Monday, May 27, 2019

On Human Flaws: “Nobody’s Perfect!”

Annamaria on Monday



The way this topic relates to crime writing is this: Every budding crime writer has been warned that the main character in a mystery or thriller must have “a flaw” to make him (usually it’s a him) seem truly human.  As far as I am concerned, far too many writers—even super famous ones—do this in a mechanical way.  They reach for the nearest flaw and the easiest ones on the nearby shelf are labeled “Make Him a Drunk” or “Give Him a Dysfunctional Family.”  This bothers me for a couple of reasons.  First, these issues seem to me to be symptoms of character flaws, not flaws in and of themselves.

The easy way out

But this question goes deeper than that.  I have trouble of thinking of a human’s “flaws” as separate from her virtues.  I do not think we are endowed by our creator with traits that make us less than perfect.   As my mother once said to me, “Everybody is born a baby.”

I learned from that statement and an experience I had long, long ago in a galaxy faraway.

It was the 1970s—the Age of Aquarius.

Not David's car, but very like it.

David and I had met the previous fall.  It was this time of year—verging on summer—and we had a date to take my just-turned-four-year-old daughter to the beach.  He showed up at my apartment in his rusty, trusty VW Beetle.  As he got out of the car, his face, and his body language told me something was wrong.  I asked what it was.  I got the typical male reply.  “Nothing.”


He took the picnic basket, the towels, and the satchel of beach toys and stowed them in the car.   I buckled the kid in the back seat, and we headed for the Midtown Tunnel and Jones Beach. He was grim.

By the time we entered the tunnel, my little girl was asleep.  I then pointed out to him that we were supposed to be having fun, and we could never succeed at it until we cleared the air.  This discussion went quietly on with no result until we were past the Flushing exit on the LIE.  At which point I announced that I was going to start taking off pieces of clothing until he gave in and told me what was troubling him.  What followed was silence from David and:

Me:  “Okay.”  I took off a shoe.  David: “Don’t be stupid”.  I took off the other shoe.  David: “You are crazy.”  I unbuckled my belt and stripped it out of my bell-bottom jeans.    David: “Oh, Christ.”  I slowly unbuttoned my shirt.  David, indicating the crowded highway.  “Somebody will see you.”  Me: “It won’t do me any harm, and it might do him a lot of good.”  I had reached the last button and was taking off my shirt. David: “Stop it.  I’ll talk.”


Me at that time, but not at the beach

He did.  I cannot remember what the trouble was.  Nothing earth shattering, or I would remember.  When he had relaxed, and I was again fully dressed, he said, “You are one persistent woman.” 

Persistent!  Not what my family had always called me—Stubborn. I am persistent.

Bingo!

That was how I learned that human beings are not “flawed.”  Human beings have characteristics that sometimes exhibit themselves as positive behaviors and sometimes come across as negative.  But the characteristic is not, in and of itself, a bad thing.

I consider this ridiculous 

 Our language gives us terms on both sides of the character trait coin.  Curious vs. Nosy.  Industrious vs. Workaholic.  Feisty vs. Argumentative.  Determined vs. Unrelenting.  Fexible vs. Flighty.  You get the idea.

So.  I refuse to think of real people as “flawed.”  You (and I) are bundles of characteristics that exhibit positively under some circumstances and negatively under others.  All of you are the perfect you.  

When we writers seek to create characters who come across as real human beings, we need to give them the flaws of their virtues.  Then the readers will see both sides of a three-dimensional person.  In other words, we need to show the character in situations where her persistence comes across as a virtue, and then put her in a frustrating spot where it comes out as stubbornness.  Then she will be real. 



Let’s take Hercule Poirot as an example.  He is fastidious.  We often see him as comically attentive to ridiculous niceties of his food or his own grooming. That over-tended moustache!  These are the behaviors of a person who pays attention to every little detail.  Sometimes that may make him seem vain and silly.  But that attention to detail…  That is exactly the trait that allows him to pick up on the clues everyone else misses. We believe it when he sees what no one else saw.  It isn’t a superpower.  It is the other side of his “flaw.”

9 comments:

  1. Great post! I think this is exactly the right way to look at characters. It's the same with the antagonists - they can't be all 'flaws'. There must be aspects that make them human and real.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thank you, Michael. It’s why without the added charm of knowing you and Stan, I loved the Kubu series from Book 1. He wasn’t the same old stick figure in drunk’s clothing. He started out three dimensional.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I love this post, and your mother's quote: "Everyone is born a baby." To which I'd only add: And some of us, thank heavens, never grew up.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Excellent post, AmA. All I can say is David was a fool: he should have never said a word...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. All I can say to that, EvKa, is that had he not spoken, he might have enjoyed the moment more, but he would not have won my heart. I am glad he made the right choice. Who knows what turn my life would then have taken, but it seems unlikely that I would be sitting where I am now and typing this message to you.

      Delete
    2. I suspected that was probably the case, but I could not resist the ribbing. :-)

      Delete
  5. Thank you, Ann. That was one of those things that my mother said that has informed me thinking all of my life. I got to grow up to be a big kid who plays with her imaginary friends and calls it her job. I LOVE it.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Fantastic post - and I love this way of seeing the world. I also think your willingness to strip to get David to talk is absolute genius.

    ReplyDelete
  7. I see your style for getting a conversation going, sis, hasn't changed...or rather I don't see. :)

    ReplyDelete