Yesterday I looked in on a Twitter chat about character flaws that seemed to circle around these statements: “flaws! Yes! Characters have them! What about addiction?” and the whole thing looked just a bit too much like the reason people make fun of Twitter.
Though there were standouts, like Eugenia Kim.
I was observing because I like to watch for new uses for social media and writing, no matter how much eye-rolling is happening around it–technology does occasionally provide more than distractions–and while there may have been something to the 140 character limit that made the whole thing a little blunted, I gave them credit for trying. But in general I’ve lately been greatly discouraged by the way I feel like the contemporary rhetoric about creative writing meant to aid writers too often guides them into sad little corners, where they end up too much like Roombas that can’t turn themselves around. This of course is why Joseph Conrad was afraid of Ford Madox Ford’s pursuit of knowledge around writing–he feared it would harm more than it would help to know what exactly what one was doing. And I do think there’s a kind of advice that doesn’t help, and nowhere do I see this more than with the idea of the Flaw in character design.
Consider instead Adrien Tomine’s Shortcomings, a tiny modern masterpiece (to my mind) about Ben Tanaka, a bitter young man who drives everyone out of his life with his attempts to shore up his insecurities. Part of what is fascinating about the book is how Tomine allows the reader into the gap between who Ben wants you to think he is and who he really is. On one page he’s loudly complaining to his girlfriend about having to see a film on Asian American identity, and on another, he’s upset because she’s leaving him for a white(ish) man. He goes from loudly deploring someone for using being Asian as a way to complain constantly about everything in his life to bitterly fearing rejection by a potential lover for being Asian. He lacks that famous other creative writing hobgoblin, character consistency, in one way–he is absolutely inconsistent in his views–and yet that ends up being what the book is about: he has no core, except a shame at who he is that destroys all his relationships. THAT is his consistency, that is his ‘flaw’. And what’s more, this gap is precisely what creates the dramatic irony that moves the whole book along. Continue reading