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Do your characters' flaws work on more than one level?

This weekend I came across a fine article at Men with Pens about why it’s a good idea to give your characters flaws: Because flaws make your characters believable, and make readers care about the characters.

It’s good advice, but it doesn’t go far enough.

To really make your story come alive, you’ll also do well to give your characters flaws which enhance the story’s underlying drama. It’s all well and good to have a character who is afraid of the color yellow, or who simply cannot remember anybody’s name until the third time he hears it. But does it really help your story?

Most novels rely heavily on the strength of the story’s central conflict, that thing which drives the whole plot forward towards the climax. The reader’s perception of drama and tension comes from that conflict, and from the degree of challenge the protagonist faces in addressing that conflict. This is where your character flaws come in.

Pick a flaw that makes the job harder.

One thing experienced writers do very well is to make the elements of their novels work on two levels. By itself, a character flaw works on one level. It makes the character more believable and sympathetic. You can make it work on a second level as well by choosing a flaw that directly impedes the protagonist from addressing that central conflict.

When looking for a good flaw, I like to brainstorm around two aspects of the story. One is the details of the plot, settings, clues, and specific events in the outer story arc. The other is the protagonist’s personal attributes, his or her age, occupation, socio-economic status, and all-around situation within society.

Story arc flaws

Working from the perspective of story arc and plot elements, let’s say you’ve got a murder mystery where you know that the climactic scene is going to happen in a disused subway tunnel deep under Manhattan. In fact, many of the book’s clues will be found in the pipes and tunnels beneath the Big Apple. No problem! Make your detective be afraid of going underground. This requires some backstory, so let’s say that your detective and his brother used to go caving when they were kids. Only, the brother died when the two accidentally triggered a cave-in. So now he’s terrified of being underground. The memory of his brother creates a suffocating, claustrophobic fear of the millions of tons of soil and rock overhead.

Now you have a flaw that directly impedes the detective’s job of investigating the crime scenes and catching the killer. You also have a fun reversal in the fact that despite the detective’s experience in operating underground, which ought to serve him well, his phobia blocks him from putting that experience to use.

Protagonist’s personal attributes

Working from the perspective of the protagonist’s general qualities, let’s say you have a story set in a high school, with a sophomore girl as your protagonist. The story’s central conflict revolves around some sort of garden-variety misunderstanding between her and another student, of the kind that happen all the time between teenagers. The misunderstanding spins totally out of control into a huge rift that divides the student body into two camps. In the climactic scene, where the core of the misunderstanding is finally brought into the open, the resolution will depend a lot on how the rest of the students feel about your protagonist and antagonist. High school is nothing if not intensely political. It’s an environment where reputation is everything, so why not give the girl a flaw that undermines her reputation? Maybe she’s basically a good kid, honest about stuff that matters, but she tends to exaggerate the little stuff or embellish events to her own advantage.

When the big climax comes around this flaw can come back to bite her. People will be a lot less likely to believe her version of events—even if it’s true—because of her reputation as a fibber.

Both options raise the drama and tension

These two different sources of character flaws are different in an interesting way: In one the character is obviously aware of his flaw, whereas in the other the character may be blind to it. Yet, both options create drama.

In one, we can watch the detective fight against his phobia, wondering with each new scene whether he’ll be able to summon the nerve to step underground. A succession of failures, perhaps with increasing consequences from each, pushes the drama higher and higher.

In the other, we can watch the protagonist create a situation where her self-image is increasingly different from how others perceive her. That serves to raise the tension because as readers we know that eventually this will come back to haunt her. A series of lies and fibs that she believes she’s gotten away with raises the tension as we wait for her house of cards to come crashing down.

Be smart about the flaws you pick

Both of these character flaws work because they turn the characters against themselves. Each becomes his or her own obstacle, which serves to heighten the reader’s perception of drama and tension. These flaws also work because they tie the outer story arc to the inner character arc: addressing the story’s central conflict becomes an exercise in character growth.

So give your characters flaws. Do it to make your characters believable and sympathetic. But be smart about it. Find a flaw that works on two levels. Think about your plot, and think about your protagonist. Somewhere in there you will find a flaw which enhances your overall story by raising the drama and tension of the central conflict.

November 16, 2009 20:24 UTC

Tags: character, backstory, flaws, inner character arc, outer character arc, outer plot, drama, conflict, tension, traits

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Character Corner: "Huge," by James Fuerst

[Note: I’m starting a new semi-regular feature here on the blog. “Character Corner” is book reviews from the perspective of showing character, not plot. Here we go!]

Last night I finished reading Huge, the debut novel by James Fuerst. We’ll get to the character stuff in a minute, but let me gush about the book in generic book review terms for a minute:

I loved this book. I give it four, maybe four and a half stars. It was awesome. Funny. Poignant. Moving in places. Very well set in its time and place (New Jersey in the 1980s). Funny. Wait, did I just say that? I did. But it was. This book had me giggling from cover to cover, and busting out laughing at its high points. It was flat out hilarious, but not just in throwaway silliness. The humor was inherent in the truly amusing circumstances Fuerst put his characters in.

Ok. Enough of that. What I really loved, and what Fuerst absolutely nails in this novel better than a lot of successful career novelists I could name, is the characterization. It’s hard to discuss characterizaton in a meaningful way without also spoiling the plot, but I’m going to try because y’all really should read this book and it would be a crime if I went and spoiled it for you.

Huge

The main character is a pre-teen boy named Eugene Smalls. Everyone calls him “Genie,” but he has decided he’d rather be called “Huge” instead, despite his diminutive physical stature. Huge Smalls. Classic. Now, you’re going to think I wrote last Friday’s article on purpose, because Huge Smalls is such a perfect example of what I was talking about, but I didn’t. Sometimes things just work out like that.

What I mean is that Huge’s view of himself is wildly at odds with how others see him. This is pretty obvious from very early on in the book. So you know that at some point he’s going to have that moment of epiphany where he realizes this and has to deal with it. Fuerst handles it brilliantly; what I won’t reveal is which of the three strategies I explained in that last article Fuerst chose for dealing with it.

Huge also has a chip on his shoulder that’s so big I’m surprised it doesn’t crush him. I’m not a big fan of this, because generally it is just a sign of an overblown ego, but I was surprised to see what Fuerst did with it. Huge’s chip on his shoulder wasn’t so much about ego as it was about armor. Fuerst did a beautiful job of portraying that particular character flaw as a defense mechanism, which did wonders to help make Huge—a difficult kid to love—into more sympathetic character.

The Frog

As wonderful a character as Huge Smalls himself is, I have to tell you, I particularly liked the frog. Yes, the book has character who is a frog. No, the book is not a paranormal piece, it’s not magical realism, it’s not wizard fiction or anything like that. It’s straight-up real world stuff, but there’s a frog in it. Not only that, but the frog is actually an integral supporting cast member and a distinctive character in his own right. If that piques your interest—how can a writer turn a frog into real character without resorting to fantasy?—it should. Go read the book.

It would have been easy for Fuerst to simply make the frog be like any other person. We’ve all read talking animal stories at some point, so we’re all familiar with animal characters who, despite being four legged, nevertheless think and act pretty much like people do. My guess is that Fuerst could have gone that route and still managed to have the frog serve its necessary function in relation to the plot and Huge’s character arc.

I’m glad he didn’t, because that would have sucked compared to what he did do, which was to go deep into the mindset of a frog. The frog has froggy opinions and attitudes about the world and about Huge’s life. The frog’s perspective is completely different from Huge’s. Yet, once you understand that this frog is supposed to be an actual frog instead of a frog-shaped person, his perspective fits so exactly what you might imagine a real frog thinking and saying that the character becomes really believable.

It’s a tour-de-force of characterization. I’m tempted to make “good writers know how to think like a frog” into my new motto. The relationship between Huge and the frog is also intricate yet very well portrayed, but I can’t really tell you much more than that without getting into spoiler territory, so I won’t. Go read the book.

James Fuerst: a writer to watch

All in all Huge was a great read, and a very impressive showing for anybody, let alone a first-time novelist. I envy Fuerst’s ability to craft really funny scenes and yet blend them with a ‘huge’ amount of pathos. I’ll be waiting eagerly to see what he comes up with next.

October 26, 2009 17:29 UTC

Tags: character corner, book review, James Fuerst, Huge, outer character arc, humor

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Do you know an inner character arc from an outer one?

We’ve all heard about how a novel’s plot should relate to the main character’s inner journey. About how our characters should grow and change and become wiser, better people by the end of the story. Heck, I’ve written about that plenty right here on this blog. Those are your garden variety inner character arcs.

Less well known is what I call an outer character arc, which doesn’t resort to changing the character’s inner self.

Sometimes this is just what you need. Maybe there’s something about the character that might cause conflict and drama in the novel, but which doesn’t need to change. It may even be that you shouldn’t change them. So how, with a character trait that you want to leave entirely alone, can you make an arc out of it?

Create conflict between her sense of self and how others see her

For example, let’s say my main character is an introvert. Maybe she’s so introverted that it causes her problems in her life. She can’t get much respect at work, because she’s so quiet in meetings. The guy she thinks is cute isn’t interested in her because he can’t see past her quiet exterior. At dinner parties, she has trouble participating in the conversation, because by the time she has worked out how to phrase her opinions and thoughts, the subject of the conversation has inevitably changed.

The problems her introversion causes are real, but I’m not about to change her. No way. Yeah, she has trouble in social situations, but there is nothing inherently wrong with being an introvert. About half the population is one, including me and a lot of my readers. Writing a book where the heroine reaches a better place in her life by changing something that isn’t wrong to begin with doesn’t strike me as emotionally truthful, and wouldn’t resonate well with readers either.

So what to do? The character arc here doesn’t involve a conflict between what kind of person she is and what kind of person she ought to be. Rather, it stems from those conflicting perceptions. Let’s look deeper.

Outer character arc

An “outer character arc” is different from the typical “inner character arc” in that it does not involve personal growth and change. Not in the same way, anyhow. To continue the example, the issue for this protagonist is that the other people mistake her quiet, reserved, thoughtful nature for something else: shyness, insecurity, stupidity, timidity, et cetera.

The central conflict in this outer character arc is this difference between the character’s true self and how others perceive her.

For an introverted character struggling with being heard and recognized in social situations, the obstacle arising from that conflict is changing people’s perceptions. She must help her boss understand that when she’s quiet in a meeting, it’s because she’s listening intently and processing everything. She needs to find a way to show the cute guy more of who she really is than he can see on the surface.

I’m not sure what she’s ought to do about the dinner party problem; I haven’t figured that one out in real life myself. If you have any ideas, please leave them in the comments, ok?

Regardless, by the end of the novel I can still bring her to a better situation in her life by confronting this difference in perception—by resolving the outer character arc—rather than by changing her introverted nature.

Nobody is ever exactly how they seem

That’s the key to unlocking an outer character arc. No person on earth is ever perceived by others as they truly are, way deep down inside. Other people don’t see you as you see yourself. The clever writer turns this fact into an outer character arc by making the character see this difference. Give the character a moment of epiphany that reveals to her the underlying nature of the central conflict that has been dogging her all along. The epiphany can generate three different outer character arcs, depending on how you want to resolve the conflict and whether you want to add any inner character arc techniques as well.

Don’t change the character, change how she presents herself.

This is the pure outer character arc example I gave above, although obviously you can do it with any trait, not just introversion. This is where the character concludes that she does not need to change, that she is already comfortable with who she is, but that she needs teach the people around her a couple of things. One, that there’s nothing wrong with her, thankyouverymuch, and two, what her actual capabilities, skills, and interests are. Her goal is staying true to herself while changing others’ perceptions, and her life will improve when she achieves it.

Don’t change the character, and that’s ok.

This is where the character may start out thinking she needs to change her inner self, but in the end realizes that she’s ok with who she is and she’s also ok with it if other people don’t really get her. It’s a hybrid model that starts out looking like an inner character arc, but then turns out to be an outer one. To continue the example, maybe she circumvents her problems at work by quitting her job to start her own freelance book editing business where she can work from home and be her own boss. Hypothetically, you understand. Ahem.

Do change the character after all.

This is where a character considers the difference in self-perception versus how other see her, and concludes that in fact they’re right. She does in fact have a flaw that should be addressed. This is a hybrid too, but is the opposite of the previous one. It’s an outer character arc that turns into an inner character arc. If you have the skill to pull it off, this one can work particularly well in first person narratives where the character really is clueless about something. Use the character’s behavior to show the flaw, and use the first person style to show the character’s self-perception contrasting with the flaw.

An outer character arc isn’t always appropriate to add to a novel. But if you’re starting from a character that you like, that you don’t think needs to change at his or her core, consider it. It’s another tool to put in your toolbox, as Stephen King would put it. If you do decide to give it a try, kick things off by putting the character in a situation where she wants to shout at the world, “You don’t know me,” and where the world responds by saying “yeah, but maybe you don’t know yourself all that well, either.” Then see what happens!

October 23, 2009 18:43 UTC

Tags: character, inner character arc, outer character arc, introvert, conflict, POV, self-image

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