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?
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.