Of Quirks and Flaws

Sometimes one thing leads to another. When I was engaged in reading/discussing a great blog post by Katie Cross a couple of days ago, I had one of those moments where (please allow me to be cheesy for a moment) the metaphorical light bulb goes on and a brand new thought is suddenly blindingly obvious.

The subject under discussion was quirky characters. Also, flawed characters. And I realized just how commonly we conflate those two. I hadn’t actually thought about this before…

quirk: an unusual habit or way of behaving / a peculiar trait: idiosyncrasy (from Merriam-Webster Dictionary)

flaw: a defect in physical structure or form / an imperfection or weakness and especially one that detracts from the whole or hinders effectiveness (from Merriam-Webster Dictionary)

To be genuine and memorable, characters need to have both quirks and flaws, as all people have them. Those are the characters we love and remember for life. But quirks do not equal flaws, and flaws do not equal quirks. And this is where the light bulb came on for me: flaws need to be overcome or changed; quirks do not.

It’s not a question of how noticeable or dramatic a quirk is — a taste for lurid glittery eyeshadow is an infinitesimal quirk, and a mouth full of swear words might be a strongly intrusive one, but they don’t get “upgraded” to flaws. It’s not a question of how serious or mild a flaw is — a minor disregard for the comfort of others (leaving the toilet seat up and dirty dishes on the table, say) is much less of a flaw than a propensity for theft or violence, but that doesn’t get it “downgraded” to a mere quirk.  It’s not a question of how annoying or socially acceptable a trait might be — you could be weirded out by, say, a friend’s foot fetish, but that wouldn’t mean s/he ought to sacrifice that part of his/her personality (quirk), whereas a friend who engages in bullying clearly has to resolve that forthwith if you’re going to continue any kind of friendship (flaw).

Since Little Women was taken as an example in Katie’s blog post, I’ll use that as a positive illustration too: Jo does not need to become less of a tomboy and turn herself into a lady to be fulfilled as a character (quirk) but her hot temper brings consequences until she learns to tame it (flaw). Anne of Green Gables came up in the resulting blog-comments discussion too: Anne’s wonderful imagination and chatter and passionate nature are lovely and vivid quirks, but it’s her inability to rein herself in that must be conquered for her to mature.

Quirks Presented As Flaws

When writers don’t want to give their precious characters real flaws, the kind that truly might be deal-breakers in friendships and relationships, they often deal in ersatz flaws such as “pride”, and a particularly nasty cousin of this is the presentation of quirks as flaws (i.e., something to be overcome or normalized).

Why should the geek girl need to become a cheerleader or figure skater to be fulfilled? Why should the daydreamer and looker-on-the-bright-side have to face gritty reality to become whole? Why should the introvert be expected to become an extravert? It’s not that you can’t have a geek girl who wants to be a cheerleader, or an introvert who’d like to become more comfortable at parties; it’s that the mere fact of being a geek or an introvert isn’t a flaw.

This use of a quirk in the role of character flaw can do one of two rotten things — it can weaken the character and book, if the quirky little “flaw” is an obvious Mary Sue waffle, or it can bolster up the idea that “normal” mainstream choices are the only acceptable ones. Both of those get a huge DISLIKE sticker from me! Boo!

Flaws Presented As Quirks

On the other hand, we all like a flawed hero, right? A bit damaged, a bit vulnerable under the tough shell… In fact, those little flaw things, they’re just quirks, right?

This is particularly insidious in romance, where violently possessive jealousy isn’t an uncommon trait, along with thundering arrogance (especially in Regency historicals with all those dukes and marquesses running around), and yet those are presented as almost desirable attributes, or at worst, harmless quirks. Then there’s the newer wave of erotica featuring “dominant” men — and not in a healthy BDSM-educated way — who get excused as being a little troubled or needing to feel in control of their lives. Quirks? Really?

Anti-heroes are fine. Unlikeable, unreliable narrators are fine. Protagonists who have real, serious, crushing flaws that can’t be resolved are fine. A scumbag who happens to be the only person who can save the world — sure, why not? But it bothers me when troubling behaviours are excused as “just quirks”, because it gives support to the idea that real people with those problems are justified, or it doesn’t matter, or it can be swept under the rug. That violent jealousy is romantic. That bossing your partner around is a normal way of expressing your need for control if you had a hard childhood. That because the book doesn’t call the fictional characters on their flaws, no one in real life will either. That does more harm than the world’s biggest DISLIKE sticker could express.

One Without The Other

Minor and incidental characters have one without the other all the time.

Standard villainous henchmen and minions (not the cute kind) are full of flaws so the hero can trick or distract or out-fight them, but frequently aren’t fleshed out enough to have much in the way of quirks… think Star Wars stormtroopers, etc. Little things can do a lot to differentiate a group of minor characters — a set of dungeon guards, say, with one who’s in need of some Gold Bond and one who’s always eating and so on — but it’s not strictly necessary. After all, you’re not asking your readers to fall in love with or particularly remember them.

Little quirks and engaging traits are a standard way of filling out the population at large around major characters — neighbours, schoolmates, ball guests, cruise ship passengers… it wouldn’t make sense to give even half of the supporting cast fully developed personalities complete with flaws, so to prevent the neighbourhood or ballroom being full of samey cardboard cutouts, they get liberally sprinkled with quirky traits. That’s fine; it fits with readers’ expectations, and those minor players don’t need to have character arcs and overcome things.

Major characters do need both flaws and quirks, though; flawlessness is annoying, and the absence of quirks leaves us cold. It’s the combination of the two that makes the characters realistic and embeds them in our memories forever.

And now I need to go rewrite some things.

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Let’s Get Edgy (or, How Far Is Too Far?)

So, maybe you’ve noticed that I describe my writing as “edgy romance and speculative fiction”. Maybe you’ve wondered… why?

Well.

It’s not about being explicit/graphic (though sometimes, sure, I’ll consider going there); that’s just called erotic romance, or “hot” or “spicy”. And naughty books are so popular right now, even mainstream — moms outside the preschool chat about their favourites and check out each other’s Kindles and Kobos — that there’s no edge in it, not even with a little bit of kink thrown in for titillation (this isn’t the 1950s: we’ve all heard of bondage and threesomes by now, no one is shocked).

It’s not about profanity, though my voice goes where the characters want it to go, and sometimes that includes teh swearz. Lots of books have swearwords and gritty language of varying forms; that’s nothing edgy, and nothing to do with romance. Obviously, there are some places readers don’t expect to find, well, words a kindergarten teacher wouldn’t use in class (e.g., sweet romances, particularly faith-oriented romances where a wedding is de rigueur before the happy couple gets even an off-screen naked snuggle), but I don’t think most people classify a few $h!ts and f^*ks as particularly edgy these days.

Walking on the edge, for me, is going as far as I myself feel comfortable, and then taking a step or two further. Pushing myself into uncomfortable territory. Going into mindspaces where I don’t have the answers, and seeing what my characters will do.

So I take the classic “nice girl meets a rock star”, and she’s a virgin and he’s a stud, and she’s grown up with the white-picket-fence life while he’s been on the road… and I say to myself, let’s make him a heroin addict. Let’s get onto Erowid and learn everything we can about what that looks and feels like, and think about the risks and damage he’d be carrying. Where does that put the girl? Can she take that on?

I take the classic “just dumped and vulnerable” situation, and put my protagonist/heroine in the path of a delicious rebound dude… and then I say, let’s make him polyamorous. Yes, as in, he already has a girlfriend, and she’s all fine with him having a new lover alongside her. Let’s check out Polyamory.com and find out what that really means for real people living it, and think about how a traditionally-brought-up woman might react to what her new temptation is offering.

Now, I’m pretty sure many — most? — readers aren’t going to be into addicts and polyamorists. But I don’t want to write about just another red herring obstacle, and I actively look for challenges that make me think, damn, I don’t know if I could handle that. So for me, it’s more about the emotional/psychological edge than anything sexual or verbal, exploring the shadowy area just outside of the furthest edge of my own comfort level.

I know that’s how/what/where I want to write, to explore. But… how far is too far? At what point do I cross from just being edgy to going over the cliff and splatting onto readers’ repulsion? Where is the hard line between raised eyebrows and disgust? I really do worry about this — how much is too much? — but I just can’t seem to dig into novel ideas where the problems could all be solved with an hour or two of honesty and good communication and some sensible decision-making.

I don’t know. I suppose at some point I’ll find out. I hope I haven’t put everyone off already…

But “edgy” is my warning label. Not for language, not for spice, but for “don’t expect normal and don’t expect nice”.

Red Herring Jealousy

Three of the last five romance novels I’ve read have had jealousy as the major source of conflict that keeps the couple apart… and in all three cases, the jealousy was unfounded, a total red herring to create plot where there isn’t any.

Obviously, there has to be something standing in the way of the couple’s happiness. There wouldn’t be much of a story in a chance meeting that results in a kiss and all those nice tingly feelings, logically followed by a courtship in which the pair get to know each other and only uncover good things, followed by a sweet love scene and/or wedding (order of events to be determined by the type of romance & readership involved). So yes, we need conflict. But I’m starting to have a problem with stories where only unfounded, undisclosed jealousy is keeping two otherwise sensible and loving adults apart.

Idiotic Assumptions

It’s one thing when one character jumps to conclusions about the other on relatively solid evidence — things seen or overheard that a reasonable person would interpret as signs of an affair. I’m relatively tolerant of these “misunderstanding” scenarios, particularly if there’s no opportunity for the couple to actually talk to each other about what really happened, and even more so if the character development makes the wrongful assumption more likely.

The idiocy comes in with the idea that any opposite-sex contact must mean an affair.

Even leaving aside the heteronormative and reductionist aspects of that idea, it’s such a weak reason to keep two madly-attracted people apart (particularly when they choose not to discuss it or try to work it out). I mean, when Annie is so distraught she’s unable to eat or sleep because Bobby had a midnight phone call from a female voice she refuses to ask him about, or Bobby is ready to give up on love and enlist in the army that very minute because Annie was seen talking in a corner with an unidentified man — gah!

Which brings me to…

Pride As A “Flaw”

Okay, too much pride is a real flaw, when it causes the person to do things like look down on others and even treat them as lesser beings… self-satisfied pride in oneself, that is, especially regarding born-to-it attributes (see Pride and Prejudice if still not clear). But pride as in having self-respect and dignity? Not a flaw.

Red herring jealousy can only function as a plot device if the couple can’t or won’t talk about it. The minute Bobby tells Annie that the phone call was from his estranged half-sister, or Annie tells Bobby that her best friend’s husband just wanted help planning a surprise party for his wife, there’s no problem and they can move on to happily-ever-after. Now, I guess it can be tricky for the author to arrange circumstances so they can’t talk to each other about what’s bothering them, but far too many romance novels jump right to won’t talk, usually because of pride, of the s/he’d-tell-me-if-it-was-innocent-and-I’m-too-proud-to-ask variety.

Reason #1 that this irritates me: because pride-as-a-flaw conveniently allows the author not to give the character(s) any other more serious flaw. Oh, often it will be combined with “temper” — as in spunky, fiery personality, adding spice to the passion and all that (not a real needs-anger-management-classes kind of temper flaw, of course).

Reason #2 that this irritates me: because the resolution demands that the aforementioned pride be trampled on to sort things out. I’m pretty sure that very few authors intend the message underneath to be ugly, but ultimately it says your instincts are wrong and can’t be trusted, you need to lose your self-respect and dignity in order to be loved, and you need to end up humble and even submissive to qualify as a properly romantic character. Sorry, massive ick factor there.

And all the angst turns out to have been wasted and unnecessary, which is why I say…

Give Me Some Real Roadblocks

Three hundred pages of unnecessary heartbreak? Avoidable if only they’d just talked to each other and trusted each other? As a reader, I end up feeling that I’ve jumped through the author’s hoops like a circus animal — for nothing. Cheated. Miffed. It also makes me want to smack the characters for not talking and trusting like sensible people. As both a reader and a writer, I like real challenges for my characters. When they finally get to that happy embrace at the end, I want them to have earned it.

Even if it makes them not quite perfect, or even really not perfect. With all the communication and trust in the world, overcoming an addiction is a serious roadblock to happily-ever-after. So is rebuilding trust when there really has been an affair or betrayal of some sort. Or what about discovering that you’ve fallen for a con artist or thief or assassin?

And then there are countless ways in which outside forces can cause trouble. Serious illness? Financial devastation? Family conflict leading to a hard choice between love and kin? Military draft and deployment? Career advancement that would mean longer hours, a lot of travel, or a move to another city?

Not to mention all the potential conflicts of values and passions — the road won’t be smooth if the couple are on opposite sides of a polarized issue or hold opposing beliefs. No matter how deep and genuine both people are, how much they trust each other and care for each other, something will have to give somewhere if they’re campaigning for opposing political parties, or one wants a church wedding and baptized babies while the other is a committed atheist.

With so much rich material available, why settle for plots created with red herring jealousy?

As a writer, I’ve definitely come up with ideas that go there; it’s safer and easier than getting my precious characters into real roadblocks or finding anything truly sketchy in their psyches or pasts. But from now on, my reader-self is telling my writer-self to step up… and leave the red herrings where they belong, in mystery plots.

Jealousy is a green dragon, not a red fish.