by Paula Stokes
Hey guys! I’ve been super excited to share with you all a guest post today with the amazing author, and one of my favorites, Paula Stokes! I’ve finished up her Secrets of the Eternal Rose series (as Fiona Paul) and now I’m crazy excited to finally read The Art of Lainey! When I talked with Paula about what kind of guest post she’d want to do and this topic came up, it was instantly a winner. I always find it interesting to see how fellow readers will respond to a character’s flaws. And it really does vary from person to person. So without further ado…
Writing Flawed Characters
Hi, I’m Paula 🙂 You might know me as Fiona Paul, the pen name I used when I was writing the Secrets of the Eternal Rose books for Paper Lantern Lit. I love those books, but I love my solo stories even more. A big hug to Sara and my favorite white tiger for letting me do a guest post and giveaway here on Forever 17 Books.
Here’s a deep dark secret: I don’t find a lot of main characters to be very interesting. Some of that is because being an author means knowing just how many books release every month, so I’ve gotten pickier and more demanding with my reads. Some of that is because a lot of authors craft their main characters to have mass appeal so that it will be easy for readers to insert themselves into the MC’s shoes.
Although I understand that strategy as a marketing tool, I have always preferred reading books about flawed characters. This is probably because (deep dark secret #2) even though I think I’m a pretty cool chick, I have a lot of flaws—and not just the fake ones I trot out at job interviews. It’s easier for me to relate to characters who aren’t perfect.
The main character in The Art of Lainey is Lainey Mitchell, a seventeen-year-old girl who grew up in a loving middle-class family. Lainey is pretty, popular, and athletic. She has it pretty good and she knows it. I didn’t consciously mean for her to start out as superficial or self-absorbed, but I had read a string of contemporary novels for research where the MCs were mostly these quirky, intellectual outsiders and I just wanted to explore the opposite extreme—to peek behind the curtain of the so-called “popular girl.” I knew plenty of girls in high school who seemingly had it all, but underneath the surface they had the same doubts and insecurities as everyone else. So that was my original intent—to show that even the kids who appear to living charmed lives probably worry about all the same things as the bookish wallflowers or Goths or geeks or whatever cliques happen to be present at your school.
But I didn’t want to make Lainey pretty and popular and athletic as well as nice and smart and thoughtful, because then she would start feeling like a too-perfect Mary Sue character. So as the book evolved, I just let Lainey be Lainey and her flaws came out in her behavior. It turned out she was a little bit clueless about things that really mattered. She worried about her looks and her popularity and what other people thought. She was celebrity-obsessed and her main goals were all about having fun during her senior year without a lot of thought to college afterward.
Allowing your character to have these traits is risky. At one point, Lainey admits that she doesn’t read a lot, unless gossip magazines count. In a couple of scenes, she gets overdramatic, to the point of being a little rude to her friends or coworkers. Instead of creating a character of mass appeal for all readers to relate to, I wrote an MC that initially didn’t have much in common with the reading public. I loved her, but I wasn’t sure how she would be received.
So far, most readers start out a little exasperated by her but grow to love her as they gain access to her head and her heart, which was exactly my intent. I learned a lot about creating compelling flawed characters while writing and editing Lainey. Here are my tips:
- Make character flaws fit with the rest of their identity.
Because Lainey grew up fairly privileged, it fits that she would obsess over “first-world problems” or superficial things. Because most of her success has come via public approval, like playing varsity soccer and being chosen to star in a commercial, it makes sense that she would care a lot what other people think. Because she’s really into TV and movies (and later, theater) it works for her to be a little too dramatic at times.
- Make flaws moderate.
First-draft Lainey was a little too snarky, shallow and boy-obsessed. Editors hated her. Even my own agent, who loved her, said there were a couple of places where Lainey needed to get slapped or go die in a fire. Book Lainey starts out more like Cher from Clueless. She’s looks-obsessed and a little shallow, but she’s still a good person underneath, and this comes through early in the story. If she were callous and cruel (like her friend Kendall can sometimes be) it would be a lot harder for readers to want to live in her headspace.
- Give flawed characters some endearing traits too.
Lainey is funny, feisty, and fiercely loyal to her friends. She generally recognizes when she steps over the line, and when people call her on her questionable behavior she doesn’t dismiss them without thinking about what they have to say. She wants to be better, but she struggles to separate the person she planned on becoming from the person she’s meant to be, and therein lies a lot of the book’s conflict. At times it’s very much a Lainey vs. Lainey story. [Spoiler: Lainey wins! :D]
- Give them awesome friends.
There’s no way someone as lovely and self-actualized as Bianca would stay friends with Lainey if Lainey weren’t really an awesome person. The mere existence of Bee hints at a whole other side to Lainey that we don’t see in the first couple of chapters.
- Give them a little self-awareness.
It’s one thing for Lainey to be rude to Micah in the first chapter after her boyfriend, Jason, breaks her heart. It’s another thing for her to be rude and then realize “Hey, that was uncool of me to take out my anger at Jason on someone else.” Later in the book, Lainey is talking to Bianca about what people at school would think of her if she dated someone who has a criminal record and just doesn’t fit into her crowd. She admits to the readers: “It sounds lame, like I care what people think, but the reality is that everyone cares what some people think.”
- Give them a shot at redemption.
Lainey is lucky to spend a few weeks of her summer getting to know some new people and having new experiences. And she’s smart enough to learn—both from the people and the experiences. She makes both good and bad choices, but she gradually wises up throughout the story. And when she figures out what really matters, readers will respect her for recognizing her own growth.
What do you think? Have you read books with flawed characters recently? Tell me in the comments why they did or didn’t work for you.
Yes yes yes! This is so much what I feel and enjoy in reads. I don’t need a character to be perfect. In fact, it’s usually the flaws I find myself relating to the most. I remember being a teen and I remember feeling a little selfish and self-absorbed at times when I shouldn’t have. I remember how I often behaved, regrettably. I remember how my friends behaved. Sometimes I need to read characters who are like that too. They are so much more believably in the moment. It makes me feel like those years are more normal. Obviously I grew up and learned from my mistakes and experiences and part of what I love about YA is experiencing others take that journey as well.
Paula is giving away one signed ARC of The Art of Lainey, plus an awesome swag pack, to one lucky winner. This contest is international.
To win back the one she loves, she’ll have to go to “war” . . .
Soccer-star Lainey Mitchell is gearing up to spend an epic summer with her amazing boyfriend, Jason, when he suddenly breaks up with her—no reasons, no warning, and in public no less! Lainey is more than crushed, but with help from her friend Bianca, she resolves to do whatever it takes to get Jason back.
And that’s when the girls stumble across a copy of The Art of War. With just one glance, they’re sure they can use the book to lure Jason back into Lainey’s arms. So Lainey channels her inner warlord, recruiting spies to gather intel and persuading her coworker Micah to pose as her new boyfriend to make Jason jealous. After a few “dates”, it looks like her plan is going to work! But now her relationship with Micah is starting to feel like more than just a game.