Editor Theresa Steven’s joins us today to talk about characters afflicted with You’re-Just-Too-Good-To-Be-True syndrome.
Flaws From Virtues
In romance writing, we must constantly walk a fine line between creating characters who are heroic and admirable and characters who are too good to be true. Characters who are in conflict but who are not too aggressive, unreasonable, or bad-tempered. Characters who are perfectly suited to each other, but not until the final chapters. This is a difficult balancing act. Tilt the scales too far in one direction, and you might bore the reader. Too far in the other direction, and you might alienate them.
I hear authors talk about giving their hero and heroine flaws as a way to generate romantic conflict and avoid “too perfect” syndrome. This can be a useful strategy, depending on the flaw. That is, by using this technique, now we have to find a flaw that doesn’t make the hero or heroine unsuitable for a committed romantic relationship. If a man is a violent felon, that’s certainly a flaw, but it’s the kind of flaw that means he’s not good marriage material. So this leaves us playing Goldilocks with lists of character flaws — too icky, too dangerous, too disruptive — until we find one that’s just right.
This isn’t easy, and it doesn’t always work. But there is another option. By exaggerating an existing virtue until it takes on the dimensions of a flaw, you can create conflict between realistic characters without undermining their heroic natures.
This technique involves using a little magic word, “too.” Is your heroine independent? This is a good quality. But if she is “too” independent, this can cause problems in her life. Maybe she’s unwilling to ask for help or to take it when it’s offered. Maybe she hides her troubles or becomes overwhelmed with DIY projects. Depending on the specifics of the plot, “too” independent could take on many different dimensions. Almost any virtue can be skewed into flaw territory just by enlarging it and contemplating how too much of a good thing can cause problems.
Jane Austen uses this technique to great effect in her masterpiece, “Pride and Prejudice.” Darcy’s great heroic virtues are his honesty, his sense of duty, and his protectiveness toward those he loves. All three of these virtues are warped into flaws, or at least into plot complications. For example, Darcy is very protective of his sister Georgianna. This is a good quality in an older brother and in a potential mate. However, because of this protectiveness, he refuses to disclose information about Wickham’s attempt to elope with Georgianna. Taken to an extreme (“too” protective), he continues to protect his sister’s reputation even when doing so will allow a dangerous man to roam tame in good society. This leads to disastrous complications when Wickham runs off with the young and foolish Lydia Bennett. This puts the entire Bennett family in social danger, and Darcy recognizes that it is his own virtue, taken too far, which caused this situation.
Darcy himself even recognizes that a characteristic can be a virtue when well regulated and a flaw when not. Remember this banter with Elizabeth?
(Darcy) “But it has been the study of my life to avoid those weaknesses which often expose a strong understanding to ridicule.”
“Such as vanity and pride.”
”Yes, vanity is a weakness indeed. But pride–where there is a real superiority of mind, pride will be always under good regulation.”
We could go on — Darcy attempt to protect his best friend from a bad match, and hurts Elizabeth’s sister in the process — Darcy is “too” honest during his midpoint marriage proposal — Darcy’s sense of familial duty interferes with his ability to make new friends — really, once you start to examine the book from this angle, you will see, over and over again, that Austen created flaws by exaggerating virtues.
There are several advantages to this technique. First, and perhaps most evident, is that you don’t have to undermine the character’s heroic nature by giving them actual, meaningful flaws. And you don’t have to undermine your own authorial credibility by creating cutesy “flaws” — fake swearing comes to mind as an example — that might be charming but are hardly flaws at all. Finally, and perhaps most meaningfully, the character with the disproportionate virtue can be allowed to cling to this flaw in the belief that he or she is right. This can generate a lot of organic conflict, which is the best kind of conflict, and it can be allowed to become more deeply entrenched without damaging the character. It took a near-tragedy to shake Darcy out of his righteousness, but we forgave him for it, as did Elizabeth, because his errors were born from good qualities.
So, how can this apply to your work? Does your hero or heroine have a virtue which becomes a flaw? If not, can you see a way to take an existing virtue and blow it out of proportion? How will it affect your plot?
On Monday, August 29th, author Kieran Kramer talks about your untapped resource, The Kid in You.
Bio: Theresa Stevens is the Publisher of STAR Guides Publishing, a nonfiction publishing company with the mission to help writers write better books. After earning degrees in creative writing and law, she worked as a literary attorney agent for a boutique firm in Indianapolis where she represented a range of fiction and nonfiction authors. After a nine-year hiatus from the publishing industry to practice law, Theresa worked as chief executive editor for a highly acclaimed small romance press, and her articles on writing and editing have appeared in numerous publications for writers. Visit her blog at http://edittorrent.blogspot.com/ where she and her co-blogger share their knowledge and hardly ever argue about punctuation.
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- Theresa Stevens Talks Heroines
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- Ask an Editor: Opening Guideposts
- Ask An Editor with Theresa Stevens – Understanding Heroes