I’ve been struggling lately (by struggling, I mean ‘realizing I don’t do it, but need to’) with the fact that main characters actually have to grow through the course of their journey. Getting it right is really, really tricky and I’ve been thinking about flawed characters and the way they grow or adapt. (Characters don’t necessarily have to be flawed to show growth, they can start out merely young, naive, or uninformed, but I’ve found that the addition of a real flaw makes for a more interesting story.)
My favorite example in the past has always been Scarlett O’Hara. I hated her at the opening of ‘Gone with the Wind’ and, what’s more, I enjoyed hating her. She was so spoiled and petty, she was the embodiment of inconsideration. Then, as the story progressed, instead of feeling glad when she faced hardships greater than being turned down for a dance at the ball, I started to appreciate her real predicament. Her life of privilege had left her utterly unequipped to deal with real tragedy – but she managed anyway. Scarlett’s much-delayed arrival at maturity has remained my favorite literary lesson: readers are interested in the things that make people change and in the question of whether people can change.
Recently, however, I’ve found another great example of character growth and flaws in Suzanne Collins’ ‘Hunger Games’ trilogy. I’ll confess I’m only halfway through book two, but have discovered my favorite element already. Katniss’ character flaw is perfect. She’s initially only preoccupied with her own family’s safety, and with good reason. Serving as head of the household since her father’s death, Katniss didn’t have the luxury of being overly civic-minded. It’s a little selfish of her not to care more about society at large and about equality and fairness, but when in her adolescence would she have given thought to such lofty things?
Readers see her gradually awaken to the value of these higher ideals, and it’s hard to fault her for not embracing them sooner. Where Scarlett is just a spoiled brat, Katniss is bitterly underprivileged. Not that I think one example is necessarily better than the other…but I like comparing the two and seeing how well each works in its own story.