Writing Nowadays–Flaws vs. Weaknesses

Odysseus was proud.  Bilbo Baggins was shy and cowardly.  Othello wouldn’t listen.

Superman barfs in the presence of kryptonite.  Vampires die in sunlight.  Silver poisons werewolves.

See the difference?

Every hero has to have a flaw.  A flaw is a mental or psychological problem that hold him or her back in some way.  Odysseus is too proud to acknowledge the gods’ role in the destruction of Troy, so Poseidon curses him.  Bilbo is shy and quiet, and he misses key parts of the adventures early on as a result.  Othello refuses to listen to advice from his friends, which allows Iago to destroy him.  These heroes are strong, powerful people, but their flaws prevent them from realizing their full potential.

These flaws are absolutely necessary.  Heroes tend to be just splendid in so many other ways, so we readers need to see some human-type flaws, or we’ll write the whole thing off as unbelievable.  “No one’s that perfect,” we mutter as we toss the book aside.

Additionally, the author has to have some way to challenge the hero.  I mean, how do you make a paragon of perfection break a sweat?  By poking at their psyches, of course!

Some authors mistakenly giving their hero a weakness instead of a flaw.  A weakness is a physical problem like an allergy to kryptonite, silver, or sunlight.  The author writes a climactic scene in which the hero digs down for the strength to overcome the weakness, and then wonders why readers don’t respond well.  It’s because readers don’t find it particularly interesting.  There’s no emotional satisfaction to the character overcoming a poison by sheer willpower–it’s just another demonstration of the hero being cooler than the reader.

However, we cheer the hero on when he overcomes that pscyhological flaw.  That’s something we sink our teeth into!

Smart writers can find a way to use both weaknesses and flaws.  I just watched the Wreck-It Ralph on DVD, for example.  (Minor spoilers follow, so be warned.)   The protagonist Ralph, a character in a video game, is flawed–he’s unhappy with who he is and the fact that he’s programmed to destroy.  Through the course of the movie, he learns how to make his destructive tendencies into a strength instead of a weakness, and he accepts who he is.  But Ralph also has a major weakness–if he dies outside of his own video game, he can’t “reset” and will die forever.  He never, ever overcomes this.  But he doesn’t need to. The main focus is how Ralph can learn to accept himself.


Another character named Vanelope has a two weaknesses.  She’s a glitch, who fuzzes in and out due to flaws in her coding.  Additionally, she can’t ever leave her game like the other characters can.  Her flaw is that she’s unhappy being a glitch and sees nothing good about it.  As the movie progresses, her perceptions change.  She realizes that being a glitch isn’t just a problem–it gives her POWER.  She gains control of her weakness and uses it to her advantage.  She still can’t leave the game, but by the end, she accepts her status as a glitch and turns it into a position of strength instead of weakness.

Heroes need to overcome their flaws and live with their weaknesses–or turn them into strengths.

–Steven Harper Piziks
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Writing Nowadays–Flaws vs. Weaknesses — 2 Comments

  1. I think of this as character growth. And it’s been a problem as long as novels have been written; Richardson, after getting twitted about the evil Lovelace in Clarissa (though he repents before he dies), created Sir Charles Grandison to prove he could write about a perfect man . . . and had the trouble of no story. So he had to set aside the psychological insights that made Clarissa so interesting to its audience, and throw in a lot of robbers and abductions and melodramatic busy, yet the novel still reads flat as the perfect hero perfectly surmounts all these problems. He never changes.

    That said, for a while, there, the “perfect serial killer” stories seemed to be popular recently, following the success of the Hannibal Lector series. (I also think they will be forgotten, with other fads. Does anyone reread those?)

  2. While Superman’s difficulties with kryptonite are dull, he has an endless fount of angst and misery with his co-workers as Clark Kent. Does Perry respect his writing? Does Lois like him? And so on. It’s the interplay of these two, the powerful superhero with the schmuck in the office, that is so fun. Every time they get away from that the character loses himself.

    I have spent the last couple months getting my hero’s flaw by the neck. I defined it just the other day. He is slippery, and he doesn’t like it.