|Photo credit: Karen Roe on Flickr|
Just as everyone has a weakness (and most of us, many weaknesses), our characters should struggle with faults as well—whether it’s a debilitating fear of butterflies, an injury that never fully healed, or an inability to trust others, the most realistic of characters struggle with various flaws. Once these weaknesses have been established, it’s our job as the writer to exploit them.
Now I’m not saying that because I’m a sadist (although it is helpful for writers to be in touch with their inner sadist), but because there are many advantages to exploiting our characters’ flaws:
- It gives us opportunity to deepen our characters. With the exception of whiny protagonists, most characters don’t like to reveal their weaknesses—and they certainly don’t enjoy facing them. But forcing your characters to confront their flaws not only make your characters stronger (when they overcome their weaknesses, anyway), but gives your readers a good look at a side of your characters usually hidden away.
- It provides extra scenes/plot opportunities. This point doesn’t really need much explaining—those weaknesses don’t exploit themselves, you know.
- It cures Superman syndrome. I know that Superman technically has a weakness (kryptonite), but those invincible characters I mentioned earlier fit under this category, and the easy cure is to give them weaknesses and let them be affected by them. Fighting flaws helps to humanize your characters and make them relatable. When your characters start to feel the burn—push harder. They’ll turn out stronger (character wise, at least) and more developed because of it.
But don’t take my word for it. Here are some quick examples of this very technique used by authors:
- Insurgent (Veronica Roth)—an injury Tris receives at the end of Divergent lasts for more than a couple of pages in Insurgent, while a decision she made around the same time she received her injury plagues her with debilitating guilt and panic attacks throughout the course of the sequel.
- The Return of the King (J.R.R. Tolkien)—Pippin’s curiosity gets the best of him and he steals the seeing stone from Gandalf, nearly dies when he sees the eye of Sauron, and leads Sauron to believe that he (not Frodo) has the ring. While this does help Frodo, it also puts Pippin’s life in danger.
- Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (J.K. Rowling)—Let’s not forget the classic with a certain arachnophobic Ron facing the acromantula Aragog and his…err…children in the Dark Forest.
In the end, delving into our characters’ flaws provides us with ample opportunity to challenge our characters and further the plot—opportunities that we would miss without a healthy dose of writer sadism.
Do you exploit your characters’ weaknesses? What other examples of this technique can you think of?