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Friday, February 11, 2011

Fatal Flaws & Character Glitches: Behind the Scenes with your characters

Everyone has a weakness, an Achilles Heel, a chink in their armor. As polite human beings your job is to ignore these chinks and weaknesses in everyone you meet. Your job as an author is to exploit the [bleeping] [bleep] out of your characters' weaknesses.

And I'm not talking about, "Lucy really loves gumballs," or "Mike always wants a beautiful woman." Those are superficial things. I'm talking about the deep, dark secrets list in the Id that determine how a character will act.

I call them stress-points, other people might call them underlying drives, unconscious desires, or unacknowledged beliefs. These stress points connect with ever single action and decision a character makes. When you find the weakness you put stress on that point, poke at it, play with it, and then tear the character open so you can rebuild them for their character arc.

Need examples?

I decided to pull out my four pivot characters from my current WIP so we could dissect them together.

Samantha Rose (image credit)
Chink: self-awareness/ identity
Sam is a very grounded person. She knows exactly who she is, where she came from, and where she's going. Her life is planned out and perfect. Nothing about her high-stress job phases her until her identity is questioned.

Evidence is found that suggests Sam is a clone, and not her parent's beloved only child. Major parts of the plot revolve around Sam trying to cope with this revelation, and with her trying to really define what makes a person a person. It's not a plot that would work with a character who has less dependence on their sense of self.

Joseph "Joe" Romeriez (image credit)
Chink: approval of others
Joe is Sam's semi-needy fiancee. He doesn't need someone to take care of him, but he needs constant attention to his ego. He pesters Sam with phone calls seeking reassurance that she still loves him, and that he's still as awesome as he thinks he is.

In a way, Joseph is Sam's polar opposite. He has no strong sense of self. If you told him he was a clone, he'd nod and accept the fact. What's fun here is that Joe's need for approval means he is willing to follow the crowd to win approval. He'll lie to win approval. Even at work he's an actor who is trying to be who he thinks everyone else wants him to be, and that gets him to trouble.

Robert Marrins (image credit)
Chink: resistant to change
Marrins is Sam's boss, and her senior by several decades. He doesn't like new technology, he doesn't like the new slang going around, and he doesn't like an uppity little girl outpacing him at work.

I'm not sure if Marrins is OCD and doesn't like things moved out of place, or if he just misses his youth so much he can let go, but this is a man trying to relive his glory days when he's pushing retirement. When Marrins pushes old ways of thinking, or forgets about new technology, he makes mistakes. Some of the mistakes are fatal.

L. E. MacKenzie (who should look like this but I'm to cheap to buy images)
Chink: no sense of self/ perfectionist
Mac starts the novel at a low-point. He was once in a high-speed career, on top of the world, and doing wonderful until events spiraled beyond his control and things went wrong. Mac blames himself (rightly or wrongly), and the guilt cripples him.

When Sam meets him Mac is addicted to prescription anti-depressants and lost within his own world of trauma. This is where people end up when you push their stress-point to breaking. This is the level characters should bounce off of during their character arc in a novel. If your characters never get this low, you're cheating your reader and yourself.

For Mac's character arc the entire build is pulling him out of the pit his weakness created, getting him to the top, and pushing him back down to see if he'll bounce. It makes him a very interesting character to write, and I hope it makes him an interesting character to read.

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