Friday, January 21, 2011

Perfectly Flawed

It seems contrary to define a good hero as flawed. Yet the best of them, the ones who linger in our memory long after others have faded and been forgotten, are the ones with a flaw, a weakness, a foible that pricks like a thorn in the flesh.

Rachel recently mentioned the same idea. She wrote that characters, in order to become real to the reader, should be given human needs and failings. They should have the same problems the rest of us have.

I want to explore this a little more in-depth. John Truby writes about weakness and need in the hero as absolutely essential to a good story. In fact, in his list of Seven Key Steps of Story Structure (in his book Anatomy of Story), he lists it as the number one step, or stage, of growth in the story. (It comes even before desire, which we know is the driving force of the story.)

From the very beginning of the story the hero’s flaw must keep him from achieving his desire. Truby says that the flaw is so profound that it’s ruining his life. The journey your character takes over the course of your story should see him overcome his weakness. He writes that “need is the wellspring of the story and sets up every other step.”

This is logical and very sound advice because first, your hero is human and must overcome his own foibles, and second, everything your hero does is based on his flaws, based on what he will, or will not do, according to whatever weakness you’ve given him.

But Truby takes this idea even further and cautions that your hero should not be aware of his flaw at the beginning of the story. He says that if your hero is aware of his weakness, the story is over. The time for self-revelation is at the end of the story, after having made the journey.

Not only does your hero need a psychological weakness, he should have a moral one too. Truby makes a distinction here - a psychological weakness is one that hurts only the hero. A moral flaw is one that hurts others. A character with a moral deficit is, at the beginning of the story, hurting others but learns to treat others decently.

Most stories, he says, have a character with just a psychological weakness and not a moral one. But here’s the thing: when a villain lacks morals he quickly gains the upper hand with a hero who does have them. The story becomes predictable at this point. If your hero is morally flawed, he’s going to keep the reader and the bad guys guessing.

Truby, bless his heart, doesn’t leave his readers hanging here. He offers a few guidelines on creating a moral weakness for your hero. He suggests first finding the psychological weakness and then figure out what kind of immoral act might naturally result from that weakness. The source of that action is the “deep-seated moral weakness” of your character.

Only now do you introduce desire. Seems rather backward, at first, until you realize that desire and need are interconnected. Desire is what your hero wants, his needs/weaknesses/flaws are what keep him stumbling, they are the Achilles heel your villain will use against him. Put another way, need is internal and desire is external. At the end of the story, when desire is met, the hero has also met his moral and psychological needs.

One last caution from Truby: your reader should believe the story is about your hero’s desire. Need is hidden from the reader, even though it is the “foundation” of your story. Flaws give your character a chance to change, and this change - the internal journey of your character - makes the story meaningful. And that, Truby says, “makes the audience care. Don’t skip that first step. Ever.”

If you want to read more about Truby’s method, I recommend his book, “The Anatomy of Story, 22 Steps To Becoming a Master Storyteller.”


  1. Susan, this is making me think about my MC. The psychological weakness is easy, but the moral...I'm not sure there is one. Back to the thinking zone. Thanks for this post.

  2. Hey Zan Marie, not every hero will have a moral flaw. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I wonder about Truby's assertion that a story becomes predicable if the hero doesn't have one. I think watching a hero struggle while at the same time keeping his morals intact would be a very satisfying story.

  3. Susan,
    (hero struggle while at the same time keeping his morals intact)
    That would describe my Laura Grace.

  4. I like reading stuff like this cos it makes me think, but it also makes me panic a little when I can't come up with quick answers [g]
    For one thing, I don't have a cut and dry villain. I have parent-child issues and a main villain near the end of the story.
    Okay, Rosa's psychological weakness is her fear of being left alone/left behind. This didn't just come about after the accident that separated her from her family followed by Santiago's revelation; no, she's had it building for a while due to two things - confusion caused by her family converting to Catholicism but keeping up certain Judaic practices in secret, plus the birth of her younger brother three years ago - suddenly there are two sons in the family, and rather than being an adored daughter, she's kind of been shunted to the side more often of late.
    So... what sort of immoral act might result from this? At the start, on the contrary, it pushes Rosa to a hugely moral act - risking herself to save some of her other Jewish relatives from the Inquisition (though she does put Arcturus into jeopardy by asking his help, he goes in willingly).
    Later on... Well, her fear does push her to do things that others might deem immoral - dressing as a boy and entering the palace to petition the Sultan, confronting Baha's father by herself, attacking a Janissary or two...
    But I'm not sure if that's quite what Truby meant. And I like your and Zan Marie's idea that it's just as satisfying to watch a character try to keep his morals intact.
    And oh yea - did I mention, sleeping with a man she's not married to? [eg] Since, you know, she doesn't *know* she's going to marry him a few weeks hence...

  5. Deniz, according to Truby's definition, the immoral act hurts others. I think Baha rather enjoys Rosa's immorality. Don't think too hard about it. You may not have a story that calls for a moral weakness, just like Zan Marie's. My own story could go either way. Nathan is pretty firm about what lines he'll cross. I haven't considered how he could be hurting someone other than himself, but plan to, just to see where the idea takes me.

  6. Thanks Susan! I think he enjoys it too [g]
    I suppose the struggle could also be that she finds herself doing these unexpected things for the first time and it's kind of scary cos she doesn't know what the consequences will be...

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