Flawed Characters – part 2 (the dragon)

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 Gios
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.

13 thoughts on “Flawed Characters – part 2 (the dragon)

  1. Ah, the so-called “High Republic.” Wouldn’t call it a train wreck, myself. More of a deflating balloon the clown at the birthday party is trying to sell to the kids as a live animal. At this point, I have walked away and do not intend to return.

    Time to find a copy of “Knights of the Old Republic” and fire it up! 😃

  2. Again, I wouldn’t consider anything in Bob’s story as being a flaw in the character. The character is perfectly normal, it’s the situation that causes the problem. I write characters who experience hunger and not fireproof and I don’t consider them flawed. Characters are motivated by wanting things, and stories are told about what they must overcome to get what they want, but I think that saying that means those characters are flawed is rather a stretch.

    Interestingly enough, I wrote a couple of blog posts in which I use a sandwich as a metaphor for character motivation, but I have a somewhat different take on it.

    Joe’s Sandwich: A Hook

    • This is like trying to have a discussion about rectangles while someone is obsessed about squares.

      You are stuck on 1) That flaws are innately bad – which is not always true. Flaw can also mean “less than perfect.”
      2) You also focus on motivation – which is a subset of this issue, it can even overlap, but it can also diverge and be different. There are numerous examples where a character’s motivation can diverge from what they get out of the story. Like I said about Han Solo in the original Star Wars: His motivation is money, but it is not what he gains from the story.

      One is looking within the character, through their eyes. The other is like taking a step back and looking more detached at the character. At seeing things the character may not even see about themselves.

      But sometimes they can. Like I said a difference between a subset and the larger group it belongs to.

  3. I really enjoyed your thoughts in both parts of this discussion Nate, it’s fascinating if you take the points you made make and apply them to our protagonists and antagonists in the early seasons of Supernatural it goes such a long way to explain why they are considered the “*golden years” of that show.
    As regards Star Wars, the original trilogy is the strongest exactly for the reasons you outlined. I relate it to my own experiences. I saw New Hope when it first came out, I was young and impressionable, I thrilled in the ride, so much about it was fresh and different. However, years later,taking off the rose colored glasses, I re-watched as an adult seeing the various flaws ( because there are still some) but what held the test of time was my love for the characters, their journey to find who they needed to be. Han Solo was and still is my favourite, not because of Harrison Ford, but for the layers that get peeled off, you start with a jerk who is self centered,flat, unlikeable in some ways, or so it seems , but he learns,grows , adapts, he’s never quite what you expect, but the flaws make him who he was and what he became. In short we are shown through the series ( and I’ll definitely include his cameo as worried father who feels it’s his fault things went wrong with his son) Han has the much vaunted, sometimes elusive “Character Development” absent from many of the characters in the much later ( non original trilogy) follow up Star Wars films.

    Also, a little aside, thank you so much for putting me onto Special Unit 2, I found it on TV and am really enjoying it, Carl is a riot. That series is also inhabited by flawed but loveable characters, it has much to say in the guise of humour with some wry observations on the world, sometimes it’s a little subversive,funny in a lol way and generally it’s all round good old fashioned escapist entertainment, I cannot believe their didn’t get more time. Such a shame.

    • Yeah. The original 5 seasons of Supernatural there is growth and development of the characters. You can kind of mark how they tried that a bit in 6 & 7 but then afterwards it became an exercise in spinning wheels.

      Part of the fun of Star Wars is that you actually get TWO heroes’ journeys in it for the price of one. 😉 Sometimes people don’t realize that Solo goes through his own version of the journey that Luke goes through. It’s a testament as to how cliches endure for a reason, and a finely executed one can be savored for endless years. 😀

      And no way! Where is SU2 on TV? Yeah I’m almost finished up on my rewatch (got distracted for a bit). I don’t know about you but to me it’s just so obvious how it’s like a perfect midpoint between XFiles and Supernatural. Like you said, it was a shame it didn’t get more love. (Have you got to the episode of Carl on the kid’s show? I almost died from laughter.)

      • It’s currently airing weekdays on the Horror TV Channel here in the UK . I’m up to S2 ep7 The Drag , I’m literally watching it right now, as we speak, its the dragon episode today! Carl claims to be a dragon slayer ! ( Did I also say how much I love him and his semi antagonistic/ BFF relationship with O’Malley? No ? Well I do) Yesterday was the Gorgon episode which was hilarious.This show fits perfectly in between SPN and XFiles, as you say.

        Yeah it was cool we got two hero’s journeys in Star Wars original trilogy, but even better that Han’s was less obvious to begin with, made for better viewing experience. Did a marathon re-watch of all the Star Wars recently ( including Solo) and the original three stand the test of time, following in the tradition of the great epic saga’s.

        I’m also currently re-watching SPN from the beginning and reflecting on the whole tale as presented, it’s fair to say the evolution of characters was very well structured up to season 5, considering they were not guaranteed to even make it to 5 seasons. But Kripke stuck to his vision. The thing most patently clear now is that the finale of the series was story telling more compatible with seasons 1-5/6 maybe even 7 ( being generous here because Sera really seemed to love the characters and tried to take them to new places) than what followed in 7/8- 15. I can see why from his pov the series finale worked, it fitted within the world he made, some of the other stuff did not.
        We experienced a lot of retrograde motion seasons 8-15 that took us back to where we were with the protagonists to no real end. The lessons didn’t stick and the rules of the universe they inhabited stopped tracking, prime example of this being one of my least favourite ever episodes “The Trap” .

      • As you rewatch SPN you should look up if I reviewed the episode on here and see how well my review has aged (or not). I was laughing at myself a bit the other day in that.

        But yeah, rewatching Special Unit 2 has really got me to regret that O’Malley and Carl (heck, even the captain) weren’t given guest roles on SPN in some capacity. They would have fit right in.

        I do remember the gorgon episode because it was one of the 2 or 3 I actually caught live and that sphinx statue bit still makes me laugh.

        It is kind of shame that Crowley from S9 on wasn’t more like Carl. That character was a good example of how you could have a loveable bad guy on the hero’s side.

      • A great idea, yes , I’ll revisit the reviews too.
        Carl and O’Malley would have been perfect fit. The ‘can I give you a hand ‘ joke never gets old either as O’Malley picks up the hand that breaks off the victim and passed it to the medic.

        I have mixed feelings about Crowley, I liked his double dealing self preservation but in the end he was a character that became a shadow of his evil self. I believe he outlived his time as his continued interactions began to negatively impacted on the Winchesters . To often they became compromised by being in became regular partnership with him, given their history with demons, it made them look at the least a little hypocritical, even allowing for the fact he was sometimes the lesser of the evils, sometimes utterly reckless.
        I suppose what I’m saying in a long winded way is that in my opinion ultimately Crowley became an active factor from a storytelling pov in the retrograde character behaviour of the Winchesters as the writers were trying to find ways of retaining him in the show( no offence to Mark, he did a great Job within the role he had ) They started to downgrade and erode the Winchesters principles to ensure Crowley remained relevant. It created drama yes, made our protagonists human and fallible yes, but it also achieved the effect of making them look morally dubious.

      • I would reply to you about Crowley but then remembered I had written everything I was going to say already.
        https://natewinchester.wordpress.com/2016/10/31/supernatural-retrospective-part-21-cas-crow/
        😉

        But yeah, S9 on they definitely had no idea what to do with him. They should have made him mortal (along with Castiel) and then be a bit more like Carl. I know Mark Sheppard definitely has the skill and charm to have pulled off such a role and make it his own.

      • Yes, yes, if they didn’t want to kill him, they could have made Crowley the Carl of the show! Mark has the charisma to pull that off, much rather that than being Lucifer’s pet doggie!

        The Carver years were the most difficult to fathom , they seemed to go out of their way in the writing to make the hero’s the bad guys which left the show reeling, not once carrying through with and on occasion actively going against what they actually said.
        All of this could have been avoided if only instead of starting out in Season 8 as they did, the writers had started by letting Sam at least look for his brother and Kevin rather then hitting the poor dog (who got much unfair criticism) .
        At the very least instead of have Sam meandering and unfocused , buying produce , when he had no success finding Dean and Kevin, the writers could have had Sam hunting Crowley down and sorting him out,pre-empting any further demon world domination plans, thus allowing Sam move on in a new more meaningful way. The season drama could have been the internal wrangle of Sam and Dean coming to terms with the new hierarchy of Sam no longer wanting or needing Dean to take charge, having stood the line in his own. Moving forward it could have been Dean’s journey to figure out who he was within the new dynamic . Ironically that is where we ended up season 14/15 Dean was very much the outsider in his own home after Michael possessed him, trying to find a place where he belonged having pretty much been ousted by ( the boy king) Jack. If the writers had gone there season 8 through 9 from natural progression the Winchesters could have continued to evolve as characters instead of going backwards/ stagnating for three seasons without the need to intruduce Jack at all. Just my random thoughts…

  4. *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**.

    Amen.

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