We Are All Imperfect, My Dear

What’s the first rule you learn when you decide you’re going to write, and write realistically?

Say it with me now, people.  Your characters must have flaws.

They must be imperfect, and in romance, it is their imperfections that often make them perfect for their partner.  I’m drawn to romance because I love that journey where the characters find self-acceptance.  They learn that even though they may not be considered the most beautiful girl in the room, or the smartest man in their social group, they are still worthwhile.

This issue of Cosmopolitan proves my point, don’t you think?

But in real life, it’s harder to accept your flaws.  People say that your teen years are tough, especially if you are a girl.  You struggle to believe that you’ll ever grow out of being gangly, that you’ll become comfortable in your own skin.  Surrounded by magazines that have thin, thin, thin (did I mention thin?) women on the front, showing as much skin as they can get away and touting sex tips, you realize you can never live up to that.

I’ve always hated those magazines.  It’s not that I have an issue with women wanting to feel good, but it’s all about how we go about it.  I don’t believe that anything good can come out of trying to please other’s expectations for how you should act, dress, feel, or be.  But I work as a Administrative Assistant, and I know that sometimes you have to play the part.

When I’m writing a heroine, I keep in mind that I want her to be a strong woman.  She might be quiet, understated, unsure of herself–but by the end, she has figured out who she is and isn’t willing to trade that sense of identity.  That’s when I know I’ve done my job right, when she can stand on her own two feet.

Robyn DeHart’s debut novel

Given that I write regencies, this probably isn’t the most historically accurate way to write.  In those days, a married woman was considered property of her husband.  Her money and her property, as well as her body, became his to do with as he wished.  But we’re writing fiction, and in today’s world, I want to write about women who are independent in their own ways.  For while they are going to find love, and be better for it, they’re going to be their own people outside of that romance. I’m reminded of Robyn DeHart’s Courting Claudia.  Claudia isn’t your typical heroine, for she’s a bit on the plump side, and she struggles with self-acceptance and confidence.  She tries to hide behind crazy ruffles and pink fabrics.  But when she meets hero Derick, she starts to learn that she is beautiful just the way she is.  Claudia starts to wear simpler clothing, no longer hiding behind a mask, and she stands up for herself.  She has found out who she truly was meant to be.

Stana Katic as Kate Beckett

Outside of regency romances, I’ve realized that I love flawed heroines in my television too.  If properly written, we see their motivations, learn about their past, and in the case of romances, we fall in love with them.  Two of my favorite shows are very action-oriented, with savvy, kick ass heroines.  But it’s their combination of kick-assness with their vulnerability, their imperfections, that make me love them.  Maggie Q on Nikita plays a woman taken advantage of by the system, made invisible in the eyes of the law and turned into an assassin.  She fights for justice for people like her, and in doing so, she often makes decisions that have horrid consequences.  She makes mistakes, but sometimes she does the right thing, and that’s what makes her real.  On Castle, Kate Beckett became a cop to solve her mother’s murder.  It drives her, and her determination to get justice borders on obsession.  Kate needs to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves, and it is her strength that gets her through days of dead bodies and the cruel inhumanity of her job.  In those quiet moments, when she lets her guard down around Nathan Fillon’s Castle, Kate is raw and imperfect.  And it’s those moments where I love her the most.

Yes We Can!

As writers, we try and duplicate these fully developed characters, giving them many facets.  Why is it that as women we try and squash the things that make us human? You and I, my dear, are never going to be right 100% of the time, we will never look like the women on Hollywood shows who have an entire make-up team to cater to them, and we will never figure out the answers to all of life’s great questions.  But that’s okay.  We don’t have to all be like this here poster of Rosie the Riveter, as long as we realize that sometimes our imperfections make us who we are.  And that’s a wonderful, wonderful thing.

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15 thoughts on “We Are All Imperfect, My Dear

  1. So true, Erica. Deeply flawed characters (heroes included) are what ultimately draw me strongly to a work and convince me to reread it. I love seeing how the growth of characters to either accept their flaws as part of the true strength of who they are or rise beyond those flaws an acknowledge them as having been necessary to get to who they are. Without one or the other of these, I always feel like the story has no real purpose.

  2. Flaws make for full-formed characters. It’s not easy to flesh characters out and into the very life-blood of a reader’s mind. But taking into account fears, worries, hopes and dreams of characters, mistakes they’ve learned from, those they haven’t, we’re able to access that part of a character that helps them breath life onto the page.

    As a Regency writer, and as a woman, I know women back in that era struggled for the same things we do. One thing I’ve learned as I’ve traveled around the world… people are the same wherever you go. People in different time periods were too. They just lived under different standards. So a woman that longs for independence today would be no different from a woman longing for independence in the Regency time period. With one exception, the Regency woman would have to defy convention in order to realize her dreams. Yes! Great conflict! How does she go about this without suffering ostracization? How does she do this without ruining her chances of happiness or turning away suitors? This is an exciting thing to try to break through, don’t you think? And I love it even more when the characters we write are normal women conquering their fears and insecurities.

  3. I love flawed characters — they’re great fun to write. However, sometimes this can lead to readers not wanting to identify with those characters. The trick is the right balance between flaws and admirable traits. One heroine — Clarissa in A Dangerous Compromise — was immature and had big flaws. The best balance I could give her was a terrific friend, so that her friend’s friendship was a redeeming quality, but it wasn’t enough for some folks. However, I still adore Clarissa for all her wrong-headed ideas — she’s a girl who goes after what she wants.

    • I think there’s definitely that line with characters as you say. My first draft edits so far focused on making my heroine less cold–she still has flaws, but she is more understandable.

  4. Erica,
    What a great post! I love all the thoughts and observations you’ve shared here. Cosmo and its perpetual bombardment of a warped version of beauty is so disturbing to me.

    With my current WIP, I’m trying to make my heroine flawed, realistic, and authentic, but still likeable and relatable. I go back to Julie James’s heroine test: “Is the heroine someone I would like and have as a friend? Would I want to hang out and have drinks with her?” As you said, it’s an extremely tricky line to walk, because as a genre, romance is also about escapism and leaving our own troubles aside as we become absorbed into the world of the hero and heroine and their love story. How much real world do we give them, vis a vis the escape, love, romance aspect?

    This post also reminds me of a great scene and line from the movie Emma, starring Jeremy Northam and Gwyneth Paltrow. As Emma is lamenting her flaws and despairs of ever measuring up and being worthy of such a honorable and good man like Knightly, Knightly in turn enumerates his own faults and tells her “Perhaps it is our imperfections that make us so perfect for one another.” LE SIGH! 😀

    • Thanks, Lisa! You mentioned one of my favorite lines from that movie. I’ve often said that similar line to MrMonroe.

      Due to the fact that I write darker romances, I don’t know if my heroines end up being someone you’d want to have as a best friend, but I try and make them someone you can relate to.

  5. Another Nikita fan! And I love Nikita–the character–for the same reasons you do. I find writing heroines a challenge (a good challenge, but still) because, as Lisa Lin said above, romance novels walk the tightrope of being escapism but realistic, and many times, readers don’t want to escape into a book where the heroine must be redeemed or have her spiky layers peeled away.

    The last book I read, “A Royal Pain” by Megan Mulry, had a difficult heroine for days, and even though I didn’t love Bronte, I found her so gosh darn interesting because she remained authentically her to the very end. She didn’t need to be redeemed so much as owning up to her imperfections as they pertained to allowing the hero, Max, to love her.

    Historical writers have an even defter tightrope to walk–in my latest MS, my agent’s revision notes focused on making my heroine more likeable, more relatable to 21st century. There I was trying to be historically accurate, LOL!! So there’s that challenge rearing its ugly head, and I strive to work towards it with each MS I write.

    • Evangeline, thanks so much for stopping by! I can understand what you’re saying about having to modify your heroine, as I’m having to keep the same thing in mind. I’ve heard about Mulry’s book too but haven’t checked it out yet.
      Glad to see another Nikita fan.

  6. I like my characters extremely flawed, probably because I’m drawn to the more anti-heroic types. The bigger and more cumbersome the flaw… the better.

    There is a book that I’ve read.. can’t remember the name of it.. but it said something to the effect of: “A good character isn’t necessarily one you’d want to invite to a dinner party.”

  7. So true, so true! Kate Beckett is a great heroine and role model. Don’t you wish we could all be her and get Castle, too. I enjoy when a character can laugh at themselves too. It’s always a great way to show they accept their flaws as part of their self-worth. : )

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