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Charlotte Rains Dixon  

Finding Faults

I'm perfect.Sharon's Flowers

I am.  I am poised, intelligent, attractive, talented, funny, loyal, passionate.  Like I said, perfect. 

And, already you are bored with me and ready to go elsewhere to read because who can relate to perfect?  Already you are thinking, well, if she's perfect than I have nothing in common with her at all and what exactly do all those general terms mean anyway?

So try this instead:

I'm not perfect.  I'm way too judgmental, not good with details, have a terrible habit of rebelling against authority just because it is authority, I veer from crazy deep emotion to extreme containment of it, sometimes I lack focus, I eat too fast, I am currently not exercising enough, I get so excited when I'm talking to friends I interrupt…

Now don't you like me a lot better?  And aren't you way more interested in me as a person?  And, not that you are not perfect, but can't you relate to my faults a bit better than my perfection?

In a post I wrote last week, I discussed the Top Takeaways from the Writer's Loft, specifically, the workshop that Richard Goodman hosted.   One exercise focused on making yourself likable as a narrator by sharing a fault.  This, Goodman said, "provides the reader some freedom."  It allows the reader to feel that the writer is like him, and creates an emotional bond.

And, it is a lot more interesting.  Conflict and imperfection is far more compelling than calm and perfection.

Alas, this is why we have wars.

But I'm a writer, not a warrior, so back to our topic.  Goodman talked specifically about finding fault in terms of narrating memoir, but it also applies to fiction.  Think Holden Caulfield or Jean Rhys (his examples).  And think, too, of the memoirs you've read in which you fell in love with the narrator.  Chances are, they had a fault or two. 

During the Writer's Loft workshop, the readings that came out of this exercise were some of the most entertaining all day.  One participant wrote of his fear at facing a roomful of college students he had come to teach, another wrote a humorous paragraph about always getting lost.  We laughed at these pieces, but we also felt a kinship with their authors.  Who hasn't obsessed over having to speak to a group of people, or gotten themselves good and lost?

In my own novel, the narrator Emma Jean is loudly judgmental, thinks very highly of herself, and gets herself into trouble by flinging herself headlong into new things.  People like her because of her faults.  (And, um, she's not based on me at all.)

So if you are writing memoir, share a fault or two with us.  We'll like you lots better.  And if you are writing fiction, give your characters some faults so that we know they are just like us.

Anybody have any suggestions of famous flawed narrators?  Feel free to leave your ideas in the comments.

***Thanks to Jessica, who left the comment asking for more information on this topic, and thus inspired this post.

And, by the way, the photo of flowers is supposed to epitomize perfection.  Not sure if you would get that or not, so I felt compelled to explain it, which means it is probably not working as an illustration.

0 thoughts on “Finding Faults

  1. Jessica

    Thanks Charlotte! Much appreciated. It’s a beautifully simple point, and yet one that we too easily forget. This subject is something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently.

    I’ve become hooked on Burn Notice and in the process have been watching how Michael’s family issues are portrayed. His younger brother is always getting into trouble, gambling, finding bad jobs etc. In one episode it becomes apparent that Michael’s younger brother looks up to him and craves his approval, and yet this subtlety had evaded him for so long.

    Too often this situation is portrayed from the other side, looking at it from the character who wants approval, rather than the one who is unwittingly not providing it.

    So I’m working on narrator viewpoint and personality flaws that are not immediately apparent as flaws. The reader sympathizes with the way the character perceives the situation until something is revealed which makes the reader and (perhaps) the character reevaluate. Then you have the delicious moment where the reader realizes they have been sympathizing with an unfair or incorrect aspect of the character – and then they realize this story (and life in general) is not as cut and dried as it first appears.

    Oh, and I got the idea of the flowers right away. 🙂 The illustration worked fine for me. Thanks again!

  2. Charlotte Dixon

    Jessica, wow, it sounds like you have really been working with and internalizing this theory. Should be call it a theory? Maybe it is better referred to as a technique. I love your example of Burn Notice. And I’m so glad you got the flower illustration!

    Thanks for reading and commenting.

  3. Derek

    Very interesting post today Charlotte. Yes, it is perfectly imperfect. I didn’t get the flowers, but I now that you point it out…

    So, I am not so perfectly perceptive as I thought! So, if I am perfect, then ego is getting in the way and I become a bore.. So ego gets in the way again and I demonstrate how imperfect I am.. See? Perfect! Life’s a circle. Excuse the Zen, love it or loath it. Come to think of it we can do both.

    Seriously… or maybe not, because I don’t feel very serious today… Your point comes across beautifully about characters. We are always interested in a person when we are thinking, what’s wrong with him/her!?” And old writing teacher of mine, once said, “Kill off your darlings, and focus on your weirdos. Nobody will like them, but they are great page-turners.” 🙂

  4. don

    Hmmmmm, after reading this post, I’ve decided that I would count all of my imperfections, they total: 1,006,001! Wow…. with all of these imperfections I should have no trouble writing the perfect book! My biggest imperfection is procrastination, a problem I’ve decided to overcome, starting next week!

  5. Charlotte Dixon

    Derek, I love the phrase “imperfectly perfect,” that perfectly sums it up. And yes, the weirdos are much more compelling than the darlings. Glad I explained the flowers, some seem to get it immediately and others not.

    Don, I bet I have more imperfections. But one of mine is laziness, so I won’t bother to count them.

  6. Alex Blackwell

    Well, I’m not perfect neither!

    I have found that when I am more transparent with my readers they tend to respond to me in a more natural way.

    Folks know when we are being real and not just blowing BS around.


  7. Charlotte Dixon

    Alex, I definitely like you better because you are not perfect. And, I agree, my wonderful blog readers really respond when I’ve written a transparent post.

  8. Dani H ddh77

    I love when the protagonist is imperfect. It’s very late and I just can’t think of names of author’s or books, but a number of mystery writers give their characters faults. I didn’t get the flowers, but it’s late.

  9. Charlotte Dixon

    I think you didn’t get the flowers because the photo didn’t work as an illustration, not because its late. 🙂

    And you make an excellent point–many protagonists of mystery novels have quirky faults that make them endearing.

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