FINDING THE FLAWS
by Jaye Robin Brown
We’ve all heard the phrase “to err is human”. That’s part of why, particularly in writing contemporary young adult fiction, it’s important to imbue your characters with flaw as well as shine. Characters should be on a journey, whether inward or outward, and somewhere along the way they must hit some road blocks. Otherwise they wouldn’t be believable.
So how do you find your character’s flaws while still making them someone the reader wants to travel along with for the ride? I think there a couple of factors involved to settle on flaws that feel most organic to your character.
Foremost is plot. What flaw can you give your character that will stymie them as they travel through the scenes? In Georgia Peaches and Other Forbidden Fruit, Joanna is faced with having to hide her queerness to satisfy a request from her father. It was easy for me to see how she needed to mess up. She needed to believe she could spin half truths about herself without it affecting anyone around her. Of course, she was wrong and her over-confidence almost messed up everything. If I had written a backwoods adventure story, maybe my main character would have had recklessness issues that would lead them into larger danger. Or I might put a know-it-all in with a group of new, smart friends. What is the external flaw that will make the plot more difficult for your character?
Secondly, I think about what my character’s interior arc is. When Joanna agreed to go along with her dad, part of what she had going on deep inside was relief. If she could hide behind a false truth, then she’d never have to face the fear of rejection in her new environment. For her, this willingness to turtle away, meant she kept people at arm’s length and in turn, she ended up judging them as much as she feared their judgment.
And here is the MIND-BLOWING tidbit: the thing that is best about your character can ALSO be their flaw. Joanna Gordon sees the goodness in all and wants to be good for all. Which makes her a people pleaser. She sacrifices for her father in order to please him, to be good. But in sacrificing for him, she sacrifices herself in a way that’s not okay. Her want to please blinds her from seeing that he shouldn’t have asked to start with, and that perhaps the best and good thing to have done, would have been to stand up to him from the start. Then, her father could have found his own way to being his best self, rather than asking her to lie low for her senior year.
Human beings are complex. Things like fear and recklessness and over confidence can help us achieve greatness, but they can also hold us back. The trick in writing is to find a way to showcase these dual natures inside of us that fit with your character’s story. The thing propelling them forward can, in its deeper forms, also hold them back. Find your main character’s duality and you’ll discover their fullness! Let their particular story, guide you in your writing.
Jaye Robin Brown, or Jro to her friends, has been many things in her life–jeweler, mediator, high school art teacher–but recently she’s taken the plunge into full-time writer life. She’s a Southerner at heart, by way of Alabama, then Atlanta, and for many years just outside of Asheville, but now she’s moved north for a bit of city living. Boston baby! And though she’d like to think brownstones might find a way into her fiction, she figures kudzu will always be what comes to her imagination first.
Her debut young adult novel, NO PLACE TO FALL, came out in the fall of 2014 from Harper Teen. It’s about dreams, singing, friendship, love, betrayal, family, and mistakes. It’s also a love song to small town girls and mountain music, both of which shape the area that Jaye now calls home. In April 2016, a companion novella, WILL’S STORY: A NO PLACE TO FALL NOVELLA, released from Epic Reads Impulse, a digital only imprint, and follows Will McKinney’s side of the story. Her sophomore novel, GEORGIA PEACHES AND OTHER FORBIDDEN FRUIT, released August 30, 2016, also from Harper Teen, and is the story of Jo Gordon, the out lesbian daughter of a moderate evangelical minister and what happens when he marries for the third time and they move from Atlanta to small-town Northern Georgia. It’s a love story and a look at the sometimes conundrum of having faith and being queer.
Georgia Peaches and Other Forbidden Fruit
Joanna Gordon has been out and proud for years, but when her popular radio evangelist father remarries and decides to move all three of them from Atlanta to the more conservative Rome, Georgia, he asks Jo to do the impossible: to lie low for the rest of her senior year. And Jo reluctantly agrees.
Although it is (mostly) much easier for Jo to fit in as a straight girl, things get complicated when she meets Mary Carlson, the oh-so-tempting sister of her new friend at school. But Jo couldn’t possibly think of breaking her promise to her dad. Even if she’s starting to fall for the girl. Even if there’s a chance Mary Carlson might be interested in her, too. Right?
No Place to Fall
Amber Vaughn is a good girl. She sings solos at church, babysits her nephew after school, and spends every Friday night hanging out at her best friend Devon’s house. It’s only when Amber goes exploring in the woods near her home, singing camp songs with the hikers she meets on the Appalachian Trail, that she feels free—and when the bigger world feels just a little bit more in reach.
When Amber learns about an audition at the North Carolina School of the Arts, she decides that her dream—to sing on bigger stages—could also be her ticket to a new life. Devon’s older (and unavailable) brother, Will, helps Amber prepare for her one chance to try out for the hypercompetitive arts school. But the more time Will and Amber spend together, the more complicated their relationship becomes . . . and Amber starts to wonder if she’s such a good girl, after all.
Then, in an afternoon, the bottom drops out of her family’s world—and Amber is faced with an impossible choice between her promise as an artist and the people she loves. Amber always thought she knew what a good girl would do. But between “right” and “wrong,” there’s a whole world of possibilities.
A big thank you to Jaye for writing this article! Even as an agent, editing is still hard, especially when you’ve looked at and read that manuscript over, and over, and over again. These tips can definitely help, and we thank you so much for opening up and being a great inspiration to new writers every where!
As always, a huge thank you to all who have participated in this feature. We love Musings, and you all are helping so many new writers complete their first books, continue fighting for their shot at being published, and just keep the hope. Your time and your words don’t go unappreciated!
We hope you have a wonderful rest of your week!