I was recently asked, “How do you choose and create a protagonist’s flaws?”
Simple. The same way you choose and create your own flaws.
What? You didn’t choose your flaws? You’d rather not have them?
Before you declare me a smartass, that’s a clue to the how part of Julia’s question. Your protagonist didn’t choose or create her flaws either. And she’d rather be without them, at least the one’s she’s aware of.
Think about your flaws. How did you get them? No, really, take your time. I’ll wait for you.
Most reasonably self-aware people can list a few personal flaws. And most of us have a story or two about why we’re stuck with those triggers, peeves, bad habits, and whatnot.
I hope you had an ah-ha moment just then. Allow me to illustrate.
I was camping with a friend this weekend, and we swapped scary spider stories around the campfire. She once camped in a swamp. After sunset, they were surrounded by the glowing eyes of giant spiders. She thought it was kind of cool.
I would have been quaking inside the tent, after quadruple checking the zippers, until dawn made it safe to get the hell out of there!
My brave friend then told me she hates beetles. I’m like, beetles? As insects go, they’re kind of cute. Remember Herbie the Love Bug and the most famous rock band ever? (Different spelling, I know.)
My friend responded to my dubious inquiry with a story. As a small child, she got into a sandbox only to find it infested with some kind of beetle.
And in story craft, we call that backstory.
If my character’s tragic flaw is a terror of beetles, I get to invent a reason for that terror, which will make it logical and create believability.
Let’s say I want my character to be a well-rounded, three-dimensional (fake) human being. I know, as a well-rounded, three-dimensional human being myself, that means he can’t be all good. That means I need to give him some triggers, peeves, bad habits, and whatnot. But, spiders and beetles aside, how can I do that?
Remember, today’s lesson is brought to you by the letter B, for backstory.
I’m still working on Dark Corners in Skoghall. Beckett gets mad at Jess. I want them to have a lovers’ quarrel for the dramatic tension it creates and a couple of plot reasons. But now I need a reason for him to get mad at her. This kind of stuff happens in real life all the time, so I know it’s believable, but stories are vulnerable in a way that real life isn’t. In stories we expect the action on the page to be supported by other readable elements of the story.
If an actor were playing Beckett in this scene, he’d ask, “What’s my motivation?”
I did a little soul searching and realized at the end of The Murder in Skoghall, (spoiler alert) Beckett reveals to Jess that he was adopted and his parents didn’t tell him until he was a young adult. There’s my backstory. The people closest to him lied to him for most of his life. I don’t need to spell it all out for the reader; that would be bad. But here’s what I need to know to understand one of Beckett’s fundamental flaws and the trigger that sets off the quarrel. Whether Jess knew it or not, Beckett feels lied to. His flaw is to become immediately, irrationally angry when that old wound is revisited.
I started with the need for the fight. Then thought about what that fight would look like and why they’d even go there. The answer was in the backstory. Beckett has a “thing” about being lied to. Whether Jess actually lied or not, he thinks she did and before she can explain, he has to move through some serious anger.
If you want your characters to be flawed, know their backstories. Sometimes the key to creating the flaw is an event (like a sandbox full of beetles or Beckett’s adoption), sometimes it’s a condition (like a birth mark or a limp). As the writer, you need to examine all the possible ways that event or condition could play out in a person’s life. Then use it in your story to increase dramatic tension.
Remember, your protagonist’s tragic flaw need not be “bad.” Big dumb Lennie loves to stroke soft things. Seems pretty harmless, until Lennie touches the boss’s wife’s hair and she screams. (Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck)
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