Maximizing Shortcomings

by J.T. Ellison

Many of our topics revolve around the strength of our characters. We talk about the things that give characters the ability to persevere, to walk in the face of danger, to throw caution to the wind, to put other’s lives and freedoms before their own. These are all wonderful, admirable traits, and we all want our characters to have that selflessness.

But what really gives us a window into our character’s souls is what makes them weak.

One of my favorite "get to know you" questions I ask my characters when they’re in development is "What is your greatest shame?" I think we all have a secret or two that we’d like to keep to ourselves. It doesn’t mean it’s necessarily bad or evil, just something that we don’t want discussed at dinner. I want my characters to have those little secrets, the private motivations for their actions and the impetus for their personalities. Many times these background issues don’t make it onto the page in any discernible way. They are, for me, for my motivation.

There are many, many ways to show a character’s weakness. We fall back on the time honored ISSUE, addiction, all the time. Characters drink too much, drug too much, sleep around, smoke. These frailties sometimes border on cliché, and sometimes are done so seamlessly, so effectively that you notice only the character, not their weakness. For me though, it’s much more fun to look for the motivation, search out the underlying weakness, than be told.

There is a difference between a weakness and something that makes you weak. I was watching an episode of CSI where the storyline revolved around the fact that the entire team had the flu. Everyone sneezed, coughed and successfully looked bedraggled and miserable, to the point where I was thinking, okay, already, we get it. They are sick. Grissom is too important to allowed to stay home when he has walking pneumonia. Move along…

I remember a particular conversion on DorothyL a few years back, where one reader/reviewer adamantly refused to review a book where a character was sick. I’d never thought about it being an issue. When he made a fuss about it, I stepped back and took a look at what I was doing.

When I first started writing, Taylor wasn’t alive. She was strong, she was tough, she didn’t have any weaknesses or issues, nothing could stop her. And she was B.O.R.I.N.G. I didn’t want her to be an alcoholic, or have abuse in her past. She smoked, and that’s a weakness, but it wasn’t the right kind of weakness. I wanted her to be strong and unstoppable. I wanted her to be invincible. Goddesses of War don’t get caught up in impulse behavior.

But she needed something to make her relatable. So I gave her a cold.

And then DorothyL made it abundantly clear that having your main character sick is a no-no.

I thought it was humanizing. They thought it was annoying as hell, having to hear the sniffles and coughs and see the dirty tissues. I quickly realized they were right. Despite the reality that is Nashville, where 90% of the populace wanders about with red noses and thick voices from April to September, it wasn’t a good weakness to foist on my girl. She doesn’t need a physical weakness to make her real. Though I still catch myself giving her headaches a lot — which I take out in revisions. When Taylor is in a situation and starts rubbing her temples, I look closer at why she’s reacting that way so I can have something more illuminating in its place. It’s a shortcut, I’ve come to realize, to rely on an outside factor to show vulnerability.

So what to do?? How could I make her strong without being strident, fearless without being reckless, selfless without looking for congratulations, vulnerable without being weak? In other words, a living, breathing character?

Good question.

One I’m still working on. I trend toward showing Taylor’s weaknesses by hurting the people around her, forcing her to react.  It wasn’t until the third book that I hurt her directly, and by that time, she was primed and ready to fall apart. Did I allow her to? Well, I can’t give that away. But it is fun, in a sick, twisted way, to manipulate the emotions and feelings of imaginary people. I was never one for tearing the legs and wings off insects, but I like exploring my character’s darkness.

Physical and emotional weaknesses are tricky. Physical challenges — wheelchairs, stature etc. are obvious and hard to pull off. A detective in a wheelchair can’t exactly run down a suspect. A little person would be hard-pressed to tackle a six-foot three addict. But honestly, could a character with a cold do it either? As I write this, I’ve got a wicked, nasty SOMETHING. If someone were to break into my house right now and demand the goods, I’d just sneeze and wave them upstairs. There are definitely limitations when you have a sick character.

But emotionally sick characters are fascinating. Look at Dexter. We ALL love Dexter. And he’s a crazy serial killer who technically justifies his actions by following a code of ethics. But he is still a serial killer, who gets pleasure out of killing other people. Yet we root for him. I root for him. I even find myself strangely attracted to the character, which must signal something is very wrong in my head, or the author has done an utterly brilliant job of evoking emotion from me, the reader.

So here’s today’s questions. Where should we draw the line with our character’s weaknesses? When do you, the reader, throw up your hands at the overuse of addiction as a weakness? And who do you think pulls it off best?

Wine of the Week: 2004 Marchesi di Barolo Maraia Barbera Monferrato Soft and spectacular.

19 thoughts on “Maximizing Shortcomings

  1. J.D. Rhoades

    I think the problem with addiction as weakness is, as you’ve pointed out, that it’s been done so many times that it’s hard to do with any originality. There’s also the fact that I despair of ever portraying it as well as Lawrence Block or Ken Bruen.

    My version of your “greatest shame” question is “what is this character’s Kryptonite?” Without the existence of Kryptonite, Superman is truly invincible, and therefore totally boring.

    Truth is, though, I still find Superman kind of boring. I always found Batman a much more compelling character becuase he’s so screwed up (and I love those angsty Marvel comics heroes, like the X-men).

    To me, some of the best stories are about characters who have to overcome something in themselves that may defeat them as completely as the antagonist.

    I think the line gets crossed when the weakness makes the character seem whiny or when they obsess over it. It’s much more interesting when the character goes on with life and tries to deny the weakness until it rears its ugly head. It’s like having them standing on a trap door that only the reader knows is there.

    Another path is to have the character know about and acknowledge the weakness, and acknowledge a least to himself that it’s likely to result in his own destruction, but who goes ahead anyway because of duty or love or his own moral code.

  2. Alexandra Sokoloff

    JT, excellent topic, I love it.

    I think portraying addiction is like anything else you do in a book – if you don’t commit to really delving, you’re going to be writing all the cliches and very little truth. I’ve had a lot of friends leveled by addiction,and I rarely read a writer who writes about it well at all, and so I’m always fascinated when authors do pull it off. Ken Bruen, of course, and Anne Rice I think are the best I’ve ever read – vampires are the ultimate metaphor for addiction anyway. But anyone who decides they’re going to write about an alcoholic or addicted character and doesn’t get into a regular AA/NA meeting has already missed the boat.

    As for character weakness – I was just thinking last night that it’s a lot trickier to portray a morally flawed female lead than a male one. There’s always a risk of making her so unlikable that people are more turned off than interested (see Hillary Clinton, for example…).

    I wonder if this is because of the enormous pressure on women in general to be “good girls” – while men are more allowed and even encouraged to break the rules (that’s what makes you a real man) – so we’re more judgmental about female characters as well.

    When I find a book that really shows a female lead lying, or engaging in destructive behavior, it’s electrifying because it’s so much more rare to see in a book, and very powerful when done truthfully.

  3. Pari Noskin Taichert

    When I developed Sasha, I decided to make her tremendously savvy about other people and utterly un-self aware. That way I could grow her in the series and give her hard life lessons.

    With Darnda, I’m not sure if this is a weakness or strenght, but . . . she just doens’t have much respect for humans. She’s a good friend, but her starting point is that most people are less worthy to be on this planet than insects. This makes her a very different kind of character because her baseline is so unfamiliar to most of us.

    As far as flaws go, Alice Hoffman does a wonderful job. All of the books I’ve read have characters with deep emotional wounds but we’re not dragged down with them; we just want them to find resolution, peace or happiness.

    Lois MacMaster Bujold has one of my favorite characters ever — Miles Vorkorsigan was poisoned in utero and has bones that break if you even look at him funny. Yet his culture, his entire planet, is based on admiration of physical prowess. It’s a great set up and she does it masterfully.

  4. Karen Olson

    I find alcoholism to be a huge crutch of many writers who just don’t know how to have their characters be angst-ridden. What’s more cliched than the hard drinking PI? A hard drinking reporter? A hard drinking cop?

    I like the idea of a protag who’s physically sick with a bad cold or the flu. It would truly show the protag’s nature and slow him/her down and his/her game would be off.

    In my next book, Annie is an unreliable narrator, and I really tried to show her Achilles heel to make her more human, to explain why she is the way she is.

  5. Dana King

    I don’t have a problem with reading a book with a sick protagonist. (Wait, maybe that didn’t come out right.) Let’s say an ill protagonist, so long as that doesn’t dominate the story. Let’s say the hero has a mild middle- or inner-ear infection that has an occasional effect on his equilibrium. That could be important to the story. Or–something many of us can relate to–lower back pain. It doesn’t have to cripple him, but can restrict his viable options from time to time.

    In a world where Monk and Dexter can thrive, I don’t think a tastefully done sinus infection should be a disqualifier.

  6. Stacey Cochran

    I’m currently working on a book where nearly every characters’ motives seem to be several different (and sometimes opposing) things.

    For example, one character Lisa has a small child named Darrel Owen. When the novel begins, she’s living in a trailer with a male friend of hers who has recently lost his wife and daughter. On the surface, she’s there because she wants to take care of this guy. As the story unfolds, we learn that another reason she’s there is because her ex (who lives in the same trailer park) has an explosive temper, and she doesn’t want Darrel Owen raised around that.

    Now, that I’m thinking about it, most of the characters in the novel have this same selflessness/selfishness opposition of motives for their actions in the story.


  7. toni mcgee causey

    I agree — finding what your character is ashamed of is a vital tool. Another tool is to let the character’s strength also be a part of his/her weakness. For example, Bobbie Faye is a very strong minded, tenacious woman who’s capable of handling disaster without freaking out. (Good thing, since she’s in the middle of several…) But that very strength is also her weakness, because she doesn’t think she has to have help, she has shut out help from the people around her who love her and could help. She has, in her way, shut them down (which hurts them), and she doesn’t even realize it, in spite of the arguments and exclamations of the people around her that they would like to help. It’s a problem that permeates her life and has destroyed a lot of relationships, and yet… her tenacity really is her strength. So growing her over the series to where she learns some of this is gun, and has given me a lot of room to for her to grow.

    That, and she keeps blowing things up. I’ve really got to talk to her about that.

  8. J.B. Thompson

    Brilliant and thought-provoking post, JT.

    Carolyn Haines’ Fever Moon has a sheriff’s deputy with a back injury from the war (the story is set during WWII), and he has to deal with his pain and its limitations throughout the book. Haines does an excellent job of making it integral to the story without overstating it.

    Tasha’s right – flaws are the stuff people are made of. Real people aren’t superheroes … we all get sick, right? To me, the weaknesses are what make the characters I read seem more real, as long as they’re not overdone.

    Feel better, kiddo.

  9. JT Ellison

    Toni, I like that — the strength is the weakness, and vice versa. It’s a good rule to follow.

    Stacey — same thought — two sides of the same coin is a great way to develop characters.

    Thanks, Tash!

    Dana — you’re right — in a world where Dexter and Monk, two exceptionally flawed characters, something like a cold should be okay. But it’s so hard to make it work without seeming — I don’t know — too much like a device. I think that’s why I was subconsciously putting in headaches — it’s real.

  10. JT Ellison

    Karen, that’s the same issue I have — I hate crutches. Flaws are one thing, but using addiction is any form as a defining characteristic better be perfectly executed, or you’ve lost me. I think it falls into the category of too much, and you’re just reminding people of Uncle Bob who lit the table on fire three Thanksgivings ago instead of letting your character speak for him/herself. I love the idea of the unreliable narrator. I seek those stories out. A great one is Chaz Brenchley’s SHELTER — best one I’ve read in a while.

    Pari — I like Sasha’s evolution in the books — I think she’s becoming more aware, and that’s the best progression for a character — to be who they are, but enlightened. I’m anxious to meet Darnda — she sounds like a hoot.

  11. JT Ellison

    Alex said: I wonder if this is because of the enormous pressure on women in general to be “good girls” – while men are more allowed and even encouraged to break the rules (that’s what makes you a real man) – so we’re more judgmental about female characters as well.

    Isn’t that the truth? That’s the impetus for me anyway, creating a female that males can like as well as females because she isn’t whiney, or worried about her hair or her shoes, or afraid. There are expectations for genders, both characters and writers, and I’m anxious to see them go away. Good girls are always a little bad anyway, aren’t they ; )

    Dusty, that’s a perfect analysis of this post. Superman’s weakness literally makes him weak, while Batman (my personal favorite) is screwed up emotionally but still able to function. When the weakness takes you out of the game entirely, it messes with the story. I’m a firm believer in equality between the villain and the hero, as much as possible. Balances can shift, but there must be a stable platform to begin with.

  12. JT Ellison

    JB said: …the weaknesses are what make the characters I read seem more real…

    Yep. So long as they aren’t cliched weaknesses, these issues can be fascinating. And thanks. I’m desperately trying to pull it together. The mind is willing, the body ain’t.

  13. Louise Ure

    I’m not sure I’d call a character’s head cold a weakness, anymore than I would a character’s love of hard candy. They’re both elements that flesh out the character on the page and bring them to life for us. As long as we don’t overuse that little pastiche. (I read one award-winning novel where the police superintendent was always eating hard candy. Every appearance, every line of dialogue was infected by the rustle of the plastic wrapper, the sucking, the smell. OK. I got it already. I know who this character is. Move on.)

    But I sure do like your “What is he ashamed of?” question. I use “What he he lost in life that he most regrets?”

  14. Becky LeJeune

    I don’t know about where to draw the line, but as a reader I have no issue with any weakness (so far) as long as there is some explanation for it.

    I read a book recently where the protag cheated on his wife. I think the author was trying to express that the marriage was troubled, but in every scene with the wife she just came across as a nice woman who was worried about their daughter. I didn’t feel sympathy for the main character, I just thought he was an insensitive ass! As the book went on, I started to dislike this character more and more and it made it very hard to finish the book. If I felt like the character was supposed to be an ass (which he wasn’t), or if the wife had been horrendous, I wouldn’t have had this issue, there was just no set-up to explain the man’s actions and that really bothered me.

  15. JT Ellison

    Hi Becky, great to see you!

    I agree completely, even it’s supposed to be used to show what a jerk someone is, if you can’t identify with the character, there’s no purpose. And there is nothing more dangerous than a character without a genuine purpose.

  16. Scott Parker

    Talking about using alcohol as a crutch, it’s because it was so overused in the past that many authors keep relying on the easy-out. I had to chuckle when I read the first two lines of Ed McBain’s _The Gutter and the Grave_ (1950-something): I’m a drunk. I think we’d better get that straight from the beginning.

    In my second book, I have a female lead HPD detective. Unlike other characters in my stories, she was not born fully-formed. As such, she hasn’t let me know if she has a weakness. She is confident, brash, sometimes foolhardy, and a gifted detective. She does have a secret: in her past, in an overconfident moment, she accidentally shot and killed her sister during a mugging. This is a secret that she keeps from almost everyone. It is also what drives her to find the mugger and face him again. The running question throughout the story, posed by other characters, is what will Anne do once she does find the mugger again? Technically, *he* did not kill Anne’s sister. But Anne holds him responsible and she’s flat-out determined to kill him. Through a series of events that lead up to the inevitable, she begins to seriously think about what she will do. By the time you reach the end, a weakness will have developed in her psyche, a weakness that can bring her down or raise her up. She’ll be forced to make a choice. It’s what she does then that will reveal her true character and determine if the feelings she has within her is a weakness or a strength.

  17. JT Ellison

    Scott, that’s the kind of secret motivator that makes for a fascinating character. I love the set up too — that’s a huge secret to have. Can you imagine? Killing your own sister accidentally, then blaming on someone else? GREAT stuff there!


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