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April 11, 2013

The Thin Line between Character Strengths and Flaws

A yin-yang style wave with text: When Is a Character Strength a Flaw?

Last time I asked you to share your superpower, that trait—useful or not—that makes you unique. Everyone shared some great stories, although none of us had skills that would land us on Cracked.com’s “Real People with Mind-Blowing Mutant Superpowers” list. *eyes the superpowers that made the list* Maybe that’s a good thing.

At the end of that post, I mentioned that our characters should have unique strengths and flaws as well, but I didn’t get a chance to fully dig into that idea. Serena Yung brought up a “superpower” in the comments that reminded me of a character development trick along those lines. Serena said:

“I’m able to get extremely, heads-over-heels obsessed with something, e.g. writing, or pokemon, or psychology, that I can keep talking about this same topic for a VERY long time. … Maybe this is more of a (super) weakness than a superpower though, because these obsessions can get me “stuck in a rut”…”

Hmm… “Maybe this is more of a (super) weakness than a superpower…” Serena touched on an interesting truth: Character traits can be both a strength and a weakness.

Develop Character Flaws through Their Strengths

Strengths and flaws are often two sides of the same coin. Interference is often the “bad” side of helpfulness, control can be the bad side of protectiveness, obsession can result from love, etc. The intentions and motivations for both sides can be identical.

This fact gives us another method for developing our characters. Often when we talk about the change a character goes through during a story arc, we think about an actual change from trait “a” to trait “b.” A character goes from distrusting to trusting, insecure to secure, and so forth.

However, if we’re having trouble thinking up a flaw for a character, we can look at their strengths. Maybe one of those strengths can start at the “bad” end and work its way to being good.

In that case, their character arc would be less about a change from one trait to another and more about a different perspective on the same behavior or attitude. Instead of changing from “a” to “b,” they’d change from trait “a” to trait “A” with a capital letter.

Echo the Hero and Villain with Extremism

We can use a similar technique to echo the character traits of the hero and the villain. Stories where the hero and villain have only one degree of separation can be very powerful and carry deep themes of the line between good and bad.

For these stories, we’d look at a strength (which could also be the beginning flaw) of the hero. We’d then take that strength and carry it to its extreme negative end to create the villain.

Every good intention can go bad if carried to the extreme. The line between a little bit extreme and a lot extreme can be the difference between a hero and a villain.

I have one story where the heroine is a pawn between two powerful people. They both have the ability to control her, but one restrains his controlling nature and the other embraces it. Guess which is the hero and which is the villain? *smile*

Stories like that allow us to examine how the trait or ability itself isn’t “bad.” As with so many things in life, it all comes down to how that aspect is used—or abused.

Another fun approach is to have heroes and villains with the same goal. The difference lies in how they plan to achieve that goal and how far they’re willing to go, believing that the end justifies the means.

As many of my own stories attest, I have a fondness for books that explore these nuances. Those are the kind of “shades of gray” I like. *grin*

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Also, a reminder that I’ll be holding a one-hour live Q&A session about all things WordPress today, Thursday, April 11th, at 7 p.m. Eastern time on the WANA International Facebook page. Come pick my brain! *smile*

Have you used the technique of turning a strength into a flaw before? What about echoing the hero and the villain through the level of their extremism? Do your heroes and villains ever have the same goal? Can you think of other ways to use strengths and flaws for character development?

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Suzanne Johnson

Love this post, Jami! I love what I call “morally ambiguous” characters. They might do the right thing for the wrong reason, or the wrong thing for a reason that seems right to them. My current “villain” is a really nasty SOB but, for all that, the things he’s trying to accomplish are not bad–he wants to protect and strengthen his species, and he wants to slow human intrusion into wildlife habitat. But the ways he goes about achieving those things are partly a product of his flawed culture and partly because, well, he’s a real SOB. But there are definite shades of gray there, and I think that makes him interesting.

Serena Yung
Serena Yung

Yay! I’m very happy that you found my comment useful, lol. Anyway, interesting. I didn’t exactly think of a quality being both a strength and a flaw. It does seem to be true that any good trait taken to an extreme can become bad, that “goodness” depends on moderation but—I’m just wondering if there are any traits where the extremes are “good” but the moderate forms are “bad.” Hmmm, I can think of something where the more you have it, the more “good” it is, i.e. you can never get too much of it. E.g. perhaps kindness/ benevolence? I guess in theory, the kinder you are, the more moral and “good” you will be judged? (As long as your kindness doesn’t turn into intrusiveness or overhelpfulness…) Apart from that, hmmm…let me think of more examples/ traits. Oh there’s another trait that I recently learned about in psychology (yes, I’m such a psych fan, lol). It’s about “integrative complexity”. A more “integratively complex” person will have more moderate views on things (e.g. on politics or controversial social issues), being able to see and understand the value of both sides of the argument, or even make a compromise between the two sides. An “integratively simple” person has more black and white, radical views. In general, we tend to see the “integratively complex” as superior to the simple, but here’s an instance where the Int. complex is actually not that good: During (or after? I forgot) the American Civil War, there were more…  — Read More »

Lexa Cain

I completely agree. For instance, bravery might be a “super-power,” but impulsiveness or foolhardiness could be the other side of that coin. When writing YA characters, I think a bit of rashness is expected.

Carradee

It can also be fun to give the character a flaw that ends up working to their benefit.

For example, in A Fistful of Fire, the narrator’s instinct is to flee danger. She’s paranoid, so that means she runs from a lot of things that really aren’t all that dangerous—but that instinct is what’s kept her alive this long (because her temper would’ve gotten her killed, had she ever dared display it) and it’s what helps her “win” at the end of the story.

Everyone has types of situations that best suit them. Some stories require characters to fit the situations; most seem to require that the major characters don’t quite fit. And then some require for the characters to not fit at all.

^_^

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Melinda S. Collins

Taking a character’s strength and turning it into a flaw? What. A. Concept!! I don’t believe I’ve *intentionally* done this before, but when I think about it, I’ve used this technique and never really realized it. *smacks head* LOL!

I haven’t echoed the hero and villain in their extremism though. Now THAT is something I’ll have to consciously look at when I’m plotting the next project.

Your posts on the writing craft are truly awesome. Thank you for another great post, Jami! 🙂

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Lost-chan
Lost-chan

Another fun approach is to have heroes and villains with the same goal. The difference lies in how they plan to achieve that goal and how far they’re willing to go, believing that the end justifies the means.”

– This reminds me of my first question on this site, when I asking about how the goals of the villain can be similar to the heroes’. Yeah, I’m still struggling with that. Arrrrrrgh…

To create morally ambiguous villains, one have to give them ample screentime, shouldn’t it? But it’s just… I dunno, lessens the suspense on who the real villain is (I’m writing some sort of suspense/mystery thing)?

Also, on an unrelated note, is there some feature where I can get an email/notification when you answer a post?

Thanks~!

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