Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Character Flaws: Equal and Opposite

by Robin Spano

Question of the week: Many readers say that they prefer a protagonist with flaws to a model of perfection. Did you intentionally give your protagonist flaws, and if so, what are they? What flaws are you uncomfortable with?

My Answer:

When I was kid, maybe twelve or thirteen, I remember my mom telling me that a person's strongest trait would almost always be her weakest point. I forget the context. My best guess is that she was about to begin a sentence with, “While I admire your stubborn individuality...” But after that conversation, I started studying people like they were flip sides of the same coin.

Much to my annoyance, I found that she was right. My best friend at the time could be very superficial—but her superficial side was a lot of fun. Another friend could be oversensitive, take things wrong—but, not surprisingly, this was the friend who was most sensitive in a time of need.

When I'm developing a character, I don't consciously add flaws. But if a character has a strength, it usually follows that they have a flaw that's in counterpoint to that strength.

One of the most dramatic examples I've seen is Natalie Portman's character in Black Swan. She portrays a young girl so desperate to be the top ballerina that she channels all of her energy obsessively into that goal. And she makes it. But the very obsession that drives her to achieve greatness has driven her insane.

My writing is not this dramatic, but the same principle applies. Clare Vengel's strongest skill is the ability to go undercover convincingly—to dive into a cover role, immerse herself into the suspects' world, and quickly become accepted into their inner circle. But, like a method actor, she has a tendency to dive in too well. She begins to live the life of the character she portrays, and often needs her handlers to remind her to focus on clue-gathering, not just taking a vacation in someone else's skin.

Secondary characters are the same. A brilliant musician might have a tendency toward alcoholism or addiction because of their sensual love for getting lost in another world. A genius at the poker table might treat their real world friends like adversaries in a game. Someone who is steadfastly honest might alienate herself by speaking the truth indiscriminately.

So while I don't intentionally give a character a flaw in first draft mode, I know that for every strong point they have, it should be matched by a weakness that's equal and opposite. And if it's not there, then the second draft should hammer that in.

1 comment:

Meredith Cole said...

Thanks, Robin! This is a great way to look at character traits, flaws and strengths. Love your examples...