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
Posted by Emily C on November 16, 2009 21:32 UTC
Wonderful post. It makes me feel good about the flaws I’ve given my character, but now I know I need to do more with them.
Posted by Emmy-loo on December 02, 2009 23:38 UTC
This post just made the most wonderful character flaw pop into my head—it makes an even in my protagonist’s past more important to the present of the story, and it adds more conflict. Perfect! This was a wonderfully detailed post (without being mind-numbing in the least :D) Thank you!
Posted by Heather Wright on July 12, 2010 14:44 UTC
Your first point,"Pick a flaw that makes the job harder” is exactly why Indiana Jones is afraid of snakes. Great post. Thank @inkyelbows for tweeting the link to your blog today.
Posted by Jason Black on July 12, 2010 20:17 UTC
Glad you enjoyed it. I’m always happy to have @inkyelbows sending me new readers, and I’m pleased the post lived up to expectations!