One of the keys to writing strong characters–that is, believable, fleshed-out individuals not necessarily physically or emotionally strong ones–is giving them weaknesses.
Flawless characters aren’t interesting–they have no room for growth over the course of the story, and they’re hard for average readers (with our own peculiarities and flaws) to relate to.
Just like other choices in the story, the best character weaknesses aren’t just flaws or quirks in the character, but weaknesses that drive conflict in the story. The narrative arc should force the character to confront their own weaknesses. The character’s weakness, compounded by action, drives the character change in the story.
But how do we decide what weaknesses our characters harbor as we’re planning our story (or even as we’re revising, if pantsers)? Angela Ackerman and Becca Pugilisi have an excellent set of books with positive and negative character traits that can be a great place to start brainstorming.
For me, the most effective route is to look at where I want my character to end up in the story. For instance, in BLOOD ROSE REBELLION, I knew that I wanted Anna to start recognizing the difference between belonging and fitting in–she needed to accept who she was, rather than trying to conform to outside expectations. So from the beginning, one of her weaknesses was pride and a need to be accepted by others. As she was faced with decisions throughout the story, those decisions played on this tension.
Another way to tease out critical weaknesses is to look at opposition in the story. Who gets in the way of the main character and their goals? (NB: opponents don’t have to be antagonists–in a romance, one of the central opponents is the love interest. In middle-grade novels, it’s often a parent or authority figure who cares for the character but wants different things for them). Then ask: what weakness might put the main character most in conflict with this person? How can weakness amplify tension between characters?
For example, in Star Wars, a key source of tension between Han Solo and Princess Leia is his apparent lack of principles and mercenary outlook–he’s looking out for himself while she’s trying to save the universe. This not only makes for good tension between the characters, but it’s a critical part of his growth: their romance can’t flourish until he’s forced to take action to change this part of himself.
Another way to identify character weakness is to look at a character’s strengths. What strengths could potentially tip into weaknesses? For example, going back to my book again, one of the villains is motivated by faith in the justness of his cause. But this faith tips over into zealousness, making him willing to commit crimes in the name of what is “right.” In the BBC show Sherlock, the titular character has an impressive intellect, but that same quality often makes him overlook emotional nuances of family and friends right in front of him. (Matt Bird has some great tips on flip-side strengths in this podcast, if you want to read more).
What are some of your favorite character weaknesses? How do you determine what weaknesses are right for your character?
Rosalyn Eves is a part-time writer, part-time English professor, and full-time mother of three. She loves all things BBC, especially costume dramas and mysteries. When not wrangling children (and sometimes when she should be wrangling children), she’s often found reading. Her debut novel, BLOOD ROSE REBELLION, comes out in 25 days from Knopf/Random House and no she’s not currently obsessing about that, why do you ask?