Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Very Flawed Characters

by Natalie Keller Reinert

I want to piggyback off Kate Lattey's post earlier this week, "Writing Strong Female Characters." If you haven't read this post, and you're interested in the technical side of writing, definitely check it out. Go ahead. I'll wait.

You're back? Great. So, here's the thing: I have a history of writing particularly difficult female characters. Not really on purpose... they just are that way.

Alex takes a lot of flack for not being strong enough
 in The Head and Not The Heart.
But give her time. It's a series.
A lot of female characters are reluctant heroines. Think of Katniss standing up and announcing that she'll stand as tribute (or whatever she said, I only saw the movie, true fact). She didn't want to go be a human sacrifice in a particularly nasty bit of child pit-fighting, she was just aware that she was the one for the job. She was the toughest, strongest, mightiest teenager in all the land, or certainly more so than her little sister, so she did what she had to do.

Or look at the character Kris in Lattey's blog's post: "Kris is a pillar of strength, although she never sees herself that way, and (for me at least), is one of the most inspiring characters I've ever written."

Two young women who stood up and did what they had to do with a minimum of complaint. Admirable. I wish I was that sort of person, but I complain when I have to wash the dishes.

I have two main female characters in my two equestrian series: Alex, and Jules. Alex is trying to define herself in a world that does not respect her, which would be fine, if only she respected herself a little more. Jules is trying to show the world that she's the best rider in the world, which would be fine, if only she realized that she wasn't, not yet, anyway.

These flawed personalities manifest themselves in all sorts of moments that don't fit into the traditional Strong Female Character mold. It makes some people crazy, and I really don't blame them. But for others, it makes Alex and Jules incredibly realistic... sometimes maddeningly so.

As a writer, I really just set out to create characters and situations that I find realistic. Things that could happen to any of us as equestrians -- that's my number one inspiration. I never sat down and said to myself, "Alex is this sort of character and has these sorts of flaws and these sorts of attributes." It's just what happened. And so I've learned from reader reviews what sort of characters I have created.

People say...

Jules' focus on her career and distrust of
others really rubs some people the wrong way.
I look at her as a challenge. Jules, how are we
going to fix you? I'm working on that
problem now, as I write her next book.
"Her characters are so alive that I found myself mentally arguing with them over their choices as I read." - Amazon review, Turning For Home.

"It is beautifully written with strong and flawed characters... I also love how complicated Alex is. You just want to shake her half the time and admire her orneriness the other times." - Amazon review, Turning For Home.

"I became so engrossed in the characters, both human and equine, that they felt very real to me, and I cared about them. Even Jules, the main character, whose behavior at the beginning of the story is less-than-stellar (and who we occasionally want to strangle) is a compelling character, because we want to see her grow, change, and learn to accept advice, criticism, love, and friendship." - Linda Benson on Ambition.

"Our main character Jules plants the seeds of her own destruction, as do so many." - Karen McGoldrick on Ambition.

"I found the main character very unlikable, selfish and irritating." - Amazon review, Ambition.

Well, to be fair, nobody likes everybody.

Are Jules and Alex still Strong Female Characters, despite their all-too-average-human tendencies to make bad choices and completely fail at interpersonal relationships? I think so. They still have to overcome monumental challenges in their lives. They still have to step up and take control when there's no one else to do the job. I suppose they're still Reluctant Heroines… just more reluctant than most. They're growing into their roles -- and that's what the books are all about.


  1. Great post Natalie and thanks for the link back to mine! (Which embarrassingly I posted on the wrong day - must've been too keen! #fail)

    I will admit I found Jules to be a tough character to sympathise with. Flawed, definitely. Realistic? That too. Although probably someone I'd keep my distance from in the real world. I am really looking forward to seeing how she grows though. That's one of the great things about writing a series - being able to explore that character growth.

  2. Very good post! I've definitely been slammed in reviews on occasion for the "player" nature of my main character, Lawrence, but I make no apologies for it, because that is who the character is at that point in time. It's not meant to be admirable, or cute, or awesome, it's meant to be realistic and allow room for growth. I get that certain scenes may be slightly uncomfortable to read (or hilarious, depending on your perspective), but that's how life is, and I like to maintain an edge to my fiction. I never want it tied up in a little bow, because that's not real life.