Thursday, March 6, 2008

Question about strengths and weaknesses

Frances asks:

How do you create well-rounded characters most effectively? I constantly read articles about giving (or identifying) the strengths and weaknesses of your characters—and other than picking off a list of "character traits" the traits (and flaws) I think my character might possess, I never know how to answer this question best. I was curious if there was a writing exercise in which you could "identify the strength and weakness" of your protagonist without looking at a list of traits or answering questions like: "how do you take your coffee? What color are your eyes?"


Actually, I wrote an article about this once... let me see if I can find it. BTW, there are a lot of character-oriented articles in the archive of my website:

Alicia's Writer's Corner website

Here you go--

Don't think of strengths and weaknesses as two separate types of traits-- they are closely related, at least in heroic characters. (As for me, my strengths and weaknesses are usually completely incompatible, but no one is writing a novel about me!)

The heroic flaw is what opens the protagonist up to real trouble-- what causes him (and it generally WAS a him in the past :) to seek out trouble or fail to resolve it expeditiously. But here's the clever part-- the heroic flaw was often the other side of the heroic strength: "That which makes him great brings him down." (I'm paraphrasing, maybe bowdlerizing, Aristotle here!) This is so elegant, so classy, so inspiring, that even today novels can be transformed by that equation.

Aristotle used Oedipus as a model (and let me just say, both the play and A's analysis are as brilliant now as ever before-- Oedipus is, in fact, not only a nearly perfectly plotted story, but the first great detective fiction!). He and I sort of disagree about Oedipus's heroic flaw (we have a lot of arguments about this, me and Aristotle , and he usually ends up conceding I have a point), but we're in the same ball park. Aristotle attributed Oedipus's downfall to the heroic flaw of "hubris"-- overweening pride, or what one of my college freshmen called "stuck-on-himselfness". And I have to admit, Oedipus did think he was something special. He even early on admits that yes, maybe his admirers are correct, and he really is just as smart as any god.

Well, you know what the gods do to guys like that. Give them boils. :)

They didn't give Oedipus boils, but they did sort of ruin his day. He was just too proud of his intellect, Aristotle said, and it made him take chances he should never take.

Well, I yield to none in my admiration of The Big A, but I think he sort of missed the mark himself there-- I'm making a pun of sorts there! He called the flaw "hamartia," an archery term that means "missing the mark". (Talk about hubris.... here I am, giving Aristotle an A for effort and a B- for evidence. :) I think Oedipus's heroic flaw was curiosity-- his need to find the truth. (Actually, his hubris was based on his belief that he above all was uniquely qualified to find the truth, because he was the Riddle Solver.)

Notice that truth-seeking/curiosity is a STRENGTH. It's so much a central strength to Oedipus that it earned him a throne and a wife (by his solving the riddle of the sphinx) and so of course he cherishes it in himself.

But because it is so central to who he is, he can't just give it up. He can't stop being curious and seeking the truth. In fact, even though Tiresias, the blind prophet, warns him, ""You don't want to know the truth," Oedipus keeps seeking the truth. And it's that truth-- not the
defiance of the gods-- that brings him down, because what he learns is terrible.

You can see that his central strength/heroic flaw is what ends up making trouble for him.

Now Hamlet also has a central strength-- deliberateness. Analysis. He is very good at thinking things through. He takes his time and does research. He's a student, a scholar. He likes to reason everything out. He doesn't act without due consideration.

A very good strength. But... look what happens because he has to gather evidence, do research, think things through-- people keep DYING. If he would have been impulsive and thoughtless and as soon as Dad asked him to get revenge, killed Claudius, well, all those other deaths would never have happened. It's his very deliberateness, his need for analysis, that doomed them all. That is, none of this trouble would have happened if he didn't have this particular central strength/heroic flaw.

We need flaws. Only by being flawed can we find room to grow. (So flawed is GOOD. :) A perfect protagonist is an unlikeable protagonist.

Let me tell you what happens when you endow your protagonist too generously:

I was once critiquing a manuscript for a writer who assured me I'd adore the hero. He was everything a man should be: Handsome but humble, tough but sensitive, wealthy but egalitarian, serious but humorous, elegant yet simple.... When there was a problem, he instantly solved it. When there was a hurt, he instantly fixed it. He was a famous writer who had his own rock band but composed classical music on the side, and on Sunday he preached a dynamic sermon (in both English and Spanish) to the church he founded down among the homeless and displaced. Needless to say, women fell at his feet and begged for his attention. There was nothing-- nothing-- that the plot could throw at him that he couldn't handle with aplomb. Everyone had to love him.

I hated him.

Call me envious, spiteful, inferior. But I thought he came across as a sanctimonious, smug prig. Not to mention that anyone with so many exceptional qualities and such huge success in the world doesn't need my sympathy/empathy/caring/identification. In fact, he made me feel
inadequate and unpolished. :)

Surely I'm not the only reader who sees someone this perfect, this lofty, and thinks right off -- so when does he get killed and the real hero arrive?

The other problem is-- with perfect characters who have strengths with no corresponding flaw, it's hard to plot, because whatever trouble comes up, they can handle. (They never CREATE trouble, of course! They're too good for that.) There's no conflict because we know the author would never let any real harm come to this perfect creation.

And fiction is all about change, but why would he bother to change?

Where's the need to change? He's perfect as is. He doesn't need love or self-knowledge or a new attitude. He doesn't need anything.

That's why imperfect, incomplete characters are more interesting. First, we imperfect readers can identify with them. But, in terms of structure, the imperfect protagonist makes the three-dimensional story possible. The character moving through the external plot is a story of only two dimensions. The internal story, the process of psychological or emotional or life change, provides the depth that takes this story into three dimensions.

So if you've been told your story or character is "flat", here's how you can add depth– give that protagonist an internal plot. And that requires room for growth. Imperfection, incompleteness. A heroic flaw. Nope, not an unheroic flaw. (Oh, she can also be crabby in morning and have PMS, but her main flaw should be a heroic one, or we'll assume she deserves her downfall! :)

This will help you individualize your plot because you'll figure out how this particular person with this particular combo of strength/flaw will respond to each plot event. After all, we generally have a default response-- we lead with our strength. If I'm called upon to make a decision and I'm intuitive, I'll naturally use my intuition to make this decision. If instead I'm deliberate, I'll deliberate about it, just like Hamlet, before deciding. So early in the book, the protagonist will be using that strength to respond to the plot events, and that will make the book go off in a direction driven not by custom or cliche, but by this character.

So think about that-- what is your character's central, defining strength, and what problems is that going to cause?



Anonymous said...

On the other hand, writing obviously flawed characters - or 'people with a lesson to learn' is easy. I think it's one of the reasons why we get so much coming-of-age in fantasy - the world is fresh for them, and they need to learn to navigate it.

But only too often I find myself muttering 'you idiot, can't you see-' They can't, and it's plausible that they shouldn't, and it leads to tragic stories - but ones I can quickly overdose on.

Finding ways for an already well-rounded, mature character to change and improve is more of a challenge, but for me, the payoffs are greater. Take Lizzie Bennet. (I love that book. So sue me.) Her behavior is, at all times, sensible and mature. One almost wishes that she would allow herself to fall a little bit _more_ for Wickham, let her hair down a bit - but I'm right there with her, and I condone everything she does.

And then she goes and looks at her own behaviour and finds flaws with it, and vows to do better; and it's always a bit of a shock to find that underneath a layer of perfectly mature, perfectly honourable behaviour there might be another that it is worth to strive for; and *that* packs a punch that a simple 'man learns lesson' (or does not learn lesson and perishes tragically) cannot.

That is not to say that I would not have hated the perfect hero; but that I would want to read a book in which he changes and becomes more human, more himself.

Anonymous said...

When I first discovered edittorrent, I went through Alicia's website, using it as a primer, if you like, and a really good reminder of things I needed to do. This was one of the articles I remember. My heroes are always flawed. I think they have to be because most 'real' heroes end up dead through their heroism. Someone said something to me once and it's always stuck in my brain. he said - I don't want to read about ordinary people doing ordinary things. I want to read about ordinary people doing extraordinary things.

We can identify with the flaws much better, I think.


Dave Shaw said...

There's also something to be said for stories about extraordinary people, as long as those extraordinary people have flaws that make them human and not gods. Otherwise, why would there be superheroes, for example? We just need to find the right mix of abilities and flaws for the story that we want to tell and the audience that we want to reach, I think.

Anonymous said...

One of the things that have come out of my writing is that I find very few people and lives boring. Most people have a story to tell, most people are showing extraordinary traits _somewhere_ - and it is up to the writer to show what makes seemingly ordinary characters extraordinary.

Anonymous said...

It is the ordinary person, though who will go into the burning house to rescue a child. That person is a hero because of his extraordinary act.

The historical figures like Alexander the Great etc are also extraordinary and are just as much fun to write about as the ordinary folk, but sometimes we 'expect' such feats from rulers/leaders, so they don't seem so extraordinary. It doesn't make either stronger or weaker, just different.