Flip the coin

Filed under: Craft

Feb 15 2011

Ever struggled to identify the ‘fatal’ flaw in your character? That one personality trait that constantly gets him or her into hot water? The one that just might cause a black moment between the two main characters?

There are lots of flaws to choose from; as humans, we suffer from many.

But one place to look for a flaw, if you’re having trouble defining one, is within the character’s strength. Most writers have no trouble describing the utter awesomeness that is their main character. They instinctively know what unique skills she has, what finer qualities he possesses. But strengths are funny things. They are often two-sided, like a coin. There’s the side that makes your hero or heroine shine, and the side that’s a little tarnished. Let me give you an example.

Let’s say your hero is a police officer, and you decide his strength is that he’s selfless. This is a guy who defends the weak and rescues the innocent. Very heroic, right? What could be flawed about that?

Surprisingly, there are several possibilities:

- If he leaps to the defense of the helpless all the time, is he careful about his own safety? Or is he the type to lay his life on the line every time? I could see that causing problems with his heroine, couldn’t you?

- If he really enjoys saving people, maybe he makes assumptions about their ability to handle danger. Wrong assumptions. I could see that causing problems with his heroine, couldn’t you?

Let’s pick another one. Perhaps you decide your heroine’s strength is that she’s independent and self-reliant. The not-so-wonderful side might look like this:

- If she’s self-reliant, she might have a bee in her bonnet about asking for help. Which means she probably won’t, until it’s too late. I could see that causing problems with the hero, couldn’t you?

- If she’s independent and strong, she might see attempts to smooth her path as suggestions that she’s incapable of handling things herself. I could see that causing problems with the hero, couldn’t you?

- Strong, self-assured people can occasionally be abrasive, rubbing people the wrong way, especially when they are under stress. I could see that causing problems with the hero, couldn’t you?

One more? What if you give your heroine a strength of intelligence? Is there a negative side to that? Yes.

- If she’s smart, she often knows all the answers. If she regularly shares those answers, she can inadvertently make other people feel stupid. Think Temperance Brennan on Bones. I could see that causing problems with the hero, couldn’t you?

- If she’s smart, she might think two or three steps ahead of other people she’s working with, leading to her facing the villain without support. I could see that causing problems with the hero, couldn’t you?

So, next time you’re stuck trying to identify a character’s flaw, flip the strength coin.

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