Guest Blogger Debra Brenegan: Writing Dysfunctional Characters

Have you ever heard the sage writing advice, “Nobody wants to hear about a perfect picnic”?  It means that even though in real life we crave the experience of a perfect picnic – yummy food that arrives unsquashed and e-coli-free, a cloud-puffed blue sky complete with a yellow ball of sun shining warmly (not hotly) through dappled shade, someone singing in-tune with a guitar, iced beverages of choice (and perhaps a DD), nice-looking and sweet-acting fellow picnickers – in reality, nobody wants to read about this.  What catches our interest?  Ants, thunderstorms, loud arguments, sliced fingertips, burnt chicken and all manner of picnic problems.  It’s called tension and no scene is complete without it.

Transferring this wisdom to characterization means that in order to keep readers interested, you must write about flawed characters.  In the same way that nobody wants to read about a perfect picnic, nobody wants to read about a perfect character.  We want our characters to maybe have big noses, tangled hair or tempers.  Perhaps they can’t dance, hate flying or are rotten cooks.  In other words, we want them to be like we are – okay, decent human beings who are still working things out.  It’s easier to connect to such characters because they feel real.  And just like you know that plenty of people like you but that there are some folks who just don’t, your characters can’t be adored by all of the other characters in your book.  Your characters must irritate, anger or bore at least a few other characters or they will find themselves teetering on top of a stereotypical pedestal.  Your characters may even cause your readers moments of discomfort and tension.  That’s okay as long as you allow your readers to connect to your characters most of the time.

So, go ahead and take the plunge into dysfunction.  Write characters that don’t know everything, aren’t model-gorgeous and have recurring issues that worry their mothers.  Not only will your work smack of authenticity, it will be fun writing for you, and, for your readers, it will be fun reading.

Debra Brenegan grew up in the Milwaukee area and graduated with a B.A. in journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She worked as a journalist and taught at Milwaukee Area Technical College before beginning her graduate work. She received her M.A. and Ph.D. in English/Creative Writing from The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where she also taught. She teaches English and Women’s Studies at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri. For her fiction, she has received a Ragdale residency and was a recent finalist for the John Gardner Memorial Fiction Prize, The Cincinnati Review’s Schiff Prose Prize, and the Crab Creek Review Fiction Prize. Her work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Calyx, Tampa Review, Natural Bridge, The Laurel Review, RE:AL, The Southern Women’s Review, The Cimarron Review, Milwaukee Magazine, Phoebe, and other publications. Debra Brenegan’s novel, Shame the Devil, is a historical account of nineteenth-century American writer Fanny Fern (SUNY Press, Excelsior Editions). She is currently working on another novel, set in Missouri, and on a short story collection. During the school year, Debra lives in a 130-year-old house in Fulton with her husband, Steve, and their elderly cat. They spend summers and school breaks in their native Milwaukee. When not teaching, writing, spending time with family or driving back and forth to Wisconsin, Debra enjoys cooking, gardening, reading and traveling. You can visit her website at or visit her at Twitter at or Facebook at!/debra.brenegan;!/



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