It’s no secret that I love nature. My published picture books feature our natural world and nature inspires my novel writing, too. Yes, BIC or “butt-in-chair” focus is required when finishing and revising a story, but early mental writing occurs when I walk, especially among the trees—to work out story problems and more fully develop my characters.
Nature is imperfect, chaotic, wild, and wonderful. So are some of my favorite novel characters*, too: Scout, Scarlett, Elphaba, Harry Potter, Miles Halter, Lee Fiora, Theo Decker, Bernadette, or Alma Whittaker. Voice and plot are essential to drive a story forward, but character flaws, whether appalling or appealing, keeps me invested in a story. How well a character overcome their flaws or uses them to complete their journey keeps readers turning pages.
What are some of the flaws in your main character?
- Is your main character too trusting a la Snow White?
- Deathly allergic to Kryptonite?
- Perhaps your MC is fearless to the point of making risky decisions, or afraid of trying anything new.
- Or is your MC a golden, ethereal being, too perfect to be real?
Seeds to Leaves: Character Flaw Tree (Click here to download the character flaw tree diagram for this exercise: Character Flaw Tree Exercise)
It’s time to dig in and focus on flaws—these are the growth rings in your writing, which will help bring believability and life to your character. The growth of a tree echoes our own growth and this is visual has helped me work on my characters, too. For demonstration purposes, this visual chart will focus on the main character (MC), but this can be useful to create for all of the major characters in your story. I’m not an illustrator, but you can use this sample or easily draw your own tree, from seeds to leaves.
Seed sparks: List physical traits of your MC. (beneath tree roots at bottom of page) What’s the spark that defines your character? Describe your character in one sentence. Is there a spark or oddity in your character’s physicality or behavior? Every being, even those completely at ease with themselves, has at least one thing they perceive as a flaw. Is this flaw a hidden something that only your MC is aware of, or noticeable to other characters in the story?
Roots of reason: The dirt. Roots keep a tree upright and a strong foundation will make your MC thrive. But roots need dirt, too. What’s the dirt in your character’s life? Family, home life, and close relationships (or lack thereof) are the roots of your main character’s story. “Grow” the roots of your character tree by writing in the names of family and friends that make up the dirt of their story. These relationships, even the most loving and honest, will have some kind of flaw, or many flaws. Spread and expand the roots to add in these details.
Trunk of truth: Name your character’s main goal/desire/overall want in this story. The heart of your character lives within their trunk. This trunk (main goal/desire/want) is essential for your entire story to grow and thrive. The goal must be clear, but no trunk is perfect. What inner obstacles affect your character’s main goal?
Branching out: List major subplots on the branches of your tree.
Limbs on your tree sway and creak and your story changes your character, too. Wind and rain weather a tree. How do subplots affect the flaws of your MC? Does your MC overcome certain flaws or are new ones revealed?
Insects, squirrels, birds, and other creatures change trees, too. What about new characters? Are character flaws radically affected by people who enter your story?
Leaves of love: Leaves change with the seasons and your MC changes, too, often based on love. Love (or “like” for younger characters) exists in some form in every novel and it changes as your character changes and progresses through their journey. New love, lost love, found love, unrequited love, puppy love—love affects characters.
Nature walks, character flaw trees, and research are all part of what I do in writing my books. You’ve heard of some of the characters* I mentioned earlier, and if you haven’t, these names are easily found on-line and are samples of fabulously flawed characters. I’d like to think that the title character in my YA Twigs is as fabulously flawed as any on this list.
Here’s to happy reading, and happy writing chaotic and wonderful multi-flawed characters of your own.
Alison Ashley Formento is author of the award-winning picture book series This Tree Counts!, This Tree, 1, 2, 3, These Bees Count!, These Seas Count!,and These Rocks Count! Her young adult novel Twigs was named a Hottest Teen Reads. Alison has written for several national publications including The New York Times, Writer, and Parenting. She loves to visit schools to share her writing-research journey. www.alisonashleyformento.com.