Monday, May 19, 2014

You're So Flawed

First: the Agents of SHIELD finale. SO GOOD! I'm satisfied, but also really excited to see where they go in the next season. Second: life's good. I'm writing a lot, reading a lot, and taking long walks to the library both to get more books to read and to take time to let my mind wander over the stories I'm writing.

So, a few weeks back I find this blog post, "Flaws Only a Protagonist Can Have." I spent a little time laughing over it with my sister. It's too ridiculous! But it's funny because it's really not: I see these kind of flaws all over the YA scene. I can't stand it anymore, which might be why I'm gravitating to MG and adult lately. Clumsiness is not a flaw, unless it directly impacts the protagonist's ability to act. Flaws are also irrelevant if they relate to appearance, unless they directly impact the protagonist's ability to act.

I don't like the word "flaw" when used in character development. It reminds me of "strong female character," and you know how I feel about that from a past post. When a writer sits down to create a character, it can be crippling to feel like you need to make them flawed but still likeable. Hence flaws-that-are-not-real-flaws. The thing is, flaws actually contribute to a likeable character because readers can relate. The character isn't a perfect angel, but human like us. When they fall, we know how it feels and root for the character to get up and try again.

No, I don't like "flaw." I prefer the term"weakness" or even better, "hamartia."

The word "hamartia" is Greek and is most famously from the Poetics by Aristotle. It is usually interpreted as "fatal flaw" or "tragic flaw" because this is the thing, Aristotle says, causes a tragic hero to fall. But the word itself means "a missing of the mark" or "sin" and can cover accidental, purposeful, and mistaken wrongdoing. I like this word because it means that a "flaw" doesn't always have to be bad or actively rebelling. A character doesn't have to be evil to make mistakes or get so blinded (Oedipus, anyone?) to the truth that they act in a way that gets people hurt or harms their objective.

Case study: Frozen. Yes, Anna is clumsy and that is not a real flaw, but she's also super-eager to get out and find romance and because of that, she falls for a sociopath (oh, if you don't know that yet...). This is the flaw that matters, the hamartia. She "misses the mark" on both Hans and Elsa (who, she thinks, would never hurt). Anna's weakness is her naivete in understanding people and her trust in them that they don't deserve. And it hurts her. We, the audience, feel for her because we can relate with her mistake and we want her to fix things. She does, and we are thrilled.

Case study #2: Harry Potter in Order of the Phoenix. According to Hermione, Harry has a "saving people thing." This is very true, because Hermione said it. This character trait causes Harry to miss that Voldemort might be trying to use him, and Harry runs off to save Sirius, thus leading to Sirius's death. If Harry had done nothing, everything would have been fine. The flaw moves the story along, and helps us emotionally connect to Harry.

I think I should point out that eagerness and trust and a desire for heroism are not in themselves bad and flaws. But in context, they are. Most of the best stories have characters whose virtues become their flaws. Boromir just wants to save his people, so he's tempted by the Ring. LOTR is a good example of good people falling to weaknesses that really aren't evil.

That's why I like "weakness" and "hamartia." I think perceiving character weaknesses like this allows for real character development. Who is this character? What is he/she like? How can his/her character traits be used against them and their objective? What might he/she miss because he/she's so focused somewhere else? Let us stop this plague of clumsy girls who don't know they're beautiful.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Feeling Conflicted

The title of this post is meant to be a clever play on my topic today, why conflict matters in a story. It has nothing to do with "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D" and certain feelings I have toward a certain character. I'm not all that conflicted, actually. I want him dead. But it's a Whedon production, so I have a lot of pain to get through before anything like that can happen.

Anyway, conflict. I started my last class of college, a class on writing YA/MG novels. Everyone in the class has to lead a pedagogy exercise. The first one was about conflict and why it's important in telling a powerful story.

This was interesting to me, especially as a genre writer. I've read some criticism of genre that it focuses too much on plot and conflict and not enough on character, and that's a fair point. However, I think that conflict and character go hand in hand. This may be my way of rationalizing conflict in with my overriding philosophy that without good characters, a story won't work as it should.

I do think that a story needs good characters. If the reader's going to spend so much time with them, they have to like them, sympathize with them, relate with them, or just root for them for some reason. I've read books where I either hated the character or felt nothing for them, and I finish the book feeling either meh or cheated, depending. But if we have a character people can root for, they, of course, have to be struggling against something. You don't root for the guy who's doing nothing and has everything going well in his life; you root for the person who has one heck of a battle ahead of him.

Could be to drop the One Ring in Mt. Doom, could be to finally get a new job. But it's got to be hard, relatively speaking, for the character. The best conflicts I've seen have been ones where the conflict seems like just a little (or a lot) more than the protagonist can handle. This may be action (12 men against 1), or it could be mental or emotional. Maybe it takes everything your protagonist has to tell her boyfriend she loves him. Depends on character, depends on what they need to grow and their weaknesses. I've read that the best way to hurt your characters is to hit them where they're weakest. Conflict can come from there, too.

The girl who taught the class on memorable, meaningful conflict asked us to think of stories that had conflict we liked and some that we didn't. The Fault in Our Stars was a top favorite, along with The Lord of the Rings and The Giver. These stories have conflict that is compelling to the reader (think, ouch) and are meaningful in how they impact the reader and the characters (more ouch, but personalized). Stories that didn't make it were Nicholas Sparks romances and action movies, where there's a lot of action but no real feeling of urgency.

She ended with a list of questions for writers to keep in mind when writing conflict, and I'm going to list them here. They were really good and help to think about conflict and characters and how the two interplay to create a compelling story.

1. Why do you (yes, you, the author) care about the conflict?
2. Why should your reader care about the conflict?
3. What does the character want? Can she get it easily? What stands in her way? Should there be more adversity in order for the conflict to feel important?
4. What will she give up in order to obtain her desire? Are these things internal or external?
5. How will getting what she wants affect those around her? Will it hurt them? Help them?
6. What's at risk? How high are the stakes? What will happen if she doesn't get what she wants?
7. Are there issues of time/placement/back story/character clashing that can make this "the perfect storm" (without feeling contrived)?
8. What information does the reader need to see/know in order to understand the weight of the conflict?
9. What failures need to happen before the climax? Successes?
10. What does the character need to learn/become in order to get what she wants? Are there people she needs to meet? Skills she needs to learn? Character flaws she needs to embrace or overcome?

These questions were really useful for me, helping me see some additional pain I could put my character through to heighten the conflict in his story. More conflict, more pain, leads to a more interesting story when it's done well. I guess I can't fault Whedon too much.