When I was twenty-three, I had an interview at the largest public high school in New Orleans for my very first full-time teaching job. The principal was a large, intimidating black man with a neatly-trimmed mustache and a look of disapproval permanently pressed into his face. We’ll call him Mr. Abe. He sat behind a large metal desk with his arms crossed, looking down at me. I felt very small and very young.
“What would you say are your three biggest weaknesses?” Mr. Abe asked.
I didn’t know at the time that this is a fairly normal interview question, so I was totally unprepared to answer. My heart skipped a beat, and then I responded: “I work too hard. And I’m a perfectionist. I end up working too much to get things just right.” I laughed awkwardly. That sounded good to a potential employer, didn’t it? “And for my third weakness…” I racked my brain. I had plenty of flaws, but which one wouldn’t cost me the job?
“I’m too nice,” I said finally. Niceness was a positive thing, wasn’t it?
Mr. Abe’s brow furrowed. “Too nice, huh? Will you be able to maintain discipline in your classroom?”
Oh shit. Being too nice was a problem when it came to classroom management, especially in an over-crowed, low-income school like this one.
“Oh, yes,” I said eagerly. “Definitely. I know it’s one of my weaknesses, which is why I’m going to work extra hard on my discipline strategies. That’s where the working too hard and perfectionism come in.” I gave another awkward laugh.
“I just have one more question for you.” He leaned across his desk and looked me in the eye. “Can you commit to staying with us for the entire school year?”
“Oh yes, absolutely.”
“All right, then. You’re hired.”
It turned out it didn’t really matter what I said in my interview. I had passed both my Praxis tests, which, despite the fact that I had no real teaching experience, made me “highly-qualified,” and Mr. Abe had trouble filling his school with highly-qualified teachers. He didn’t care what my weaknesses were, as long as I showed up for work.
* * *
I think back to that conversation now as I contemplate the idea of character flaws. As I mentioned in The Story of My Writing Career, screenwriter John Truby says that the main character of every good story should start out with a moral flaw. (And Truby says for it to be a true moral flaw, the character is hurting someone else, not just himself.) As the character pursues his goal, it becomes clear that it is his moral need at stake, and not the thing he thinks he desires. The character has an epiphany towards the end and usually changes for the better.
Makes sense, right? So I went back to the young adult novel I’ve been working on – the one that I’ve been told is lacking in plot – and I gave my character a bigger flaw. Now, at the beginning of the book, she is hurting others with her behavior, but by the end she has changed for the better. Unfortunately, I’m now being given the feedback that she is too unlikable. It’s a catch-22. The character has to be flawed at the beginning in order to change by the end, but if she is too heavily flawed, readers won’t like her. They won’t stick around to see the change.
I’ve been reading a lot of Young Adult fiction lately, as research, and I’m noticing that YA authors often do what I did during my interview with Mr. Abe. They give their characters inoffensive flaws. Flaws that aren’t really hurting anyone. Positive traits that are disguised as flaws so that the reader will still like the character.
Currently I’m suffering my way through The Infinite Moment of Us by Lauren Myracle, who has been called “this generation’s Judy Blume.” Having recently read Judy Blume’s Forever (a book that blew me away with its simple, honest perfection), I think that’s a little generous. Although The Infinite Moment of Us has some things to admire, I don’t think it’s destined to be a classic. And its main character, Wren Gray, is a prime example of a character with inoffensive flaws. She is a beautiful, thoughtful, volunteer-work-doing straight-A student who has always followed the rules and pleased her parents. Her biggest weaknesses are naivety and a lack of independence. She’s not hurting anyone (except herself because her life is too boring), and she’s so nice and sweet it’s easy to like her despite her flaws.
Except that I can’t stand her. So far, the plot of The Infinite Moment is basically the same as the 1980’s John Hughes movie Say Anything, and it’s hard to decide who is the more insufferably annoying goody-goody: Diane Cort or Wren Gray. Which is ironic, because I think these are both characters who were written to be likable.
The farther I find myself down the road towards becoming a novelist, the more I realize how difficult the path is. Everything is a catch-22. Write a character-driven story, but make sure it has a strong plot. Write the story you want to tell, but make sure it’s something other people want to read. Write from the heart, but use your brain. With everything, it is about finding a balance or deciding to ignore the rules completely.
Give your character a flaw, but still make her likable. Or, alternatively, strike out on your own path (go ahead and make your main character totally unlikable), but know that you may find yourself wandering alone in the wilderness without a reader in sight.
Writing a story isn’t that hard. But writing a good story is, which is why I’ve felt the need recently to look at the rules, even if I don’t end up following them.
As I ponder the question of flawed characters in YA fiction, I’ve come across a few who are flawed in real ways but are still likable. Harry Potter is a prime example. He is impulsive and self-absorbed and he cares too much. He makes rash decisions in order to save the ones he loves. It can be annoying, and it gets him in trouble, but it’s also what makes him a hero. Or Meg from a Wrinkle in Time. She is maddeningly stubborn and defiant, but it is her flaws that comes in handy when she has to face It.
Since that public school interview, I’ve learned that when asked the weakness question, you’re not really supposed to say that you’re a perfectionist or that you work too hard. It sounds like you’re sucking up. Experts recommend answering the weakness question honestly, but using it as an opportunity to discuss how you’ve overcome a challenge and how you are better now because of it. Interesting. That’s what novels often are, aren’t they? They are stories about how a character conquered his weaknesses to overcome a challenge.
That doesn’t make it any easier to figure out how to create flawed characters who are likable, or how to keep readers reading until the end, when the character changes, but at least I know it will be a good story if I can achieve it. And at least one of my flaws is that I work too hard, so I know I’m going to keep working until I get it right.