Saturday, October 18

How To Give Your Character Meaningful Flaws

How To Give Your Character Meaningful Flaws


Let’s talk about blind spots.

We’re often told that protagonists need to be likable but it’s just as important that they have flaws.

I’ve just finished reading “Falling Angel” by William Hjortsberg. In that book the protagonist loses everything, even his identity. Which is a tragedy. He was courageous, resourceful and generally likable. It’s easy for the reader to identify with him, and if this was true for the reader I imagine it was true for the writer as well. But Hjortsberg resisted the impulse to coddle his protagonist and the book was better for it. 

That said, Hjortsberg didn’t give his protagonist, Harry Angel, just any flaws, he gave him flaws that seemed to grow organically from the core of his character. Giving a character blind spots is one way of achieving this.

What are blind spots?


A blind spot is a flaw, a weakness. For example, I have a friend who often complains about not being able to lose five pounds while she’s eating a bag of crunchy, vinegary finger-licking-good potato chips.

What creates a blind spot?


Desires create blind spots. Specifically, desires which fly in the face of strongly held beliefs either about ourselves or the world around us.

In my example, above, the desire being indulged was of the potato-chip-eating variety and the strongly held belief was that my friend was doing everything she could to try and lose weight. 

Taking this to a more serious level, a person might have a strong desire to learn the truth about a particular situation but not be able to get past the strongly held belief that their friend (or sibling, or mother, or father) is a good person and would, therefore, never do certain things.

Denial and unconscious defense mechanisms


I would, of course, never be this bold (or foolhardy!) but were I to call my friend on her chip-eating-duplicity and say, “You’d lose five pounds if you stopped eating potato chips,” what do you think her immediate reaction would be?

Yep, anger. Then she would try to justify her behavior. She would try and explain how her behavior really did, despite appearances to the contrary, fit with her desire to lose weight. 

Most folks, when it’s made clear to them that one or more of their behaviors flies in the face of a real or stated desire will attempt to justify it rather than change. “Oh this package of potato chips is so small and it’s only one bag. It’s not like I have one every day.” Or, “You’re right! This will be my last one, I’ll stop tomorrow.”

How to make bad things happen to good characters


Writers have to be the bad guy. They have to be mean to their characters. (Don’t Flinch)

As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, one of the ways we can lead our characters to ruin is by giving them blind spots.

The ones I’ve talked about so far are relatively mild. To show you the kind of blind spots that can make for great literature let’s take another look at “Falling Angel.” Here the protagonist, Harry Angel, has a core belief, one you and I likely share: I know who I am. Harry couldn’t have been more wrong. 

When Harry Angel finally realizes he has been blind, that he has believed a lie, it is far too late for him to save either himself or the girl he has come to love.

Creating Character Flaws: How to Use Your Character’s strengths against them


I’d never thought much about blind spots and how they can be used to create tragedy until I sat in on a workshop Bob Mayer taught at the Surrey International Writing Conference. Mayer gave some wickedly useful examples of how your character’s strengths can suggest desires which can, in turn, be used to create character flaws.

An Example: Loyalty


Loyalty is an excellent trait for a protagonist to have. Since we, as humans, tend to believe that other people are like us—that they have the same desires and strengths and weaknesses we ourselves do—people who are loyal tend to believe that other people, especially those they consider their friends, are loyal as well. (Also at work here is the principle that it’s much easier for a person to believe a statement they want to be true than it is for one they want to be false.)

Underlying need/drive/desire:
- To trust others and to be trusted in return.

Temptation:
To see the world as you would like to see it, not as it actually is. This can lead to (at least) two weaknesses:
- Gullible. The need to trust others can make a hero gullible. They want to trust others even if, deep down, they know they shouldn’t.
- Unreasonable skepticism. Often when a person has trusted someone when they shouldn’t have—and been harmed because of it—they can swing to the other end of the spectrum and not trust anyone, even someone who has proven themselves trustworthy.

Blind Spot:
- Here is the loyal character’s blind spot (or at least one of them): Even though he’s let me down in the past, this time will be different.

Another Example: Competitiveness


Let’s say a character is naturally competitive. That can be a very good thing.

Underlying need/drive/desire:
- To achieve, to conquer.

Temptation:
- To achieve and to conquer no matter the cost, no matter who it destroys in the process.

Blind Spot:
- My drive to achieve isn’t hurting anyone.

In conclusion


If you ever have a chance I highly recommend Bob Mayer’s writing workshops. I haven’t read it (I’m still snailing my way through Robert McKee’s excellent book, “Story”) but his book The Novel Writer’s Toolkit comes highly recommended.

What blind spots have you given your characters?

Photo credit: "Cat's shadow" by Marina del Castell under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

4 comments:

  1. I don't think in terms of flaws. That's too Greek-tragedy for my taste.

    I think in terms of strengths and weaknesses. These are the sides of a coin. Every strength can become a weakness, and every weakness a strength.

    You mentioned loyalty. Our first impression is to regard loyalty as a strength, but John Grisham's loyalty to his friend Holleman blinded him to Holleman's sins and became a weakness.

    Loyalty is a good trait to explore. I write about it a lot.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Antares! Liked your example.

      Delete
    2. I refer to them as the gas peddle and the brakes, which are personality traits that would propel a character into an action and one that would prevent him from action. But I write with an idea of where I want the story to go, and see if I can convince the character to do it by utilizing the things I know about him, which many authors don't. Didn't make the connection of Greek-tragedy, but now I totally see it.

      On another note, I've never thought of the blind spot before, and it seems like a pretty useful concept, especially to help develop my characters' conflicts. It's fun to think about.

      Delete
    3. The gas pedal and the brakes, I like that! Thanks for sharing. :-)

      Delete

Because of the number of bots leaving spam I had to prevent anonymous posting. My apologies to anyone this inconveniences, I wish I didn't have to do it. I do appreciate each and every comment.