Guest Blogger: James Thayer

A character’s weakness is a story’s strength.

“Your characters are going to make or break your story,’” Stephen Coonts said.  No matter how deftly the plot is put together, not matter how exotic the settings, no matter how vividly written the story is, readers won’t become involved with the story unless they are attracted to a character.  Novelist Sol Stein said, “Readers value and remember extraordinary characters long after tricky plots are forgotten.”

Sometimes creating that magnetic character is difficult.   James Michener said, “I have tried every device I know to breathe life into my character, for there is little in fiction more rewarding than to see real people interact on a page.”

Here’s a proven technique; give the character a weakness.  Nobility, intelligence, determination, wisdom, humor: all of these attributes can work well in fictional hero, but nothing endears readers to a character more than a weakness.  And Simon & Schuster editor Michael Korda said, “Characters’ weaknesses are more interesting than their strengths.”

An example is Sherlock Holmes, who was brilliant, daring, and witty.  But, as Sol Stein points out, Holmes’s “drug addiction worried his friend Dr. Watson.  Watson is critical of Holmes’s habit, but does not condemn him for it.  The reader wishes Holmes would abstain, and knows he can’t.”  Holmes can sometimes be arrogant and waspish, but Stein says the addiction helps the reader feel compassion for the detective.

Even well-crafted superheroes have weaknesses.  James Poniewozik said that we need superheroes “to suffer our heartbreaks, reflect our anxieties, embody our weaknesses,” and notes that Clark Kent’s “sad-sack personality is as essential to fans as Superman’s ability to turn steel girders into pasta ribbons.”  Stan Lee of Marvel Comics listed Spiderman’s weaknesses: “Despite his super powers, he still has money troubles, dandruff, domestic problems, allergy attacks, self-doubts, and unexpected defeats.”

What about more down-to-earth characters?  In Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, Scarlett O’Hara’s weakness is blind love that makes her fail to find true love and happiness. In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Dr. Frankenstein’s weakness is an amoral scientific curiosity.  Macbeth was undone by arrogance, and Othello by misplaced trust.

In Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander novels, Jack Aubrey’s weakness is befuddlement regarding how the world works on land, as opposed to the sea where he is indeed a master.  In John LeCarre’s novels, George Smiley’s weakness is his baffling tolerance for his wife’s affairs.

Anne’s weakness in Lucy Maude Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables is a touch of haughtiness.  In I am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe, Charlotte’s weakness is naivety,  Same with Jim Hawkins in Robert Louis Stephenson’s Treasure Island.  In Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers, d’Artagnan is plagued by a prickliness to insult stemming from a sense of inferiority.

A weakness endears a character to readers because we aren’t perfect, and so we see ourselves in character’s weaknesses.  We root for people with whom we sympathize, and so we want to accompany the character on her adventures, cheering all the way.

**You can find out more about James, and get more of his sage advice at his website here. I haven’t personally read his book yet (as I just recently had the pleasure of ‘virtually’ meeting him through comments on Best Damn), but if it is anywhere near as excellent as his blog, then it ought to be well worth the money to purchase it!

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10 responses

  1. Great post and so true. I find it hard to write a character if he/she isn’t flawed in some way. Perhaps that’s the reader in me resisting–one of the few times I appreciate that part of me influencing my writing. The question I struggle with is should those flaws be resolved by the end of the story? Should we as authors provide our characters a therapeutic catalyst for dealing with their weaknesses?

    • Hack, love your blog! I added it to my blogroll.

      My personal thought on the matter, is that it all depends on the character. As humans in the real world we aren’t flawless after a trial, but we may have gained some skills that will better allow us to deal with our weaknesses. Some weaknesses may go away, but the really life-altering ones, usually never leave us. Think of it like a recovering alcoholic: he’ll always be an alcoholic. So, use your gut. Whatever your story instincts tell you about your particular character.

  2. Oddly enough, my problem is that my main character may have too many clear weaknesses, definitely compared to the supernatural creatures she’s supposed to lead in later books. I mean, the point of the books is to turn most of those weaknesses to strengths as the series progresses, but I know she’s not a very likeable character because I’ve had readers tell me that they prefer the side characters and only in some chapters do they care for Alecia, the main. How would you approach characters who are bit too imperfect? I mean, not that her bad attributes are so pushed in readers face that they just become a Mary-Sue on the opposite side of the emotion spectrum, but that she has little redeeming qualities from the get-go and it takes a while to gain those qualities.

    I once read in an article to never write a book with an unlikeable main character or unlikeabale characters, and alot of my characters jump from likeabale to unlikeable to likeable as the series progresses. Hell, some may stay unlikeable to the very end.

    • Hi Tiffany, I know what you mean. Sometimes, it’s hard to strike the right balance. Here are a couple of things that I have tried before.

      First, see if you’re looking at the story correctly–meaning are you telling it from the right character’s perspective. A lot times I find myself loving a secondary character for whatever reason and I have to stop and think why. Maybe s/he has more strengths and I relate more with him due to his more human characteristics and flaws. Or I find that I haven’t fleshed out my main character enough to find out how she’d combat those weaknesses that are so prevalent within us all. You might have to kill your likable character, or maybe merge two characters into one to find that balance.

      Second, what if a major event happened to your main character sometime right before or right at the beginning of your story that would bring these weaknesses into direct conflict with both external and internal forces. I have a character who gets dropped into a place where she knows she right, she knows she can take on the forces that are coming at her, but she has no forces of her own and virtually everybody in society hates her. These things, coupled with the apparent lack of visible threat, bring into question both her reasoning (a good trait based on experience) and her pride (something that sometimes gets in the way). You may experiment–even on paper and not in your novel–what your character would do, and how her strengths and weaknesses would play out, under severe pressure and/or in situations where the right things to do might not be white but gray.

      The other thing that I sometimes toy with is an unlikable main character. While it’s true that the reader should identify with him, it’s not to say that he cannot be odious at the off and then be forced to reconsider himself and his actions within a short period of beginning. There are truly hateful characters penned that have something that make us relate to them, be it an awful abusive childhood that led to abuse of others or a stressful situation where it was die or die trying to survive. The impact of trauma upon the psyche can make for interesting results within our main characters. I suggest just playing around. As Breanne said in an earlier post, we authors can be hot and cold in our relationship with our work. It doesn’t mean that your character always has to be likable. (Hell, sometimes I hate mine when they’re doing something right!)

      • Thank you so much for such a long and thoughtful reply! It gives me a lot to consider. I’ve read and enjoyed all of Chancellor’s posts in the same way that I’ve been doing with Gaiman’s post for 7 years, but especially the previous one. It really spoke to me on a deeper level because I was really having some problems in those regards yesterday.

  3. I don’t know how many times that I’ve read books where the main characters are unrelatable, but I push on JUST to find out the ending. Often times, I find myself regretting that decision. When those writers (Dan Brown, Clive Cussler, Patricia Cornwell, etc.) make the characters too perfect, the stories fizzle and fall apart.

  4. I am in agreement with MacJew. I’ve gotten to the point, however, where I won’t even finish the book if I see no character growth and change, or if I find a character doing something that seems implausible for the situation–deus ex machina-type stuff is great for Greek classics but I like to see how modern characters resolve their often ugly situations.

    Good post. Anne Shirley is one of my favorite characters of all time!

  5. Thanks for inviting me to guest post. I’ve been looking around Welcome to the Asylum, and it’s one of the best writing sites on the web. It’s informative and fun, and I’m going to visit often. Thanks again. –Jim.

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