Muse Management and Flawed Characters


January 15, 2014 by Kira Lyn Blue

You ever have those days where you think your muse has gone off the deep end?

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Image Credit:

Mine likes to bombard me with a new idea, new characters, new premise, and demand full attention to that particular idea for a couple of weeks. Then, as soon as I find a groove on writing that story, she abruptly switches gears, dumps a whole new idea into my head, and refuses to discuss the old one anymore.

Sometimes I wonder if the ninja squirrels are putting her up to it. I think I may have a conspiracy to drive me insane on my hands.

Yes, this is a picture of a baby eating sand.

At any rate, the muse dumped yet another new story in my lap a couple of days ago and I furiously flushed out a couple of chapters on that idea. What I really like about this particular idea is this time I have a supernatural with a real character flaw that ties right in with the overall plot and is ripe and juicy for character development across the story.

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The problem? Where the story opens has the MC in a full-blown emotional breakdown because she’s been totally blindsided by circumstance. Now this element is critical to the story, but I worry that readers will be turned-off by an apparently weak, navel-gazing, self-pitying character.

Now, I’ve read plenty of books with flawed characters and still loved them. On the other hand, I’ve also dumped books where a character’s flaws were too much for me or I just didn’t personally like the MC. On the other hand, I adore Chuck Palahniuk’s books and many of his characters are pretty darn reprehensible. MacKayla Lane in Karen Marie Moning’s Fever series was so bad in the first book that I struggled through it. Moning had a fantastic plot, though that kept me holding out hope for MacKayla and eventually I was rewarded with some maturity as the character grew.

So, what do you think is the trick to presenting a story with a flawed character? Grab the reader with plot in spite of the character? Hit hard and heavy with action? Throw questions out there the reader must have answered? Or maybe even back the story up a step to show my character before the event that breaks her?

I’m leaning away from that last one because the event isn’t important to the story, only that it happened, and I do want to get to the more integral elements of the story quickly.

What do you think as readers and writers? What would work for you?

12 thoughts on “Muse Management and Flawed Characters

  1. MishaBurnett says:

    I wrote at some length about characters overcoming their fatal flaws on Victoria Grefer’s blog, she asked a very similar question this morning:

    In general I would say what I want to see in a character is that they struggle with an eventually overcome their mental/emotional problems. Not that they “get over” them, but find ways to cope. The short-lived series “Raines” had Jeff Goldblum as a mentally ill detective who found ways to use his illness to gain a fresh perspective on the crimes that he solved.

    As a counter-example, I can not for the life of me see why John Irving is so popular– his characters tend not to struggle to overcome their flaws but rather to wallow in them.

    I can see a novel opening with the main character’s nervous breakdown and showing how she struggles back from that as being a very powerful framework for a story. “I Never Promised You A Rose Garden” is still one of my favorite novels.

    • Thanks for that link, I should add it to the blog post. I follow her blog and I laughed out loud when her post went live not 10-20 min after I put mine up πŸ™‚

      There’s just so many different ways to present a tale and a character and some people will love some versions and hate others. Some of my favorite books have reviews that are highly divisive which I always find interesting.

      I’m reminded of my reaction to “Violin” by Anne Rice which The Husband talked me into reading. I hated it because the entire book is about drowning in grief. It’s beautifully written and is interesting from “let’s explore the downward spiral” perspective, but it’s just not the sort of thing I want to spend my free time reading.

  2. ameliabishop says:

    For me as a reader, I’ll read a terribly flawed character as long as they are entertaining. Some of the characters I like best in stories are the villains or the obnoxious best friends. They can make bad decisions, ignore truths, and treat people around them poorly all day long, as long as I am interested in following them. With an MC, when I’m “in their head” reading, I will put up with a lot if the ride is fun.

    That said, there are different ways to be “flawed”. Scatterbrained and unlucky is funny, stupid rarely is. Self-depreciating can be cute, self-loathing is a lot harder to pull off.

    It sounds like your character is self-pitying at a time when any rational character would be, so as long as you make it interesting I’d be totally into it πŸ™‚

    • Same here. I think 1st person POV provides good opportunities to present exactly why a character is reacting a certain way and drag you into their head and experience it with them. I think the trick, for me, is going to be minimizing just how much I give voice to her wallowing. The real question is how much will readers relate to the event that causes the breakdown?

      I may run some test samples here on the blog to see reactions to the story.

  3. Dang ninja squirrels!!!!! I loved this post, because I wrote about the same thing more or less (as you know!). Characters SHOULD be flawed. The trick in my eyes is to make sure there are redeemable traits in there too, and that they get attention.

    Starting off with a scene like that…. that’s kind of tough, but it can be done. Make sure there are hints that this is an extenuating circumstance, a temporary weakness. Or don’t make the scene too crazy long. If you’re worried about how the character comes off, you can always have people read just that scene and ask: what do you think of this character? Would you keep reading about her? Why or why not? You might be pleasantly surprised by what you hear. And if you aren’t, you’ll have concrete feedback to maybe tweak things.

  4. Muses are in extremely high demand these days. Are there millions of them? Or thousands who are stretching themselves thin. I wonder. Maybe every muse is really a squirrel… πŸ™‚

  5. Gus Sanchez says:

    You’re lucky, as an artist, in that we live in an age where the flawed character has become widely accepted in our fiction. Just look at some of the best television over the past decade – Mad Men, the Sopranos, Breaking Bad, the Wire, Six Feet Under, Girls, all these shows have protagonists who are not only flawed, but remain prisoners of their flaws. The same goes for literature; the best fiction writing has always featured characters who are immensely readable and reprensable at the same time.

    • So true! There’s also so many more opportunities with self-publishing to get your book out there even if one of the major publishing houses don’t want to invest in it or take the risk.

  6. It’s my side characters that like to pull the curtain back and reveal something about the main character. I was banging on the keys one day, my mind in deep, when after four hours I stopped and decided to do a little read before I picked up a book. Turns out my hero, who came from an abusive home, was medically retired for PTSD because he saw ghouls, and was homeless for two years, is a nephilim. Didn’t see that one coming.

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