If you're anything like me you spend hours, days, and maybe even months building what you hope will be believable "real life" characters. Heck, for a few of my characters this process is still going on. (And I'm already on my second draft.)
Character development can be a lot of fun, but it can stress you out too.
These are the people that will have to carry your reader through your novel, so they had better be good.
And what would a person be without flaws?
FLAWS AND STRENGTHS
There is a ton of advice out there on building characters and one of the things they all say is to give your character flaws. Big flaws, little flaws, maybe some flaws that only come out in certain situations (such as when your character is pushed to the absolute limit) you need some of each if you want your characters to jump off the page.
So, if you've done your job right, you'll have plenty of flaws to use in todays little experiment.
Of course, your characters will have their selling points too.
A reader would no doubt become aggravated, or worse bored, with a character that didn't have any redeeming qualities.
But you'll see that those strengths can also be turned around and used to bring conflict to the character so that at the end of it all they'll seem more like flaws than the strengths you originally intended.
Let's create a quick character sketch.
This character will have three positive character traits and three negative ones.
Negatives: 1) Flaky 2) Nosy 3) Reckless
Positives: 1) Easygoing 2) Curious 3) Kind
The Sketch: This young woman is curious, kind and loves to meet new people. This desire gives the impression of Nosiness that many find unappealing. She sees this but it doesn't stop her from trying to be a part of other people's lives. However, her friends would say that it seems more like she wants to be "known" as a part of their lives, rather than actually being invested.
Okay, so now we have a character to work with. You probably noticed this character sketch doesn't really go into why she has these particular flaws and strengths, which is definitely an important element in developing a character. That's a post for another time, though.
For this post we will be focusing only on the flaws, the strengths and how they might be used in unexpected ways.
THE FLAW BECOMES AN ASSET
Let's start with her tendency toward nosiness.
Have you ever known someone who just can't keep to themselves. There are no lengths they won't go to to get the next juicy bit of gossip.
This kind of person can be annoying and invasive. Someone you probably avoid opening up to, lest your secrets become the next headline.
Who would you go to if you needed information on someone else?
Who always seems to know everything about everyone?
The nosy ones. Right?
Now imagine this scenario:
Our MC is out their being her nosy self, when she stumbles on a door that is slightly ajar. A normal non nosy person would mind their own business and walk away. Not our MC, though. She just has to know what's behind that door. Turns out it's the missing girl who was kidnapped the week before and our MC's nosiness saves the day!
What about Recklessness though?
Can her proclivity to talk first and think later really ever be a good thing?
Our MC just got the juiciest bit of gossip about the handsome guy next door. He has a secret storage shed where he keeps a beat up old car. She just has to tell someone. She decides to confide in her brother the detective working the kidnapping case. As she does so, her brother realizes that the next door neighbor is the kidnapper because the kidnapper has that same model of car. She cracks the case!
Okay so this somehow turned into a Thriller/Mystery, but you see where I'm going, right?
Now, let's take a look at the other side of the coin.
THE STRENGTH BECOMES A WEAKNESS
Let's start with the least likely candidate.
At this point you're probably thinking I've lost it.
How could Kindness ever be a bad thing?
To that I would simply ask the question:
Have you ever been taken advantage of?
Con artists, bad politicians, and even toxic family members all know that a human beings desire to be kind can be used against them.
What if our MC decided to trust some personal information to our Kidnapper? What if that's how he ends up catching/finding his victim? Her desire to be kind (in this case treating everyone the same/as friends) leads to her being an unwitting accomplice.
What about her Curiosity?
Curiosity is usually seen as a good thing. After all wanting to know more about your world shows intelligence and a level of energy that can help shape the world.
Yet that old saying, "Curiosity killed the cat" exists for a reason.
If our MC spends her time spying on a kidnapper/potential killer, it could easily land her on his list of targets.
In this way you can build scenes that use your characters strengths as weaknesses.
Don't get me wrong. I don't think we should be exalting character flaws or trying to trash good character traits. I don't want you to walk away from this post only ever writing scenes where a good guy gets twisted into a bad guy who has decided humanity isn't worth the ground we walk on.
The purpose of this post is to introduce an element of character development you might not have considered. A way for your characters to show off their humanity in a real and believable way.
If our character is too kind, maybe she gets hurt. But if she then decided to be kind anyway, despite the chance of being used, hasn't she grown a bit stronger.
Say our character's nosiness does get her the info necessary to solve the case, but then the killer knows she's the one he needs to take out to get away with it all. In that case she might come out of it all with a healthier understanding of boundaries.
It's the little ways your character's strengths and weaknesses play off each other (and the rest of the world) that will bring your story to life.
Think of it this way: To use a flaw as a strength is to give your character an opportunity to show off in an unexpected way. To use a strength as a weakness is to let your character fail in a situation where they would normally succeed.
So take a minute to apply this thought to your own characters and see what you can come up with.
What do you think?
Do you have any tips or pointers to bring out your character's strengths and weaknesses?
If so, leave them in the comments below. :)