What to Remember When Characters Break the Rules

Do not create characters who are too good to be true. Even your protagonist needs to have a flaw.

We’ve all heard this advice, or something very like it, at one time or another. And it makes sense. Perfect characters are off-putting. They maintain, and hold everyone else, to an impossible standard.

To avoid this, we introduce character flaws. We make sure that our characters make bad decisions. Periodically, they have to break the rules.

That said, you have to make it work. This rule breaking can’t be random. And it can’t be meaningless. Here are four things to remember when your character breaks the rules.

You Have to Know Why

Your character may not know why she is breaking the rules. Your reader may not know why. But you have to know. What is your character’s motivation for breaking the rules?

My husband and I have been watching Season 1 of The Umbrella Academy. It is a little embarrassing to admit that my favorite character is Klaus. It might be his inappropriate sense of humor. Or the fact that he breaks every single rule and guideline. But even when I didn’t know why he broke the rules, I knew there was a reason. After all, his siblings were never surprised even when they were profoundly disappointed.

Look at Whose Rules Are Being Broken

Not all rules carry the same weight. A character who is part of a gang or cartel will break society’s rules. Why? Because middle class, law-abiding rules just don’t matter. Don’t take what doesn’t belong to you. Don’t lie. Pfft. This character isn’t going to care.

But the rules of the gang or cartel will be altogether different. Those rules are important because that is the society the character is part of. To the character, these rules matter.

Even a character who seems chaotic, and very few characters are as chaotic as Klaus, has a code. Know what it is and keep it in mind as you pick and choose which rules your character breaks.

Little by little you can make the reasons why clear to your reader.