Here’s another lesson from my class, Dynamic Characterization, to help you flesh out your characters for NaNoWriMo.
In order for a character to grow during the story (i.e. have a character arc), she needs either a flaw that she’ll overcome or a wound that she’ll manage to heal by the end of the story.
A flaw is a negative personality trait—a trait that causes the character to have a poorer experience of life and that interferes with her ability to become the best possible version of herself. The character may or may not be aware that the trait is negative, and in fact, may actually view this trait as a positive thing.
For storytelling purposes, a flaw is usually a) rooted in a trauma that the character has experienced in the past and b) stabilized by a belief that the character formed in reaction to that trauma.
For example, let’s say our hero, Steve, is a stockbroker and his flaw is greed. Why is he greedy?
Steve grew up in an economically-depressed Midwestern town. His mother’s disability check wasn’t quite enough to keep Steve and his two sisters fed and clothed. Steve worked two part-time under-the-table jobs, starting when he was in fifth grade, but in spite of all his hard work, there was never enough money. And when his mother died of cancer—undiagnosed until it was far too late to treat because she couldn’t afford to see a doctor—he swore he would do whatever it took to get rich. He blamed lack of money, specifically his own inability to earn enough to buy his mother medical insurance, for his mother’s death.
The trauma of his mother’s death caused Steve to form a belief: If I don’t have enough money, I’ll lose the people I love.
Logically, we understand it wasn’t Steve’s fault that his mother died. Teenager Steve wasn’t in a position to hold down a full-time job in order to get his mother medical benefits. It wasn’t Steve’s decision to save money by skipping doctor visits. But Steve is a smart, responsible, loving son who’s been forced to be the “man of the trailer” from a very young age, and to him, it feels like he should have been able to save his mother.
As long as Steve believes that poverty = losing loved ones, he won’t be able to stop being greedy. The second he quits earning money, that terrible fear of losing his sisters and the other people he loves is going to rear its ugly head.
In order to change, Steve is going to have re-examine that childhood trauma and reinterpret the misguided belief that he formed as a result of it.
If we were writing Steve’s story, we might decide that Steve needs to recognize that the local factory where his mother was exposed to carcinogenic is to blame for his mother’s death—and that instead of making millions, his real goal should be to expose the factory’s coverup of its employee’s higher-than-normal cancer rates.
Or we might decide that Steve needs to come to accept that his mother made so many sacrifices because she loved him, and to respect her choice to sacrifice herself for her children. Instead of making millions, maybe his goal should be to honor her sacrifice by doing something meaningful with his life. It depends on what kind of story we’d like to tell about Steve.
But whatever kind of story we put Steve in, he’s going to have to change the belief that stabilizes his flaw before he can fix the flaw itself.
A wound is damage to the character’s psyche caused by a trauma that the character has experienced and that hasn’t yet healed. The character’s problems or limitations arise from her need to protect that wound.
For example, let’s say that Harriet slept with her high-school sweetheart Mike and got pregnant at the age of 16. She was so head-over-heels in love with him that she was sure he’d want to marry her as soon as she told him about the baby. But not only did Mike laugh in her face, he told everyone at school what a slut she was and claimed that she was lying about the baby being his. All of Harriet’s friends abandoned her, and she dropped out of school to become a single mother.
You can see how this trauma might cause Harriet to come to the conclusion that Mike is a scumbag. If he was a football player, Harriet might generalize and decide that all football players are scumbags. But Harriet was a tender-hearted teenager in the throes of her first love when Mike humiliated her—the belief she formed as a result of this horrible experience was: All men are scumbags who’ll destroy you as soon as you fall in love with them.
She’ll cling to that belief as long as she’s carrying around the hurt that Mike inflicted on her, because that belief protects her from being hurt in the same way again. If she doesn’t date, she can’t fall in love, and if she doesn’t fall in love, she can’t be destroyed by someone she cares about.
Flaws and Wounds Shape Your Story
A character’s flaw or wound gives rise to specific behaviors. Given the choice between spending the evening with his wife and daughter or researching a new investment opportunity, Steve is going to choose the opportunity, because he believes that he’s risking losing them both if he doesn’t make more money.
A character’s flaw or wound also gives rise to internal conflict. Given the choice between a legal investment with the potential to make a 10% return and a sketchy investment with the potential to make a 50% return, which do you think Steve will pick? Will he go with the safe investment, because he doesn’t want to risk his ability to support his wife and daughter? Or will he give into the temptation to invest in something questionable, because every dollar he brings in makes him feel like his wife and daughter are safer?
That would be a big dilemma for him, wouldn’t it?
When you understand the relationship between a character’s flaw or wound, the trauma that caused it, and the belief that resulted from it, you start to see how your character arc is going to work. Want to make Steve less greedy or get Harriet to go on a date? You’ve got to put them in situations where they’ll encounter evidence that their stabilizing belief is wrong.
Maybe Steve will make that sketchy investment and get caught—and when he does, he starts to see that money isn’t a guarantee that he’ll be able to protect his family. In the aftermath of his arrest, his wife might have a stress-induced heart attack or his daughter might be bullied by her classmates at the ultra-expensive prep school she goes to. The more Steve tries to buy his way out of trouble, the more problems he creates for himself and his family.
What if Harriet is accused of a crime she didn’t commit? Maybe she was in the wrong place at the wrong time, or maybe she was framed. It looks like she’s going to jail, unless she cooperates with the homicide detective who believes she’s innocent. We’ll want to make this homicide detective the opposite of Mike, the kind of guy who has a chance of proving to Harriet that not all men are scumbags. No matter how hostile Harriet is to Mike, he’s determined to see justice done.
At the beginning of your story, the belief that is stabilizing the character’s flaw or wound is working for him/her. At first Steve’s greed seems like a positive thing—it’s helped him work his way out of total poverty and send his younger sisters to college. It’s helped him win his wife and to give his daughter every benefit that a parent could give a child. It’s pushed him to become one of the savviest stockbrokers in the history of the market.
Likewise, Harriet’s wound has helped her become the strong, independent woman she is today. She’s never relied on a man for anything, and she’s single-handedly raised her daughter, with whom she’s very close. She knows how to fix a leaky sink, how to make a delicious meal from beans and rice and veggies she grows in pots on her apartment balcony, and how to do her own taxes. She’s worked her way up from the mailroom to middle management—she had no choice but to learn quickly so that she could get a job that paid well enough to give her daughter the opportunities Harriet never had.
So when Steve and Harriet are put into situations that trigger their flaw or wound and challenge their stabilizing belief, they’re going to hate it. They’re going to fight tooth and nail to keep these dysfunctional beliefs that seem to be making their lives better.
Come back tomorrow to see how to turn a flaw or wound into a character arc!