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
Who moved my cheese?
I don’t know what it is with me and cheese, but since I seem to think in dairy-related terms, I’m going to go with it. I’m going to embrace my inner cow, and talk about showing a character’s personality through the props that are central to their lives. Moo.
The book Who Moved my Cheese? is all about dealing with change in one’s life, which is akin to what this metaphor is about for authors, too.
What’s your character’s cheese?
That is, what object in your character’s life is so important to them that if it gets lost, stolen, broken, or abducted by aliens, the character will be pushed out of equilibrium.
We’ve all heard about baseball players who go into a slump when their lucky bat breaks, or some ill-mannered fan steals their lucky glove. What that shows about them is that they have externalized their success on the playing field into an object. Rather than taking credit for their skills themselves (and ownership for their failures), they credit or blame the bat, the glove, the set of cleats they’ve had since high school. Losing the bat or the glove is a clear opportunity for them to internalize their success and reclaim it, or not to and wash out of the Majors.
What works in real life works in novels. If you’re struggling for a way to smoothly and believably show something about your character—their insecurity, their faith in God, their love for their family—consider building a relationship between that trait and a physical object.
You can relate insecurity to a comfort object, like a worry stone, a ratty old baby blanket, or 12 year old scotch. Whatever they use to comfort themselves. You can relate faith in God to a set of rosary beads, a crucifix, a Saint’s Medallion, or really anything at all if it’s something that the character’s backstory connects to an intensely spiritual moment in the character’s life. Love for family can be connected to the trappings of life that we use in taking care of our families. Like a mother who expresses love through food, but who believes that the secret to her cooking lies with the old fashioned cast iron skillet that belonged to her mother and her grandmother before her.
In my earlier articles on backstory and relating character arcs to story arcs, I described a character, Dr. Lisle, who had externalized her love for her mother through the making of cheese. I showed how that could be entwined with Dr. Lisle’s outer story arc, so that her cheese becomes central to the plot resolution. But what else can we do with it?
Move their cheese
Well, we could move her cheese. This is why I suggest that you relate the character trait you want to show to a physical object, specifically because it’s something you can take away. Make it a real prop. Ok, so cheese isn’t the most traditional prop, but it can still be taken away. I could have poor Dr. Lisle develop a dairy allergy so she can neither make nor eat cheese anymore.
Now how is she going to feel? Given the degree to which she has come to rely on cheese as an integral part of the emotional sense of order in her life, she’s not likely to take it well. She may not understand exactly why, in the beginning, but she’s probably going to find herself missing her mother more. Feeling somehow adrift in the world, less connected to other people than she wants to be. All because I moved her cheese.
Aren’t I mean? Yeah, but that’s an author’s job.
It’s ok, though. She’ll get over it. Eventually, she’ll figure out that making cheese was filling an emotional role in her life formerly played by her mother, and that nothing about how she feels about her deceased mother has actually changed. She can internalize those feelings, let go of the need for the cheese, and move on.
Making it work
Ok, so you’ve decided that this strategy can fit with your current Work In Progress. To make it work, you’re going to set it up. The character’s reaction to having their cheese moved won’t be credible to the reader if you don’t first establish a couple of things. First, and most obviously, what is your character’s particular cheese? Is it a love letter from a high school sweetheart? A beat up old penny? A deck of well-worn playing cards? Whatever it is, the reader had better know that it’s important to the character.
Second, why is it important? And here, I remind each and every one, it is critical to SHOW, not to tell. You could try tossing this somewhere in chapter one:
Joe’s father taught him to play solitaire at the tender age of nine with this very deck of cards, so after his father died Joe played it all the time and even now he still plays solitaire when he’s feeling stressed.
But it won’t carry any emotional weight in chapter seven 7 when the deck cards slips out of Joe’s hand and drops down a storm drain. No. You have to show it, which means letting us know how Joe came to have the deck of cards, but also showing him actually playing cards in stressful situations several times leading up to the point where you make him lose them.
Once you’ve set up the importance of the cheese, you can go lots of different ways with it. Is the prop something your character would go to great lengths to keep? How about getting it back if it were lost or stolen? What would they do? How far would they go for it? If they’d go to extreme lengths—say, sifting an entire beach’s worth of sand to find that old beat-up penny—your setup had better support that.
Another variation isn’t to move their cheese, but merely to threaten their cheese. Ask yourself if you can create tension and drama by putting the cheese in danger. If a swarm of rats represents a significant threat to a warehouse full of cheese, ask yourself what’s the equivalent threat for the prop you’ve chosen.
But remember, whatever flavor cheese you pick, it’s there to be an outward vehicle for showing some inner character trait. So long as anything you do with the cheese results in a response from the character that involves the related personality trait, your story will be the better for it.
October 30, 2009 22:47 UTC
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