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Dianne Salerni : Writer of Teen and Middle Grade Fiction | Character Flaws, Character Growth

Character Flaws, Character Growth

boo carrots

My flaw is disliking carrots.

Any well-rounded character should have flaws, I think. It makes them more realistic, for one thing, and it gives them room for growth as well. If a character starts out perfect, how can they change over the course of the book?

Yet, I’m noticing a trend in reviews of books – especially reviews written by YA readers – that complain about characters with perceived flaws. Recently I saw negative reviews of Hold Me Like a Breath that called Penny, the protagonist, “whiny and self-pitying” because she had a rare illness and her parents were too over-protective to let her live a normal life. I was almost swayed into not reading Cruel Beauty because of numerous negative reviews saying Nyx was so consumed with hatred and jealousy toward her sister it was all she ever thought about.

My books aren’t immune from this criticism. Some reviewers of The Caged Graves said they disliked Verity because she was “snobbish” when she first arrived in Catawissa, and some reviewers called Jax from The Eighth Day “an angry little complainer.”

But here’s the thing: Penny had a reason to be unhappy about her parents and her life. (I didn’t find this whiny, just normal) But she grew and changed and showed astonishing strength and bravery at the end of the story. As for Nyx, yes, she was hateful to her sister, but her attitude changed as the story developed – and the nasty thing she did to her sister in the beginning was a turning point for the sister and crucial to the plot. I believe Verity and Jax changed too. I intended for them to change when I wrote them with flaws in the first place.

Why do you think YA readers are so intolerant of characters who are flawed and make mistakes? Do they expect perfection from page one? I’m reminded of this passage I wrote in The Caged Graves where Nate’s sisters describe him for Verity, thinking (incorrectly) that she hasn’t met him yet and wanting him to make a good first impression:

They adored their younger brother and were eager to regale Verity with all his positive traits: he was hard working and loyal and earnest and kind. Oh, he had his faults, too. The sisters agreed that he could sometimes be too hard working – and probably too earnest – and kind to a fault. Annie confessed that no one had ever been able to get Nate to eat carrots, as if this were the most terrible thing she could say about him.

Have YA readers progressed to a point where a dislike of carrots is about as much as they can tolerate in the way of a flaw? What flaws does Harry Potter have, after all? A tendency to break school rules to fight evil? How about Katniss Everdeen? Does that girl even have a flaw? She starts off the book being a dead-eye shot with a bow and arrow, sacrifices herself for her sister – and continues her heroics from there.

What do you think? Have you seen reviews that slam protagonists for their flaws without recognizing that they are bound to change? Do YA readers understand that character arcs usually involve self-discovery and growth? How about you personally? Do you prefer a protagonist with an Achilles heel – or a Harry Potter who’s basically just as brave and loyal and good at the beginning as he is at the end? I’m not saying I don’t love Harry. I do. But … did he change? Discuss!

13 Responses to Character Flaws, Character Growth

  1. I actually think Harry did have flaws, especially as a teen. I do think characters should have flaws, like we all do, that they grow from in the story. I think if they are extreme, like in Cruel Beauty, it’s still good, but may not appeal to as many readers. That may be where the criticism came from.

  2. You know, you’re right. Harry didn’t change much.
    Maybe young adults don’t want to see the flaws they themselves possess?
    I prefer a good character arc of growth. And yes, my first book had reviews that complained about the main character’s flaws.

  3. Tiana Smith says:

    Maybe young readers are so judgmental of others, without the adult perspective of “everyone’s different” that they automatically judge the characters and don’t want to spend time with them?

    I go in to a book, hoping the characters change, but if it takes forever and the characters are especially obnoxious for more than half the book, then I might give up on them. I need some indication that they *can* change.

  4. Joanne Fritz says:

    I’ve seen this kind of comment in reviews too and I hate to say it, but I think that’s what comes from everyone being a reviewer today, not just pros who review books for SLJ or PW or Kirkus, etc.

    Characters need to have flaw so they can change and grow. Personally, I don’t want to read about a perfect MC.

  5. RA says:

    I don’t think YA readers are intolerant of characters who are flawed at all. I think they look for growth and hope in the worse situations and why dystopia is so popular in the genre.

    Readers love to see growth in their leads much like Jax who grew by leaps and bounds but Penny seem to have stalled in her growth which agitated many readers in her or by her lack of actions.

    While Jax and Nix proved themselves to be better then themselves in times of true crisis that you were rooting for them to the very end.

    So Yes, I think truly and deeply think YA readers do understand character arcs usually involve self-discovery and growth because isn’t life in itself no matter what age about self-discovery and growth?

  6. J E Oneil says:

    I’ve noticed that, too. I don’t know why people hate non-perfect characters so much. I remember someone saying she liked Bella from Twilight for being so good and obedient to her parents but and ripping Katniss from the Hunter Games to shreds for, well, not. Granted, this was from an adult, which technically isn’t the target audience. Is it specific to adult reviewers that rail on imperfect characters so much? Because that might explain a lot.

  7. Hilary says:

    Hi Dianne – everyone can make a comment now … and often do in the spur of the moment, without giving much thought – except what’s in their mind. I’d rather have a character, who I see adjusting … either way frankly – as the storyline goes like that too …

    I like carrots … but have rather more flaws than I’d like to admit!! Happy writing … cheers Hilary

  8. I love flawed characters. Perfect characters aren’t interesting to me. But reading is subjective, so to each his own.

  9. salarsen says:

    To be honest with you, I don’t think you can have a well-rounded character without him/her having flaws. Negative qualities, quirks, and annoyances are part of what make all of us ’rounded’, more dimensional. If we were all just nice and agreeable, that would be boring. (Although, during these summer months when the kiddos are out of school, I might go for them being fully agreeable all the time. Less stress for me.) But no, I really wouldn’t want them like that because that would feel real. Life is dirty and sweaty and unexpected at times. Kidlit is a great place to explore that and all sorts of flaws. Think about it. No matter exploring toddler, awkward tween, or stubborn teen, they all are searching for who they are and their place in the world. It only makes sense that they aren’t ‘perfected’ yet.

  10. I hear you. It’s so funny how the same story can hit fifty people completely differently. As far as characters go, we all love it when imperfect characters grow, and how can they grow if they don’t have somewhere to grow from? I say, ignore the complainers. They don’t realize what a great ride they’ve been on.

  11. Robin says:

    This is one reason why I tend to take reviews with a grain of salt (and I don’t write many of them). I like my characters to grow as they go along. Perfect characters aren’t a whole lot of fun IMO either (as a reader or writer). We don’t tend to like people who see themselves as perfect, but we like someone who’s always trying. I think always trying is what we should strive for in writing and life.

  12. This isn’t the first time I’ve seen people complaining about character flaws like they expect the characters to be perfect, and I don’t understand it. Nobody’s perfect, and perfect characters would be boring. A reader doesn’t have to like everything about a character, to be sure, but characters need to feel like they could actually exist, so there’s no way they should be perfect. Yeesh.

    I admit that I have trouble with this in my own characters – I don’t assign them specific flaws, but I try to make them realistic, and sometimes wonder if I’ve made them too perfect – like Katniss, capable of whatever the story demands of them. It’s something I constantly have to watch for.

  13. ChemistKen says:

    It’s hard to find a book nowadays where the MC doesn’t have a flaw of some kind. I wonder what kind of books those reviewers have been reading?