comfort of your introverted little shell to promote your books?
At a minimum you'll want a website, some social media links and an email. Your website can be pretty simple, the kind you can set up using templates provided by your website hosting company. You'll want a page that tells a little about you and what kinds of stories you like to write. You don't have to post a photo of yourself. Post one of your doggie instead. Readers love pets. Many authors these days use an avatar instead of their own photo. Another page on your website should list the books you have for sale. You'll want to have the book cover, a blurb and maybe a short excerpt. On that same page provide purchase links to your publisher and also to popular sites like Amazon, and Barnes and Noble. Other pages, such as a blog, a page with links to your favorite authors or other sites relevant to your writing are optional. You'll want to provide a way for people to contact you, so have a page with your Facebook and Twitter links as well as a contact email or contact form. Other great social media portals are places like Goodreads or Shelfari where you can share your favorite books and learn about what your friends are reading. Spend some time each month sending free copies of your books to review sites, asking them to review your book. There are many review sites out there and it may take months for reviewers at those sites to get around to reading and reviewing you, so don't wait. If you've got extra cash on hand, you might consider having a book trailer made.
You will also want to promote you. This is not as easy. If you're too shy to go out to your local bookstores or library and far too shy to even think about doing promo by newspapers, TV, or radio, then you have to count on building your readership through online means through your website and social media links. One good method for building your name recognition and getting readers to visit your site is to go on a blog tour. Look for a blog tour promotion company such as Goddess Fish Promotions or Writer Marketing Services who will arrange a tour for you, contact all the blog sites and send you the interview questions or blog topics you will need to write. If you're too shy even for this, then you can arrange tours that review your book or simply display your book cover and blurb with purchase links.
There's one more way you can promote yourself and your books without exposing too much of your sensitive side: promotional items. Promotional items, imprinted with your book cover, logo or website can be mailed off to be distributed at writer's conferences, workshops and meetings, libraries, bookstores and book clubs. Most readers are only too happy to receive a professionally-made and practical item. With promotional items, quality counts. If you are going to go to the expense of providing these items to potential readers they have to look professional. If you don't know anything about design and layout, hire someone who does.
Promotion is cumulative. The more you do and the more regularly you do it, the more it builds your name among the readers who are out there. In the meanwhile, perhaps you can learn to overcome some of your shyness and then more promotional opportunities will be available to you. Of course, the most important component of promotional success is to write the best books you possibly can. Most of your energy should be devoted to writing and writing well.