Making Heroes Heroic–Why Flaws are Important
What makes a hero or heroine? That is a question that has been wrestled for centuries, and the battle lives on. My POV? In good fiction there are two parallel arcs, the plot arc and the character arc. The protagonist, in the beginning, should possess some weakness or flaw that would make it impossible for him/her to solve the story problem and be triumphant if the Big Boss Battle happened right then. Often this weakness or flaw is one of character (protagonist is hot-headed) not logistics (I.e. protagonist is outnumbered by the enemy).
The protagonist might be a fraidy cat who is spooked by her own shadow (Joan Wilder in Romancing the Stone) or an impetuous spitfire looking for a fight who needs to learn control, self-discipline, and tangible fighting skills (Danny Larusso in Karate Kid).
The Flaw Makes the Characters Relatable
All of us struggle with something. Everyone’s strongest asset is also their greatest liability (blind spot). Tenacity is a wonderful characteristic that has the power to change the world, but persistence looks a lot like stupid if we are going the wrong direction and refuse to turn around.
I know my greatest strength is I can see the good in everybody. Want to know my greatest weakness? I see the good in everybody. I tend to be on the naive side and have been taken advantage of. We all have this shadow side. If we are ambitious, we also tend to walk over people and forget they have feelings. If we are sensitive and kind, we also risk being a doormat.
The Flaw Creates the Hook
I see a lot of new writers who start the book with the world’s perfect character, and that is a mistake. Why? Because we (the audience) can’t relate. Flaws are part of what bind us as humans, and that initial flaw is often responsible for the hook. We all hear how we need to hook readers early. Often “hooking the reader” has less to do with ninjas and terrorists and more to do with being able to make readers relate to the protagonist, step into his or her shoes and care.
When Danny Larusso (Karate Kid) is beaten up by bullies, we relate. We know what it is like to be victimized, and so we become vested and we want to see his journey through to the end. We are…hooked.
The Flaw Creates the Tension
Let’s talk a second about Romancing the Stone. If Joan Wilder had been more like Lara Croft from Tomb Raider, would the story have been as interesting? We have no worries that zillionaire Lara Croft with her secret lab and arsenal and ninjitsu training can rescue her sister from thieves. But what about the timid romance author who talks to her cat?
When we meet Joan Wilder, we are all wondering the same thing. How the heck is she going to pull this off? With Lara Croft, we don’t worry, and I feel that is why movies based off video games are less satisfying as stories. We all want to see the CGI, perhaps, but the story is limited because the characters are “perfect.”
We can’t relate with being a zillionaire with a secret lab, but we can relate to being afraid and out of our depth. This is why Romancing the Stone will be a movie enjoyed by all generations, while Tomb Raider will look cheesy and dumb the second that the CGI improves.
We need real characters who make real decisions…most of them dumb. We all do dumb stuff and that is often when we have the most conflict, drama and tension in our lives. Characters with flaws will act out those flaws. It is the plot (story problem) and the other characters (mentor, allies, minions) who will hit these pain points and create change. Good fiction is birthed by poor choices and if all our characters are fully self-actualized and never do anything stupid, it makes for dull fiction.
Understand the Flaw and Understand the Plot and the Party
When we create our protagonist, we need to give them flaws and they need to be forgivable flaws. I think this was a HUGE mistake in the Star Wars prequels. The journey of Annakin Skywalker stopped when he became a little-kid-killer. After that point in the movie, I didn’t care what happened to him so long as it was extraordinarily painful. There was no redeeming a little-kid-killer.
So assuming we as writers can stay away from unforgivable flaws, these are the pain points for plotting. If our protagonist is a control freak, put her in situations where he has no control (M’Lynn, played by Sally Fields in Steel Magnolias). If your protagonist is a free spirit clown used to no rules, put him somewhere with strict rules and regulations (John played by Bill Murray in Stripes).
This extends to allies as well. The best allies are going to help drive that character arc. Often they will represent that element that needs to change. This is why it will generate so much tension. The tension is from growing pains.
Think about the series Bones. Special Agent Booth is a reckless cowboy who charges in using gut instinct and intuition. He is paired with Dr. Temperance Brennan aka “Bones.” If she were any more analytical, she’d be a cyborg. She has a hard time connecting emotionally. Booth needs to learn to think and Bones needs to learn to feel. Each buttresses the other’s weaknesses and make each other grow in weak areas, thereby strengthening the partnership. Yet, at the same time, Booth and Bones continually clash, and it is this tension between personalities that drives much of the story tension.
Flaws Help Provide the Victory
How we can tell the protagonist has grown is, whatever stood in the protagonist’s path in the beginning of the adventure, he/she now overcomes willingly. This is the moment when the protagonist is promoted to the title of hero/heroine. The plot cannot be fully satisfied and the problem cannot be resolved until the protagonist faces his or her shadow side and chooses a different path. The reckless spitfire maintains his cool. The fraidy cat writer charges in after the thieves. The browbeaten housewife yells TOWANDA! and stands up for herself and we all cheer. The bigger the flaw, the sweeter the victory.
Plot is important. We should strive to create an interesting problem, but when we really understand character, this is when the most basal of problems can become intricate and brilliant. A so-so plot can become extraordinary with the right cast of characters. If you need a good reference book, I recommend Bob Mayer’s Novel Writer’s Toolkit and James Scott Bell’s The Art of War for Writers. So what are your thoughts? What are some of your favorite character flaws? Do you find you gravitate to books and movies that have characters who are struggling with the same issues you do?
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***Changing the contest.
It is a lot of work to pick the winners each week. Not that you guys aren’t totally worth it, but with the launch of WANA International and WANATribe I need to streamline. So I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).
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