Being a Better Writer: Characters with Weaknesses

Welcome back! And welcome newcomers! I’ve been getting a lot of hits from Reddit’s r/writing, so those of you that are new, welcome to Unusual Things!

Now, first things first. Counting today, we are only four days colony-finalfrom the release of Colony! I’m keeping track of the numbers, and it has already seen more preorders than Unusual Events. Plus they keep rolling in! Still, that leaves four days for that record to have a nice, high bar by the time of release, so if you haven’t pre-ordered your copy of Colony yet, now’s the time! Hit the link and go! Or if you’ve already ordered it but know someone else who will enjoy it, fire them the link! Or share it on Facebook or your social media site of choice! The more eyes get a look, the better!

Right, enough plugging. It’s time to talk about writing!

So this week we have a request topic from a reader, but it’s one of the ones that is far more into the nuts and bolts end of things. More specifically, it’s right into the nitty-gritty of characters, which is something I can really dig into (and deliver on, if my reviews are any indication).

Anyway, this reader wanted to know how to go about writing characters with weaknesses. Specifically, they were curious about how they could go about writing a character with physical disabilities, such as one that was wheelchair bound or missing a limb.

This is an excellent question, because similar to writing about gender, there’s definitely a right way to go about it … and a wrong way.

But I’m not going to launch right into it. We’re going to do a bit of a lead-in first. And to do that, I want to talk a little bit about a subject that I’ve covered before: overpowered and underpowered characters.

For those who haven’t read that particular post (if you’d like, you can go read it now, I’ll wait), the gist of it is that the real challenge to creating a character is giving them enough skills and talents to overcome the challenges in front of them in clever ways, rather than simply handing them an ability that nullifies said challenge. Obviously the post goes into a bit more depth, but that’s the crux of it: You create a character that has a certain skill set, and then let them use that skill set in clever or unique ways to overcome the challenges placed in front of them. Basically, you make a character who is clever who then makes good use of their strengths (and here’s the important part) and weaknesses to succeed.

I bring this up to highlight two things. First, that bit about being clever and making good use of what one has. The second is that bit about using strengths and (note the emphasis) weakness to succeed.

See, characters need weakness. Why? Because it makes them human. We all have weaknesses, from the standard to the strange. Myself? I’ve got a couple, sure. Some are obvious human flaws, while others are more strange (like my fear of dentists and people messing with my teeth).And those weaknesses are part of what helps our characters not only feel human, but astonishing and triumphant when they overcome the challenges in front of them.

Now, all of this is stuff I’ve talked about before (in several posts, no less), so I really don’t need to retread it. I just wanted to get you thinking in the right vein. Our characters need weaknesses along with their skills, and then they need to be clever.

So let’s talk about weaknesses in the vein of what my reader asked about. We’re not talking about basic flaws and weaknesses today, things like “can never remember names” or “has a short, brusque attitude.” No, we’re going to talk about something a bit more difficult. What about a character that has a phobia? Severe anxiety? Depression?

Well, let’s get one thing clear first. These and all the other issues we’ll talk about today? We have to be careful first of how we approach them. The attitude with which we talk about them. For example, while we refer to anxiety as a weakness, having it does not mean that someone is weak, and we need to make sure that in our writing we don’t present it as such. A person can be weak, yes. But not because of a phobia, fear, or issue such as anxiety. There are people that have severe fears of heights that still go on roller coasters, despite feeling that fear every step of the way. Having a fear does not make one weak as an exclusive action.

Likewise, it won’t do that to your characters either. A character who suffers from depression, fears and phobias, or any other kind of similar malady is simply a character who suffers from that malady. It doesn’t mean that they are weak because of it. In fact, it can be quite the opposite—living with such an affliction can give a character (or a real person) a surprising amount of fortitude.

My point is that straightaway, when we sit down to write a character with an affliction like this, we need to make sure straightaway that we’re sending the right impression of said character through text and prose. Depending on the writer, this may be a bit of a balancing act. We need to watch what we write so that we are presenting a character with a weakness, not a character who is weak due to said weakness.

I worry I’m not explaining this properly, but it is important one to note that there is a distinction between our flaws and being a flaw. For example, like I mentioned earlier, I have human failings, but that doesn’t mean I am my failings. Sands, some people I’ve opened up to are quite surprised at what I consider my weaknesses, simply because I spend time working on them so that they don’t drag me down.

So right, character with a flaw, not a character that is a flaw. Keep it distinct, both in prose and in style. The one exception? Character POV stuff, because characters have flaws, and those flaws can be their view of the world.

For example, in the story Ripper, one of the key failings of the main character is that all she sees when she looks at others is the flaw (even if they don’t at all have it, to be honest), and has let her entire perspective be warped by that view. Which made it a very hard story to write because it had to be clear in the story itself that this was how the viewpoint character saw the world, rather than the way things were. And that is very, very hard to do.

Right, so first thing: If you’re going to write about a character with a weakness like depression, anxiety, etc, be sure to draw the line between what they struggle with and who they actually are. Start with that in mind.

Now, step two. Which you will need to do.

Research.

Got that? I’ll say it again. Bolded, this time, for emphasis. Research.

Now, this can vary based on what exactly you’re writing and the severity (for example, a phobia of heights that an author has can very clearly be translated to phobias of other things with a little research), but do your blasted research! Are you writing a character who suffers from anxiety? Do some research on the topic!

And I don’t just mean read a news report on the subject. We live in the internet age. We can find the blogs and journals of those who are afflicted with the same struggle our character may be, and we can read their real, personal accounts to see how their own challenge shapes their world. It can give us an idea of what it’s like living with it, doing day-to-day living with it, etc. It might be nothing. It might be major. It might crop up in surprising places or ways. But you won’t know—and therefore your character won’t—unless you do the research.

And bear in mind, I’m not talking about “negatives” here. Earlier, when I mentioned people that are afraid of heights who’ll still get on a massive roller coaster? For them (or at least for me), that’s a triumph over their own, irrational fear. So take that and carry it forward, and what daily triumphs might someone with, say, depression, have? What sort of everyday activity would be different for them?

Let me give you an example of this in action. When I wrote the side story to Rise starring Sky, Carry On, I knew up front that it was going to be about her suffering from aftereffects from the team’s first mission. Sort of like PTSD.

So I did some research. First I poured over a bunch of research summaries and informational sites on PTSD and other forms of combat shock. Along the way, I found that PTSD, given the timeframe, wasn’t actually of what Sky would suffer from, but rather ASD, or Acute Stress Disorder. So I did some reading up on that and how it could become PTSD, etc.

Then I went a step further. Armed with the knowledge I’d gained, and I Googled for personal blogs of soldiers and other people suffering from ASD as well as PTSD, and read through them. These were public journals, blogs basically, that soldiers and other individuals suffering from ASD had written about their lives and put up online both to act as a conduit for helping understand their own struggles, and for others to learn from. They talked about the different things they’d had to deal with as a result of having ASD/PTSD, what ordinary things had surprised them with sudden difficulty, etc.

The result? Armed with this knowledge, I went and wrote Sky’s story, wherein she suffered from and then started on the road to recovery from ASD. And it was a great story that got a lot of positive feedback. Better yet, in that positive feedback I had at least one reader write me and say that they story felt very real as it was accurate to their own experiences with PTSD and the struggle they had to overcome it. It wasn’t just an accurate story, it was accurate in that it depicted the struggles ASD brought … but also the victories that could be had in experiencing it.

So, I reiterate. Research. Do it. We have a wealth of knowledge and experience at our fingertips with a web browser, and we need to make use of it. If you’re going to write about a character who struggles with a mental disorder, or a phobia, or something similar, learn about it. Get it right.

With this comes a slight alert, however. Keep it accurate, yes, but also keep it interesting.

Now, I’m not saying that you have to juxtapose someone’s struggles with anorexia against a pack of marauding, vicious, invading aliens, or someone else’s fight against a fear of the dark with a bank robbery (though done right, both of those ideas are fine), but rather than you want to make sure that while accurate, you don’t overwhelm the reader with either knowledge or a lack of “motion” in the story.

For example, I recall one author who commented that he had to do a lot of work on a sequel to one of his books because of the depression of one of the main characters. It wasn’t that it wasn’t accurate, but rather that one of those accurate elements he was portraying was the “I don’t feel like doing anything” bit of depression.

Accurate? Sure. But how exciting a book does one have when one of the primary characters doesn’t want to interact with the plot, characters, or events?

Yeah, not a very gripping one. The story just dragged when focusing on that character.

The lesson? While it is important that we capture weaknesses accurately, we need to remember to ask ourselves what they add to the story. Are their facets we should just mention in passing rather then delving into. Could that be for matters aside from how engaging it is? Does it add to the story or detract from it? Is it a bit too sensitive or on the nose for the audience we’re writing towards?

All of these are things we should consider. What adds to what we’re writing and what detracts from it? What angle should we approach certain topics at, if at all? Consider who you’re writing for and what you’re adding to the story. After all, remember the beginning of this post? We want to see characters overcome struggles through clever use of their strengths and weaknesses, not simmer in them.

And on that note, we’re going to move a bit more towards the specific area asked by the reader who sent in this topic; that of physical weaknesses or disabilities. And to that end, while everything I’ve said thus far matters (differences between a flaw and flawed, research, keeping it interesting), there’s something else that links both of these together that you’ll need to avoid like the plague.

Melodrama.

Now, I’ve spoken about this before (just click this link and hop down to the spot on avoiding it for a nice summary) but I’m going to mention it again.

What’s melodrama? Well, basically it’s a cheap ploy on human emotions to establish sympathy (but in my experience, often runs right into pity). And when it comes to topics like those that we’re discussing today, well … ooh boy, are they milked for all they’re worth. And I have only one thing to say about it.

Don’t. It’s cheap. Worse, it’s patronizing. Don’t play the sympathy card by writing yet another story about how hard Janet’s life is because she’s suffering from anxiety and the reader should feel bad for her.

No, if we’re going to feel for Janet, or Jeremiah, or Jenny, or whoever, let it be for something other than melodrama. Don’t play up a weakness just to make the reader feel bad for someone.

Why? Because that’s just a form of “feeling sorry for one’s self” in a cathartic way. And those who actually struggle with depression, or being bound in a wheelchair, etc, aren’t exactly all about feeling sorry for themselves. No more than any one of us is about moping about our problems.

So, don’t do melodrama. Do real drama if you’re going to go on that angle. But at the core? These characters are people just like everyone else. They might put their pants on differently rather than one leg at a time, but they’re still wearing pants. They have talents, they have skills, and they have weaknesses.

Now, how to bring all that together into one cohesive whole? Well, again, this goes back to me mentioning overpowered and underpowered characters earlier. We give our characters strengths and weaknesses so that they’re human, and then give them challenges that they overcome through clever use of their strengths and weaknesses.

Things like anxiety, missing a limb, etc? They can be both. They can be a weakness. They can be a strength. They can be a strength that flips to a weakness or back again. For example, I once read a fantasy series where the main character lost their hand in the first book’s climatic fight. Come the sequel, he’d had it replaced with a tough but durable metal attachment. In many ways it was a weakness (the character commentated, IIRC, on having to learn how to do everyday things with one hand and a “brace”), but at the same time, it was also a strength. He could detach and attach different attachments as needed, and during an assassination attempt, used his metallic replacement to catch a knife, turn the blade, and then steal the weapon altogether, tossing it to his other hand and turning it on its owner.

Weakness? Strength? I guess what I’m really saying is that it comes down to how you use it. Write it properly, certainly. But at the end of the day, what your character makes of it is up to them and you.

Weaknesses and shortcomings can be a fantastic source of insight into another person’s life. They can also be a source of conflict and difficulty. By the same token, they can be a source of resolution, potential, and success. Think of any weakness or affliction that people can struggle with, and you can probably find with a little thought some sort of success that can come from it, even if it’s just taking the resolution and the lessons that character had to learn to live with and applying them to a new setting or situation.

I guess in the end, that’s all I really have to say about the topic. We can’t ignore it, certainly, no more than we can ignore the contributions of a man like Stephen Hawking to physics. People have phobias, mental struggles, or are otherwise imperfect.

But so what? They’re still people. And likewise, our characters will still be characters, either well-written or poorly-written.

Approach these issues with respect. Note how we write about them, keep your narrative wording in mind as well as your character POVs. Do the research so that you can accurately portray the topic you’re writing about. This is sensitive stuff for some. Get your details aligned.

But don’t forget to keep it interesting. Don’t forget your genre nor your audience. Keep the struggles in line with what you’re working on. However, do not let your story slip into melodrama in an effort to garner cheap sympathy. If you want sympathy, write a story that reaches for real drama, not fake appeal. Don’t patronize.

But above all? These are characters, people (or dragons or what have you) like anyone else. Their strengths and weaknesses make up a part of them, and can swap, change, and morph based on how the character reacts and makes use of them.

So, without delving into very specific examples, I think that this is the best I can do to answer the question I was given. You have a character in a wheelchair, or terrified of water? Treat them like any other character. Like you would a lumberyard worker or a superhero. Learn your stuff so the facts are right, and then let them struggle with their own strengths and weaknesses, as human (for good or ill) as the rest of us.

Good luck. Now get writing!

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