On Writing · Writing

Why your characters should be flawed

The featured image of this post is lifted from the 1984 film adaptation (dir. Michael Radford) of Orwell’s modern classic. In it, the late Sir John Hurt plays the protagonist Winston Smith, an impoverished middle aged man living under a totalitarian regime. It is a difficult film to watch, in some ways more so than the book is to read, and Winston is a difficult character to like. Nonetheless the reader-audience pities him greatly and becomes heavily invested in his life, not because he is charming or funny but because he is a singularly weak man. What little agency he has is overshadowed by a multitude of occasions where he is influenced, coerced, and forced into positions that lead to his downfall.

Winston highlights an important point about effective characterisation: that flaws beget drama. The beautiful, intelligent, amicable character who achieves their goals and surmounts all obstacles to get what they desire is not interesting. Admirable, maybe, and exhilarating in the opening stages of the narrative. But an audience will soon lose focus and look for excitement elsewhere i.e. in another book.

If a character is flawed then the audience is in a constant state of uncertainty about the direction of the plot. To finish with an illustrative excerpt from Nineteen Eighty-Four, we come to a point midway through the narrative where Winston approaches O’Brien believing he too opposes the regime. The audience does not know if he will succeed or if he will reveal his dissidence, if embedded microphones will catch a waver in his voice or even if O’Brien is a renegade as well. Weak characters with flaws are unreliable and thus they create and reaffirm narrative tension.


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