Don’t be Afraid to Give Your Protagonist Negative Traits and Flaws

I recently came across this clip of Daisy Ridley being interviewed about her character Rey in the latest Star Wars trilogy, and her perspective piqued my interest.  Have a look:

As a writer, I respectfully disagree with Ridley’s view on characters not needing flaws or faults and her perspective that Rey doesn’t have any.  Why are character flaws and negative traits important even in a protagonist?  Let’s talk about it.

Flaws and imperfections give a character depth and dimension.  They humanize the character and create empathy or sympathy between the reader/viewer and the character.  Flaws give the character something to overcome or cope with as they work through the narrative.  

Just like in real life, there are external events we have to deal with, and at the same time, we have to work through any internal issues we may be facing.  Sometimes the two can conflict, which can be frustrating in real life but makes excellent story material.

A perfect character is a BORING character.  You want your characters to feel relatable, and negative traits are a great way to do that.  This doesn’t mean they have to be evil or do illegal things.  There is a wide range of emotions, traits, and flaws you can give a character that will help your reader see them as a person and not just a vessel through which a story is being told.

Think of some of your own personal traits that might be seen as unfavorable or even your own flaws.  Do they make you a bad person?  Probably not.  How do you cope with them?  How do you work through them daily?  By incorporating internal struggles and flaws, you can add dimension to your characters. 

Think of your favorite film, TV series, or book characters.  Are they perfect?  Probably not.  Do they have flaws?  More than likely, a lot of them.  But even with these faults, flaws, and struggles, we identify with them, root for them, empathize with them and watch the character evolve as the story unfolds.

You know, that whole character arc thing.  Pretty important.

Daisy Ridley’s proclamation that Rey has no flaws starts with the writing.  If J.J. Abrams and Rian Johnson created a flawless character for Ridley to play, that’s an error in judgment on their part, not Ridley’s.  She’s merely performing what’s on the page and interpreting it based on what the director – and Disney – wants.  

Rey should have flaws, doubts, imperfections, and negative traits.  It doesn’t make her a bad person; it doesn’t make her less likable.  It HUMANIZES her, giving the audience someone to follow and root for.  

These issues enable the character to have an arc, to strive toward being better as they traverse the obstacles thrown at them by the story.  If you listen to the clip, Ridley lists several things that she feels people can overcome – “anger and jealousy” – and she’s right.  They can.  That’s called personal growth in real life.  Or a character arc in a story.  

Just like the characters in the original Star Wars trilogy.

If you look at the original trilogy, Luke, Leia, Han, and even Darth Vader all have negative traits and flaws, but they overcome them throughout the trilogy.  We watch, and we have a vested interest in who they are and what will happen to them.  Is it because they’re perfect, flawless humans?  Quite the opposite.

So, as you create characters for your stories, remember that it’s okay to have them possess negative traits and have flaws.  This gives them something to work on, something for the audience to identify with, and presents the reader/viewer with a dimensional character worth their time.

Apologies for the late post. I will be back to the earlier post time next Sunday!

Writing Tip #9: Don’t Be Afraid to Rough-Up Your Protagonist

You’ve created the perfect protagonist for your story.  They’re smart, funny, liked by other characters, and best of all, you love them, too!  Now it’s time for them to enter the world of your story and there’s a fear deep inside you that wants to protect them at all costs.  After all, this precious creation should travel through the ebbs and flows of the story unscathed and come out on the other end as perfect as they were when they started their journey.

This is one of the worst things you can do.  Not just as a writer, but to your audience.

Your audience – whether reading or watching your story – wants to go on a journey with your main character.  They want to experience, grow, change, and be moved by what happens to your main character. If your character doesn’t go through some metamorphosis over the course of the narrative, an audience will grow bored with what they are reading or watching.

And you definitely don’t want that!

Don’t be afraid to rough up your main character.  Put them through traumatic events.  Shake them up emotionally, psychologically, physically.  It’s through how they deal with these types of events that their character arc grows over the course of the story (which is just as important as your plot points and story arc).  You want your main character to wind up in a different place on the final page of your script or novel than they were at the beginning.

Audiences expect that.

Exercise:

Watch your favorite movie and write down what the main character is put through over the course of the story.  Where were they at the start of the film?  Where are they at the end?  Write down 5 to 7 events over the course of the film that caused them to change as a character?  Are they a stronger character because of these events?

Now that you’ve taken the time to see how it’s done, you can apply these same principles to your main character.  Don’t be afraid to take them to the limits to see how they handle stressful, dire, or deadly situations.  It’s through these events that your character becomes a more realized and dimensional being for audiences to root for.