If there’s one thing I can’t stomach when reading or watching a movie, it’s flawless characters. Going back to Part III of this series, protagonists certainly need to be awesome in one respect or another, but there should be at least one area of their life in which they, well, kinda suck.
Sherlock Holmes (if you don’t watch the BBC show, Sherlock, you’re missing out!) is an unparalleled detective, but has lousy people skills. Katniss Everdeen is selfless, brave, and unrivaled with a bow and arrow, but she sometimes acts impulsively and doesn’t follow orders. Woody from the first Toy Story film is charming and charismatic, but is also selfish and jealous, fixated on being Andy’s favorite toy. Elizabeth from Pride and Prejudice is self-assured with a quick wit and keen mind, but also hugely capable of making poor judgments.
Characters need balance. They should have positive qualities and be excellent at one or two things, but they shouldn’t be perfect. If they’re the best at something, they should also be the worst at something. This is where conflict dwells. The space between Elizabeth Bennett simultaneously having a good head on her shoulders and a huge grudge in her heart is so taut with tension that readers and audiences are spellbound as they watch her story unfold. And on a more practical level, flawless people are, frankly, boring and unbelievable.
Just as the best bad guys are the ones who are layered and complex (I love Gollum in The Lord of the Rings!) with qualities with whom your audience can empathize, the same goes for your M.C. When your hero is truly “good” in all situations, he is one-dimensional and uninteresting. We have no reason to fear for them because we know they will always do the right thing and come out on top. However, if you establish early on that your hero has weaknesses from which they’re hiding or of which they’re oblivious, then it’s easy for your audience to fear.
There are two kinds of character flaws, a psychological weakness and a moral weakness.
A psychological weakness is a character trait within your main character that is ruining his life. For Woody, this is jealousy, which undermines his ability to lead. For my protagonist Iris in Moonbow, it’s deep-seated hatred and bitterness. A moral weakness is a character flaw that harms the main character and also other people. Keep in mind that weakness is not a disease, like diabetes or drug addiction, but a choice. Therefore, it’s important that you identify the root cause of your M.C.’s moral weakness, and not just its symptoms. Look at your character’s psychological weaknesses and see what moral weaknesses might stem from them. Woody’s jealousy, for example, led him to unsuccessfully try and trap Buzz Lightyear behind a desk, which only led to a series of unfortunate events (yay, more conflict!)
We can’t forget that a character flaw might also be something inherently “good,” like being too trusting, innocent, or generous. In Gladiator, for instance, it was Maximus’s integrity and loyalty to Marcus Aurelius that caused him to walk away from pledging allegiance to Commodus, therefore putting himself and his family in danger. In The Princess Bride, it was Westley’s deep love for Buttercup that led him to leave so that he could earn enough money to marry her, a decision that almost got him killed and gave wicked Humperdinck time to snatch her up for himself. To turn a positive trait into a character flaw, think about how it might harm the character and hurt other people.
I hope you’ve found this week’s tips helpful! Please comment below with your own tips and/or requests for future posts! Also, send me a tweet @dandersontyler and tell me what you’re writing about – I’d love to connect!
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