Yesterday I looked at flaws in characters which in my opinion, is most often missing in stories.
Now let’s look at the flaws which people usually do include, but end up getting wrong.
“Make your characters flawed” is the usual writing advice. The current state of pop culture feels like three-quarters of the writers out there have misunderstood this advice as an excuse to make jerk characters. Apparently they have all missed the obvious that a flawed character isn’t necessarily a jerk, but about being an incomplete character that needs something from the story.
The other part of the character’s flaw I’ll look at today. I would dare say this one is even more obvious because attempts are at least visible, even if the execution is poor.
So previously I made a super simple example story. It was incredibly boring. It was so boring I wouldn’t blame you at all if you forgot it by the time you read these words. So I’m going to post it again:
Bob was hungry.
So Bob went to the kitchen and made a sandwich.
He ate it.
Why is this story so boring? Well because while Bob has the first part of being flawed – needing to eat, he is missing the second part of it: a hinderance in fulfilling the first flaw.
This is so obvious people seem to miss it so I really want to stress this point: being mortal does not innately fulfill this flaw.
There’s a lot of ways to describe this aspect. Obstacle probably leaps to a lot of people’s minds, but a story will fail, if an obstacle is not sufficient for the character.
Look at the example story. By all I’ve said, Bob is a perfectly ordinary human being. He can walk and lives in a time with food preservation so all he has to go is twenty feet and do a few light motions to get himself a sandwich. It is no argument for me to say “Bob is not a god, he can’t just conjure a sandwich out of thin air” and claim that’s his flaw which makes the twenty feet trek an epic saga worthy of a movie adaption. No if I want the story to be interesting, I need to up the challenge.
Bob was hungry.
But his kitchen was on the other side of a hundred miles of hellish volcanic rock teeming with fire elementals and dragons filling the skies.
See? NOW the story might be interesting. Now we have both flaws with Bob – he is hungry, and he is not fireproof.
This is incredibly obvious in romances. Two characters have the basic flaw of needing the other, so then a societal taboo or kidnapping or some other challenge will keep the two characters apart for several hundred pages of the novel or two hours runtime.
So let’s take a moment to sum up. First part of a character’s flaw is answering the question: “What does this character lack, and aim to gain in the story?” The second part of their flaw is answering the question: “Why can’t this character accomplish their aim right away?”
While there are a lot of ways to answer and execute this, figuring out how to do it well can be tricky. I repeatedly use magic as a metaphor for writing because that’s a fairly obvious way to judge something. If the audience can see your hands move, or spot the card up your sleeve, or see the wires, it’s not a good magic trick. Likewise you want to keep the author’s hand as invisible in your story as possible. If your audience looks at scene and asks the above question: “Why can’t [protagonist] get what they want here?” and the only answer* available is “because the writer is holding them back” the story has failed.
If you have an antagonist fighting against the protagonist, then you need to have the antagonist winning over the protagonist every time until the end. Is it the setting itself? Then never let up the pressure for a minute and make sure the protagonist has to crawl over every inch of that ground. Is the problem your protagonist’s own issues and hang ups?
Well…. “self-sabotage” is incredibly easy to fail and I would recommend avoiding it for first time writers. You’ve really got to become a master at character consistency otherwise your audience will notice that the protagonist is only “self-sabotaging” when it is dramatically convenient.
Also keep in mind that your answer to this question will explain a lot about what kind of story you’re doing. One of my favorite shows is Megas XLR and one episode was entirely about the hero trying to get a slushie. A hero who owns and operate a giant mech. So needless to say it becomes one of the best comedies because the hero’s efforts are continuously thwarted by more outlandish efforts in such a simple quest.
The answer to your question of “what thwarts the protagonist” will explain much about what genre your story is in. If it’s a dragon? Dramatic fantasy. Is it a roadrunner? Comedy. Etc etc.
Let’s take a moment now to look at what inspired all this: When I learned about Star Wars: The High Republic.
This has… got to be one of the biggest storytelling trainwrecks I have ever seen in awhile come out of a multi-billion dollar company. I’d like to think that no story is so bad that you couldn’t make a decent one out of it, but if you asked me to try and write something involving those characters, I would probably kill myself. Let’s just look at one of these at random.
Stellan is an optimistic and well-respected Jedi Master. Stellan came up through the Order with Avar Kriss, and although they are often on different assignments for the Jedi or the Republic, when the two work together they are a powerhouse team of two noble heroes in action. Strong in the Force and a natural teacher, Stellan is currently stationed at one of the Jedi Temple outposts on the distant planet of Caragon-Viner.
Where are the flaws? Where are the hooks to connect the story too? I know this is a multimedia project so we have to be mindful about major character changes, but even “static” shows still have characters flawed in both ways I’ve discussed. Again, one of my favorite shows was Darkwing Duck who’s ego frequently interfered with him accomplishing the crime-fighting he was trying to do.
Besides every character on that page being perfect and having nothing they need from any story, even if you made this “Law & Order: Jedi Nights” what would keep them from catching criminals in the first chapter of a book with all the resources of the Republic and Jedi at their disposal? I’m honestly torn between afraid to look at any of this, and wanting to see if it’s as big of a trainwreck as everything on that page points to it being.
So please, I beg of you: if you write, take a moment and ask yourself: How is this character flawed? Which now you know is a 2 part question: What will the character gain from the story? And what will keep them from gaining it immediately? And when you send your story out to editors or test readers, ask them those questions too. Their answers will give you a good way to judge how close you were to your original aim as a storyteller.
*Yes, I know some people like to concoct entire theories or explanations to fill in gaps. To sum up a real quick rant: If the audience is doing more writing then you are to make your own story work – you have failed as a writer**.
**Now inspiring the audience to write more about your world and characters – that’s the goal of any decent writer. 😉 The difference is whether fan fiction is a fun hobby to add to your story, or a requirement of it.