Tuesday, January 21, 2014
10 Reasons Our Hero Needs Flaws
with guest Angela Ackerman.
When we see the word Hero, we think heroic, which is ironic because our protagonists are usually anything but at the start of a story. Instead they are often jaded, lost or incomplete in some way, toting along a collection of flaws and false beliefs about the world and themselves. But that’s okay, because characters that fascinate readers most are layered, complex, and most of all, human. Brainstorming flaws can be difficult—which faults to choose, how many to give them and why, but here are ten reasons why all heroes need them.
1) TO CREATE REALISM AND EMPATHY
In real life, people have faults-no one is perfect. It stands to reason that for a character to be believable, he also must be flawed. Readers are people too, ones who are as prone to poor choices, mistakes, and overreactions due to their shortcomings as our hero is. When they see the fallout created by a character’s faults, they empathize, knowing just how it feels to screw up. And as the character learns more about himself and works toward overcoming his flaws to reach his goals, the reader will cheer him on because the desire to achieve self-growth is universal.
2) TO UNDERSTAND BACKSTORY
To write a compelling character, it isn’t enough to slap a few attributes and flaws into their personality and then throw them at the story. Fascinating characters come about by understanding who they are at their core. If you know a character’s flaws, you can brainstorm their past to better understand what experiences made these negative traits form. Backstory is valuable to know (for you as the author, not to dump into the story) because it helps you plot out what motivates them, how they will behave (their choices, mannerisms, pet peeves, etc.), and what they avoid to keep from being emotionally hurt. Knowing these details means you’ll be able to write them authentically, making them real to readers. (If you would like help brainstorming your character’s past, I recommend trying the Reverse Backstory Tool.)
3) TO CAUSE RELATIONSHIP FRICTION: When everyone gets along, a story flat lines. Flaws act as sandpaper in a relationship, rubbing characters against one another to create delicious friction. A flaw vs. flaw (sloppiness pitted against a perfectionist) or a flaw vs. an attribute (inflexibility vs. free-spiritedness) both build tension and conflict which draws readers in, quickens the pace and raises personal & relationship stakes. For more detail, here’s an article on How to Create Friction In Relationships.
4) TO CREATE CONFLICT: Flaws mean blind spots, biases, pet peeves and irrational emotional reactions to name a few. All of these things cause the hero to mess up along the way, creating conflict. A story road paved with mistakes, misjudgements and poor choices amp up tension at all levels, and make it even harder for the character to succeed. The antagonist can turn the hero’s mistakes to his own advantage, becoming an even greater threat.
5) TO PROVIDE A BALANCE: If a hero has too many strengths (positive attributes), not only will he come across as unrealistic, it will be too easy for him to succeed. This makes the story predictable because as conflict pops up, there are no flaws to hamper the hero’s efforts or create setbacks, and he will always win. Readers want to see a hero struggle, because it makes the victories so much sweeter. Failure is also important to a character’s arc: he must hit bottom before he can succeed.
6) TO REVEAL EMOTIONAL WOUNDS: Flaws bloom into being as a false protective measure when a person suffers an emotional wound. Why false? Because while they appear to “protect” a person from bad experiences (emotional pain), they actually hold back growth and damage relationships. Take a girl who grows up with parents who have high standards. They only bestow affection when she proves herself to be the best and so later in life, she equates anything less than perfection as failure. She may become a workaholic, inflexible, and overachieve, all to protect herself from feeling low self-worth at not measuring up (thanks for that, Mom and Dad!). Flaws are guideposts to these deep emotional wounds, something every author should know about their characters as it ties directly into Character Arc (see below).
7) TO GENERATE INNER CONFLICT: Inner conflict is the place where the characters faults (flaws) and negative thoughts (I’ll never be good enough, I’ll never find love, I’m not worthy, etc.) reside. Good story structure dictates that a protagonist’s flaws should be counterproductive to achieving his goal and that his negative thoughts should sabotage his self-worth. These things are what the hero must face about himself and change. Only through subduing his flaws will he have a chance at achieving his goal.
8) TO BE A FORCE FOR CHANGE: Flaws get in the way at the worst times, pressuring the character to act. Let’s say our hero is determined to take control of his family’s struggling company, but he’s notoriously irresponsible. To keep the business afloat, he must apply himself. His desire to not disappoint the people counting on him force him to take a hard look inward at his own irresponsibility, which he must change to succeed.
9) TO ENCOURAGE SELF-GROWTH: As I mentioned before, one of the core needs of all people is to grow as a person. Growth is tied to happiness and fulfillment, so if your characters has flaws, small ones or big ones, showing him overcome them allows him to feel satisfied and happier, and will resonate with readers who are on their own journey of self-improvement.
10) TO COMPLETE THE CHARACTER’S ARC: Flaws shouldn’t be random—each flaw forms from a negative past experience. In Character Arc, there should be at least one core flaw that stands in the character’s way (see inner conflict) of achieving his goal. For the character to win (his outer motivation) he must face his fears, deal with the emotional wounds of his past, and see that achieving his goal is more important that the risk of suffering another emotional wound. Only by subduing his core flaw and banishing his negative thoughts can he be free of fear. This necessary self-growth will help him find the strength needed to achieve his goal.
Whew, that’s a lot of heavy stuff! Who knew that flaws were so important?
Like so many things in writing, we can draw parallels between ourselves and our world & the character and his story world. When we look at our own faults, we see what we tend to avoid and what we fear. We can use this same filter for our characters, using the flaws we hobble then with to steer the story. (If you’d like some tips on how to choose the right flaws for your protagonist, just follow this link!)
ANGELA ACKERMAN is a writing coach and co-author of the bestselling writing resource, The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide To Character Expression, as well as the newly released Positive Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide To Character Attributes and its darker cousin, The Negative Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Flaws. You can find her on Twitter, Facebook and at Writers Helping Writers (formerly The Bookshelf Muse).
Today Seekerville will be giving away the winner's choice of one of Angela's books in ebook format. Winner announced in the Weekend Edition. But you have to comment to win!