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Thursday, July 10, 2014

On Character Flaws

Hey folks!  I didn’t get a post out last Sunday because I was too busy finishing my first and very rough draft of my novel.  Hooray!  But I still wanted to post something for this week.  So I figured I’d share with you something I learned from the very early phases of my writing process.  Something that was very difficult to learn because so much advice I read actually pushed me away from the realization.

When I started writing, I poked around and did a bit of reading on how to write a good book.  And there was a lot of good advice that really helped.  But one bit of advice kept sticking out as a really bad idea, and particularly a bad piece of advice to give to new novelists.  It’s advice that’s championed all over the place, and yet in the hands of a newbie, it is likely to lead them astray.  This problematic advice is the insistence that characters need flaws.

Now don’t get me wrong, there are some important points that this advice is trying to convey.  But saying “give your characters flaws” is not the best way to give this advice, and in the hands of a newbie this kind of advice can lead to some shitty characterizations.  Because newbie authors are likely to take this advice as “tack on traits that are clearly and universally flaws,” and that’s one of the worst things you can do to a character.

When I first read this advice, I took one of my viewpoint characters and gave her the flaw “crippling claustrophobia.”  I figured hey, it’s a flaw.  Something she might even have to learn to overcome.  Yay character development!  And it’ll make her a more interesting character, because she’s flawed.  And I can use it to make interesting plot developments and add all kinds of tension.  Awesome!

Boy was I wrong.

Crippling claustrophobia did almost nothing to make that character more interesting.  And this is because it ended up being a useless trait.  You see, I had thought that giving this character a flaw would give me an interesting and fun way to challenge her.   But it didn’t.  If the claustrophobia got in the way of her actions, then I ended up with a scene where she was shut down and not acting, and that’s boring.  But if the claustrophobia didn’t get in the way of her actions, then I ended up with a scene where her claustrophobia was a decoration.  Maybe interesting in an abstract sense, but ultimately unimportant.

Crippling flaws like super claustrophobia, or kryptonite, or Marty McFly losing all reason when someone calls him a chicken, those are about the most boring traits you can give a character.  They’re either causing the character to lose all agency, or they’re doing nothing.  And even when you do use them as a road for character development, the development often comes across as hokey.  A clever writer can still get some good use out of these flaws, but it’s not the kind of thing a beginning writer should try to mess with.

Now this character still has claustrophobia, but it’s toned way the fuck down.  It’s also still mostly dressing.  It’s not important to the plot and it’s only there as a curious detail.  If I manage to continue the series, then the second novel will use it as an excuse to include some important character development scenes, because I’m clever like that.  But ultimately that “flaw” does very little to further the goals that the advice was supposed to address.  And that meant the advice didn’t work.

So what advice would I give instead?  I would say that you need to give your character traits that are both virtues and flaws.

Make sure your character isn’t filled only with traits that are always serving to help the character.  Make sure that sometimes one of your character’s traits is working against them.  But don’t give them traits that are always hurting them.  Because the most interesting character traits are the ones that have different effects in different situations.

Superman is super weak to kryptonite.  But if you try to write a plot that uses that, you’ll find yourself having to jump through a ton of hoops to avoid breaking your plot.  Because taking away your hero’s agency is one of the most constricting things you can do to your plot.  And when the only way to challenge your hero is to take away his agency, your plots get seriously restricted.  It’s also extremely cheap.  The more you keep throwing kryptonite at your superman, the more your readers are going to think that you suck at coming up with ideas.  And if your weakness is a personality weakness, like Marty McFly and his reaction to being called a chicken, then you can even end up with readers who hate your character for being so frustratingly obtuse.

But superman also has some very strong moral principles.  He is very much against killing people, even horrible villains.  This is both a virtue and a vice.  It offers a way to simultaneously champion your superman while challenging him.  You can work it into scenes without it feeling lame, because the way the character trait affects the scene can vary wildly depending on the context of the scene.  Sometimes superman’s moral compass screws him over, but sometimes it’s exactly what he needs to save the day.  And because it’s a trait your readers can admire, it’s much less likely to draw their ire when it works against your hero.

Another wonderful example of this sort of character trait is Harry Potter’s flagrant disregard for the rules.  Harry follows his own moral compass, and has pretty much no trouble breaking school rules to do what needs to be done.  This is a big part of how Harry repeatedly saves the day.  He’s almost always breaking at least a dozen school rules in order to perform his heroics.  But it also gets him into all sorts of trouble.  It’s a trait that Rowling uses to generate conflict, yet it also serves as a virtue for her hero.  It’s not a one-dimensional trait that stifles the plot and grinds on the reader.  It’s a multifaceted trait that makes Harry a much more interesting and loveable character.

So don’t give your characters traits that are just flaws, especially if those a crippling flaws.  Instead, try giving your characters traits that can serve as virtues or flaws, depending on the situation.

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