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Character Flaws vs. Flawed Characters in Romance Writing

On Writing Romance: Character Flaws vs. Flawed Characters

cartoon of a Victorian woman reading a bookPet Peeves, Round 2
This is another in my “reader's pet peeves” series, primarily in the romance genre. (In case you missed it, here was my previous post on pet peeves.) I'm rather annoyed by impossibly beautiful heroines/heroes who don't know they're beautiful, and successful people who don't recognize or value their success. For the most part, they're flawed characters, not great characters with flaws. 

You're So Beautiful to Me

Let's say a made-up heroine named “Adora” is physically beautiful enough to turn heads wherever she goes, but she was raised by wolves, or crazy people, or aliens, or whatever. Even if she grew up believing she was ugly as a dishrag, the minute she gets away from her keepers and starts interacting with normal people in the real world, she will quickly discover others think she's beautiful. It could be an interesting story, how she deals with people suddenly wanting her body, but too often it's just a lazy device for the love interest to be the one person to convince her she's beautiful when all others have failed. 

You Really, Really Like Me? 

A related aspect of this is when Adora, brought up to think she's ugly (or stupid, or untalented, etc.), discovers she's beautiful/smart/skilled, and… wait for it… does nothing. No reveling in her new power, no discovering that being admired has responsibilities, no thoughts of revenge against the people who kept her down. Too often, it feels like vindication fantasy for the author instead of justice for the character.

I'm Nothing Without You, Babe

I'm equally annoyed by main characters in contemporary romances who discount or disregard their own success. (Caveat: I haven't read a lot of these, so my sample could be on the small side.) Let's say a made-up hero named “Blaze” has become a star rock-and-roll singer, but his success feels hollow because he abandoned the family farm, or quit medical school, or refused to join the Marines like dear old dad. The countless hours rehearsing, memorizing, performing, and starving on the road to success were what—something to pass the time? Again, the admiration of others (not to mention the groupies, the press, the spotlight) would be his first clue that his success is valuable. Yeah, yeah, the feeling of success comes from within, but it's sure nice when others recognize it too. This too, is often a lazy device for the love interest to be the one person to convince him that he's a good person when all others have failed. Or even worse, that he'll only get the girl if he throws away his successful (but hollow!) career and “settles down.” While it's nice to imagine the hero would change his whole life for love of the heroine, it's not terribly realistic, and feels like authorial wish fulfillment. Not to mention, it seems awfully controlling of the heroine to expect him to drop everything for her, or at the very least, passive-aggressive when she says “It'll never work between us—you're a big star, and I'm just a messenger girl.”
Character flaws will keep me reading, usually well past my bedtime. Flawed characters, on the other hand, usually cause me to skip ahead to the good parts. If you have some thoughts on the subject, I'd love to read them in your comments.