Conventional wisdom states that characters should be flawed. Nobody can relate to perfect people. Flawed characters are more believable, more likely to gain the reader’s sympathies. But the conventional wisdom doesn’t teach how.
In the hands of lesser writers, this usually manifests as a grab bag of random negative traits. Alcoholism, smoking, minor but not debilitating mental illness, snarkiness, cynicism. Poorly handled, these traits add flavor to the story but they do not significantly influence the characters, and therefore do not influence the plot. The result is a patchwork person, a collection of traits and behaviors sewn together and little else.
The best characters have integrity. Their thoughts, emotions and actions flow organically from their personality traits, skills and experience. ‘Strengths’ and ‘weaknesses’ are interpretations of these thoughts, emotions and actions within context. The most profound and believable strengths and weaknesses come from skills and virtues taken to the extreme.
To examine this, let’s look at superhero fiction. In this genre, heroes and villains are larger than life. Their powers elevate them above the masses. Everything they do is big and dramatic and visible, both to the reader and to everyone in the story world. Characters use their powers in accordance with their backstory, experience, skills and personalities. To understand a superhero, we must see who and what he is.
In my superhero series A Song of Karma, Adam Song is a hero with many powers for the price of one. Able to amplify his biological functions, he can boost his speed, reflexes, strength, stamina, senses. He may not be as powerful as a Prime with a single dedicated superpower, but he is far more flexible.
His gift is also his curse. He lives in a state of permanent heightened sensory awareness. After gaining his power, he experienced constant sensory overload, forcing him to learn how to tamp down sensory input and remain calm in the face of chaos. With his enhanced strength, he needs to take care not to break things and people.
This power affects his life in subtle and profound ways. He carries ear protection with him all the time. He stays away from places and events with loud noises whenever he can. He chooses and modifies his gear for maximum durability. His greatest asset is his ability to slow down his subjective perception of time–but in Books 1 and 2, this ability is turned against him in court, kickstarting a spiral of woe.
Driven by duty and honor, he feels compelled to do the right thing, to be of service to mankind. Before he was a Prime, he was police officer, and before that, a Marine Raider. This sense of duty also propels him to seek justice and do everything it takes to protect his loved ones. Even if it means breaking the law.
Book 1, Hollow City, poses a question: what will make a straight-laced cop go rogue? The answer: duty. Duty to society, duty to family, duty to a higher law.
In Book 2, Unmasked, his all-consuming sense of duty again raises its head. Pursued by hitmen and supervillains, yet prevented from leaving the city, the smart move would be to lie low. Instead, he chooses to protect a friend, and later his community, exposing him to great danger.
Adam Song is a superman. But he is also a lonely man. His powers elevated him above humanity, and by choosing to the right things the right way, in obedience to higher laws and strategic imperatives, he stands alone. He has many enemies, requiring him to maintain eternal vigilance. Most civilians around him would never understand him. Even many of his fellow heroes would think him paranoid. Through his own actions, driven by his beliefs, he attracts violence, deception and danger into his life. And he sees no way out of his spiral of torrid karma.
Adam Song’s power and virtues are his greatest strengths. But they are also his greatest weaknesses.
Strengths and weaknesses flow from the same source. A personality trait, a skill, or a virtue expressed to the extreme. Expressed appropriately in a situation suited for it, it is a strength. Expressed inappropriately in a context ill-suited for it, it becomes a weakness.
Loyalty, duty and honor make for a team player, a hero cop, a powerful protector. But these traits, expressed in a different context, transforms a person into a solitary vigilante, a rogue cop, a killer. The same qualities that motivate a police officer to rush to the sound of the guns are the same qualities that demand a citizen to stay in an insanely dangerous situation. They are his strengths and weaknesses, an extreme expression of virtue.
Strengths and weaknesses flow from the same wellspring. No matter how he acts, talks or thinks, the astute reader can easily see the source of his motivations, and link his actions, emotions and thoughts to his character. This creates character integrity. This makes him a man, not a random collection of traits.
What about a villain? He is defined not by virtues, but his vices. How would you apply this principle?
A vice is an excessive or deficient virtue. Courage is a virtue. Taken to excess, it becomes aggression; when it is lacking, it becomes cowardice. Friendliness sits in the middle ground between hostility and people-pleasing. When creating a villain, take a virtue and express it to an extreme of excess or want, and use it as a baseline for his behaviours.
In Book 3, Rogue, Adam Song encounters a dangerous supervillain called Rhino. Rhino is a monster, capable of hulking out into a living tank. He can crush people under his weight, throw cars around like confetti, haul stupendous loads, wear so much armor he is practically invulnerable to small arms.
But his strength is also his weakness. Once transformed, his fingers are too fat to use a firearm. He loses the fine motor skills needed to operate complex machinery — at least, without breaking it. With so much mass to move around, he is slow and needs time to build up momentum. His prodigious strength may break any weapon he picks up. He may have built his reputation and career on his power, but he is also so dependent on it he cannot fight any other way.
When he fights, he must do so face-to-face, up close and personal, so close he can smell the other guy’s breath. Combat and killing at such close quarters just once profoundly changes the human psyche, and Rhino made his career out of it.
He has the gift of natural aggression, and has desensitised himself to extreme violence — especially the raw brutality he can dish out with his bare hands. But these traits, coupled with his lifestyle, also means he is on a permanent hair trigger. The second he sees a threat, he will explode into extreme violence. This explosiveness isolates him from regular society, forcing him to rely on his more socially-adapted friends to act as a bridge between himself and the outside world.
Rhino expresses the vice of aggression, which comes from an excess of courage. His lifestyle cultivated the vice of hostility, a deficiency of friendliness. He still expresses these virtues, but only in stunted ways, usually with his crew.
Character flaws do not exist in isolation. Neither do their strengths. They flow from underlying traits and skills, taken to an extreme in a given context. These traits and skills become strengths when they suit a situation; they are weaknesses when expressed inappropriately for that context. Treat strengths and weaknesses as two sides of the same coin, and you will create a character with integrity–a character who is a human, not a patchwork person.
Want to see Adam Song in action? Check out Hollow City here!
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