15 February 2009

The Importance of Character Flaws

I watched an episode from the third series of House the other day: the one just after he’s recovered from being shot and miraculously has the full use of his damaged leg again. This episode failed spectacularly, but to me, it served to highlight why the character of Dr House is so fascinating.

House is irascible and grumpy, because he’s in constant pain from his leg. We excuse all manor of rudeness, drug taking, and other outrageous behaviour because we know the source of his character flaws. While House is battling to overcome constant pain, he somehow appears heroic. His brilliant medical insights arrive in spite of the pain or maybe because of the pain. There are some unpalatable truths about human values and behaviour hidden in here, but that is the point: that is what makes House so intriguing a character to watch.

Now, remove the cause of House’s irascibility and what do you have left? A grouchy, rude, egotistical doctor who has failed to live up to expectations, and squandered his brilliance. Suddenly, we expect more of this character, and all our empathy dissolves; all the contradictions are gone and the fun of discovering the real Dr House evaporates, leaving us bored and unfulfilled.

So what’s the lesson for us writers? We all know our main characters need flaws, but the failure of this episode demonstrates very clearly that our character’s flaws need cause and effect to gain the empathy of our readers. The more believable the cause of our character’s flaws the more extreme, and therefore interesting, the flaws can become. This creates challenging, but interesting, and ultimately satisfying, writing.