Sunday, June 5, 2016

Flaws: A Double-Edged Sword

As an anniversary vacation trip, my husband and I attended the 30th Missoula Science Fiction and Fantasy Convention. This is different from other Cons I've attended in that the focus is on writers and gamers. This will be a series of posts on what I learned from the professional panelists.

Flaws are where we connect. - Robin Hobb

One of my biggest struggles as a writer is figuring out the complexity and depth of the flaws in my characters. J.A. Pitts summed it up nicely, "Flaws are integral to the story, not just used for authoritorial intervention". 

It's easy to write a villain who can't get past his own arrogance (fun, even), but writing the flaws into the hero often feels like pulling teeth to me. I want them to start out perfectly formed and upstanding, but no one enjoys reading that. One of the messages I took from this panel to help me frame my thinking on flaws is "Why this character?". In other words, what flaws (and therefore growth) will make them uniquely qualified to solve the problem of your plot.

Image result for image of brienne of tarth

An example of this would be Brienne of Tarth from Game of Thrones. Her flaw of insecurity, her fear of being seen as weak, and her perception of her ugliness all lead her to do things that put her on the path of her story and make her uniquely qualified in her role.

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Sometimes, a good strategy is to have the hero and the villain have the same flaw, but reversed, so that they mirror one another. For instance, Superman is humble and Lex Luthor is arrogant.

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J.A. Pitt also suggested giving your character a foil, such as Spock and McCoy. It's a great way to show the flaws throughout the story. Spock's flaw is his need to contain emotion, and McCoy's flaw is his need to vent emotion. Notice the use of the word "need" here. The character should be compelled to behave the way they do. It's a blind spot for them.

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Iron Man's flaw (guilt) in Civil War drove the plot because it was pitted against Captain America's flaw of being unable to compromise. The villain was barely necessary to create conflict and tension because through their flaws, they were the conflict and tension. Indeed, the villain in the movie was a lot like an author. He took two flawed heroes and made a story from them.

"The flaw should be rooted deeply in the character, not simply tacked on by the author. The character doesn't want to change, but needs to change, and is given the opportunity to change." - Randy Henderson

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Some of the best characters have a flaw that started out as an asset. (paraphrasing Robin Hobb)

Everyone loves to hate Gaston. His character could be seen as self-confident, strong, and popular...but the flaw is his arrogance. Imagine him without that flaw, and he would boring.

Perfect characters are boring.


  1. Speaking, tangentially, of Disney. I saw in a "making of" clip, the animators will draw their characters in the middle of the story. They are fully formed, but not to the final conflict or resolution. Then they will adjust the presentation to earlier in the story and later. The example was Jafar in "Aladdin". He is introduced as a stoic advisor to the sultan, but the character was first conceived as the Machiavellian, power-hungry betrayer. I was thinking that this might be the way to build the character, in general. Was it this panel where Paul Rothfuss said he gives three elements to a character description or am I getting ahead of you? Those last two panels kind of blurred together.

    1. Rothfuss was in the last panel we attended. Did you go to one of his panels without me? Was that the one where you were mistaken for a pro?

  2. I don't have problems showing the flaws in my characters, mainly because I can recognise my own flaws as well as my strengths. A great post!! Thank you for sharing.

    1. That definitely helps! This feels like a blind spot for me in many ways. Writing this post made me more aware of the idea of it in myself, as well as in what I'm reading and writing. Thanks for sharing!


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