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.

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