So happy to welcome Jordan McCollum to the blog today, talking about something close to my heart–character strengths and weaknesses. Authors love their characters–this is fact. If they didn’t, then they wouldn’t spend the next year or two (or ten!) writing their life story.
But as much as we love our characters, and want the audience to as well, we must build in flaws. Flaws humanize a character to the reader, and give them something to overcome. So read on for ideas on how to find your character’s great weaknesses!
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Who doesn’t love a shiny new idea? Crafting a plot, scoping out your setting, creating your characters is some of the most fun many of us have in writing. Especially when you’ve got the perfect main character in mind.
Or maybe that character’s too perfect. What can you do when you know your character’s strengths, but not her flaws? Do they really need flaws?
Characters Need Flaws
While sympathetic characters must have strength, they need more than just moral or physical perfection to get the reader on board. For readers to truly identify with them, all characters need to struggle. (I doubt I need to clarify this, but just in case: struggling with how incredibly awesome s/he is doesn’t count.)
This struggle, this flaw sets up the character’s journey, either external (plot) or internal (character arc), or both.
Turning Strengths into Weaknesses
If you already know some of your character’s strengths, you’ve got a good starting point to find their weaknesses, as well. This principle creates well-rounded, realistic characters without throwing in disparate and extraneous characteristics or fake weaknesses.
Sounds contradictory, doesn’t it? The concept is actually centuries old, as Alicia Rasley explains in a blog post:
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.
Digging into Your Character’s Strengths
All this sounds great in concept, but how does this work? Here are a few examples:
My kids love Kung Fu Panda 2, but when my three-year-old requested “Panna,” all Netflix had was Kung Fu Panda: Secrets of the Furious Five. I wasn’t really paying much attention until I noticed they did this with each of these short origin stories. Mantis, for example, showed his greatest strength in his speed. That speed translated into expecting everyone else to be just as fast. When they weren’t, he was impatient with them. In his story, he had to learn patience.
To achieve the same effect, we can borrow a page from the Positive Trait Thesaurus (um, literally). Perhaps our character’s greatest strength is that she’s loyal. Taken to an extreme, that strength can become a weakness. Above all, she may stick by her brother—even when she shouldn’t, when he’s proven he’s not worthy of her loyalty, when her brother begins taking advantage of her trust, when her brother lies, cheats, steals and victimizes our main character.
This flaw helps to set up a character journey for our protagonist. She must learn when to be loyal and when not, sending her on a journey of gaining wisdom or judgment, or learning limits.
For another example, our character might be brave. She knows how to face fear and act. Sounds like a pretty good strength to have! So how can we make this into a weakness?
We might go the same direction as we did with loyalty, brainstorming how we can take that to a negative extreme. Or we might try digging deeper into the Why? behind her bravery. Why is she so brave? What in her history caused her to be brave? Was she the oldest of abandoned siblings, so she had to put on a brave front? Did she survive cancer, and now believes nothing else could be nearly that bad? Was her best friend victimized, and she’ll never let that happen to someone else?
As we discover the reasons behind this character trait, we can often discover how it’s either a weakness or hiding a weakness as well. If she’s brave because an adult role was foisted upon her at a young age, perhaps she has a tendency to take that responsibility to a level of self-blame or recrimination—or maybe she can’t tolerate people who don’t show responsibility. If she’s a survivor, she might lack empathy for people who struggle with smaller crises or who lose hope. If she’s protecting her best friend (retroactively & by proxy), she could be overprotective, closed off to others, or too mistrustful.
The events or circumstances of her backstory led to her forming a mistaken belief that guides her life now. Healing these wounds, correcting these beliefs, allows her to become the person she truly should be. And now we’re ready to execute this character arc.
What do you think? How have you used your characters’ strengths to find their weaknesses?
Jordan McCollum is the author of the romantic suspense novel I, Spy, the first book of the Spy Another Day series, with the second due out in November. She enjoys teaching writing craft through her writing craft blog at JordanMcCollum.com, as the Education Director of Authors Incognito, an online writers’ support group with over four hundred members, and now through her book CHARACTER ARCS. Coming October 28, Character Arcs lays out the steps to founding, forming and finishing your character’s internal journeys for maximum impact in your fiction.