“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!