Character Development: Exploiting Weaknesses

Photo credit: Karen Roe on Flickr
Earlier this week, I wrote about the dangers of writing invincible characters, and today I’m covering a related topic, which if used correctly can help you to avoid creating the aforementioned problematic characters.

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?


Tony Dutson said...

Good points! I like in Robert McGee's, 'Story,' that we like characters with weakness' more because it makes them more like us and we can identify with them better.

J. A. Bennett said...

Some great examples here. Showing the flaws are really what make our characters seem relateable and strong. Nobodies perfect!

Ava Jae said...

I think the ability to identify with a character who displays weakness is huge--it's very difficult to connect to a "perfect" character without a single flaw. They don't actually exist in real life, so why create them on the page?

Ava Jae said...

You're absolutely right. Thanks, Jenny! :)

Margaret Alexander said...

I honestly can't picture or write a character without first giving them a weakness. To me, that defines character, often more than their strength. Great post, Ava, and excellent examples!

Kaitlin Hillerich said...

Great post! This is one of the things that is bothering me about YA--a lot of the characters are too perfect. Especially love interests! What is up with that?? I don't want a perfect guy like Edward Cullen! I want a flawed one who I can love despite his shortcomings!

Like Sam in Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater. His fear of bathtubs made him seem more human, and when you find out the reason why it breaks your heart and you love him even more.

Heather M Bryant said...

My character started off with Superhuman syndrome but I've long cut that out. Without even realising it, I put a claustrophobic character smack bang in a tiny city surrounded by mountains. Her need to get out of there is what drives her into trouble.

Ava Jae said...

I haven't read Shiver, but I like that--a fear of bathtubs. It sounds amusing, but I'm sure the reasoning behind it helps to deepen his character (and make any readers who may have been initially amused by it feel a little guilty).

Also, I really like what you said about wanting a flawed character who can love despite his shortcomings. I absolutely agree--flawed characters always win in my book.

Ava Jae said...

I think Superman syndrome can happen very easily in the first draft. It's one of those things that we have to remember to keep an eye out for (if you know you have a penchant for it) while revising.

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...