26 thoughts on “Writing Excuses Episode 6: Flaws vs Handicaps”

  1. I totally agree, if, say, a blacksmith hurts his hand. He can’t work anymore. But if a writer hurts his he can merely switch hands and continue his work.

  2. Back at the recent Life, the Universe, and Everything, I cornered Dan and Brandon at their book signing and asked them how they developed characters. One of the things I remember from that discussion was that Brandon tried to give each character two internal conflicts, and two external conflicts. I imagine that roughly translates into two flaws and two handicaps.

    Pretty useful, I think.

  3. Two comments:

    1. Howard using Elf as an example of discovering a flaw (and why that flaw existed) was great. I wish Dan had had more time to talk about his sociopath. So far, I’ve found example from your own work to be the more useful so please don’t shy away from using them

    2. Sometimes a handicap can lead to flaws (and, perhaps, strengths). That is, the handicap can warp how a character approaches the world. Two of the best examples that come to mind are literal handicaps — Tyrion and Jaime Lannister in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series both have handicaps. I won’t talk about Jaime’s because that’s a spoiler. But for those who have read the books, recall how much he changes after his circumstances change — how much how he views himself post-change affects how he then relates to people and his environment.

    Tyrion is a complex character, but is there any doubt that the fact that he is a little person is not just an external handicap (and an actual physical handicap), but it also has an affect on his internal flaws (and strengths)? I think that one should be careful not to take the cliched way out and create characters that are their handicap and have that solely drive their flaws. You don’t want to stack the deck.

    But I do think that the best characters have interplay between their handicaps and flaws. Handicaps are there to expose flaws and strengths. A handicap that one has lived with for quite some time can also create flaws and strengths.

  4. Here’s another way to make a flawed character likable. Have other characters in the book be fond of him. I learned this at BYU’s LTUE a few years ago–sorry, I can’t remember who from. The example cited was in The Lord of the Rings; Frodo doesn’t have a lot of thrilling qualities, but Sam, Gandalf and others love him, so we do.

  5. @Wm Morris: Thanks for the praise. I’m glad that example worked for you.

    @C: That’s a GREAT point which we completely failed to make. Where’s your microphone, dude?

  6. I haven’t read Dan’s sociopath book (YET) but I am a fan of the televised version of Dexter (picking up books soon) and what’s great (and frightening) about the character is when I identify with him. Not the killing part, of course, but there are character beats he has with people that i think everyone has – his are just…. exaggerated and more disconnected.

    I guess for some it could also be sort of like the ubermench of Superman but – the darker opposite.

    Oh, he’s definitely flawed – but people wouldn’t say “i’m him” – they would say, “that’s what I’d like to do were I not a lawful good citizen.”

  7. C: The reverse of that is that an annoying character is more likable if they annoy the other characters. Darths and Droids demonstrates this by making Jar Jar Binks likable!

  8. There is a lot of information to cover on this topic.

    I would have liked it had there been a little more on a flaw or handicap versus a quirk.

    I think some handicaps end-up being just quirks. For example, Daredevil has what most people would consider a handicap, but it ends up just being a quirk in the overall story-line.

    I feel that a lot of writers end up reducing handicaps or flaws into quirks, often to the detriment of the story. IMO, a handicap isn’t a handicap if it doesn’t impact how the character can functions with the setting. Same can be said for a flaw, though the flaw also interacts with the conflict of the story.

  9. @42: I suppose we could have expounded a bit on that point, but you’ve pretty much nailed what we did say — a character flaw that isn’t central to the story is a quirk. A handicap that isn’t central to the story isn’t a quirk (because it’s external, not internal, according to our definition) but it’s equally irrelevant.

    A character who sleeps around a lot has a flaw (depending on your morality, I suppose) but unless his bed-hopping gets him in trouble in the story, it’s not important. In fact, if it DOESN’T get him in trouble, you run the risk of pointing up a flaw and saying “this kind of behavior is actually okay.”

  10. Speaker:
    One of the great things about sociopaths in literature is that they possess exaggerated versions of very common traits. Consider the following flaws: you don’t understand other people, they don’t understand you, and you start to feel lonely and cut off from the people around you. That’s a great description of sociopathy AND a great description of adolescence. People can identify with that because most of have been there (or we’re there right now).

  11. Howard:

    I guess I’m having a little trouble understanding the internal problems vs. external problems.

    So internal problems (such as being a sociopath) are flaws. External problems (like being blind) are handicaps. I must not be understanding that very well. It kind of sounds to me as though mental, emotional, or personality handicaps are character flaws where physical handicaps are just handicaps and can’t ever be flaws.

    It kind of implies that writers can’t write about well-adjusted people. It also implies that all mental, emotional, or personality problems are flaws, which is somewhat bigotted.

    Let me give some examples that for me aren’t quite fitting with the definitions presented. In Tuesdays with Morrie, Morrie is very well-adjusted and has a great attitude throughout the book. However, he’s handicapped in that he is old and dying. The conflicts of the book are driven by the physical problems Morrie is experiencing as he’s dying. I suppose the narrator tries to do some internal struggling with facing death, but Morrie is very accepting of the dying process.

    Another example might be A Beautiful Mind. I wouldn’t really say that John Forbes’s schizophrenia is a character flaw. It is an internal struggle, but it’s not really a flaw and it’s not something he overcomes by the end. He still has schizophrenia in the end and isn’t actually all that accepting of it.

    Anyways, there must be something I’m not understanding.

  12. @42: First off, we need to let go of any emotional baggage associated with the words “flaw” and “handicap” in the context of this discussion.

    A crippled character (parapalegic, for instance) is obviously “handicapped” (general usage of the term) but for our discussion that word might not really fit. In fact, for our discussion it’s much more useful to stay out of the grey, and in the clear, black-and-white areas.

    A protagonist who is a philanderer has a weakness. If it is exploited by the antagonist/villian, then we (in this context) would define that as a flaw. It’s helping to drive the story. If it’s NOT driving the story, then it’s just color on the page.

    Now let’s say that our protagonist was caught in his philandering, and the exploitation of it (blackmail!) resulted in him being stripped of his badge and gun. Now we have a character flaw (philandering) AND a handicap (limited power and authority).

    Is this any clearer?

  13. Howard: that does make it clearer. Thank you for responding.

    I still don’t know if I agree entirely with the idea that flaws are internal. There seem to be too many stories that are driven by a character’s limited power and external situations, not by character flaws. Tuesday with Morrie was my example of this. Jean Val Jean in Les Miserables could also be an example from my understanding.

    Perhaps, stories that have rich enough external conflicts don’t really need characters with involved internal struggles to carry them?

    In fact, I seem to remember David Farland saying that there is a trap author’s fall into of thinking that every major character has to have an internal problem or character flaw. When I have time I’ll have to look through my notes to see why.

  14. Jean Valjean has several character flaws in the early parts of the book, and by the time he overcomes them the book starts to focus more on other characters. One of the major themes of Les Miserables, actually, are the reactions that normal, flawed people have to a series of more or less flawless characters. Valjean interacts with a priest and some nuns and Cosette’s mom, both more selfless archetypes than characters, and decides to become a better person. Then other people, like Javert and Marius and Thenardier, interact with the new Valjean (now a selfless archetype) and some decide to be good, some decide to be bad, and some are destroyed by their own indecision. But my point is that yes, Les Miserables does include some flawless characters, but the story is never about them–they become catalysts to action, but don’t fill any kind of protagonist or hero role on their own.

  15. I’d assert that Valjean remains flawed through most of the story. He is very overprotective of Cosette as he raises her and by necessity has become a little paranoid–that is how he’s responded to being a fugitive. Also, he seems to have some kind of need to make those he loves happy and comfortable. This is what got him into bread-stealing at the very start, what conflicts him in part when he saves the mistaken 24601 from prison, and what gets him mixed up with Cosette (whom I’d vote is a handicap) and the rebellion. That’s a rather counter-intuitive flaw, but it nevertheless is one for someone who is on the run from the law (another handicap). Oh, and even through the end he seems to find it very difficult to forgive himself of minor sins committed decades before, while his forgiveness for others is virtually limitless. I think the story would be very different if he had the ability to step back and say, “Hmm, maybe I can’t burden myself with these other people right now. I’ve got that nasty Javier after me.”

    Of course, my understanding of the story is limited to the musical, and so that might ultimately be a different story than the actual book.

  16. Sorry to keep posting on this discussion.

    Dan: So you’re saying that Jean Valjean isn’t the protagonist throughout most of the book? I don’t think I agree with that. It seems like you’ve forced your definition of protagonist on the book. I feel that Jean ValJean remains a protagonist throughout the book. So I guess, I’m not converted to your definition of a protagonist. It feels too constrictive.

    Hezekiah: I never really saw Jean Valjean as being overprotective of Cosette in the book. Protective–yes, overprotective–no. It was Cosette’s decision to reject his protectiveness because of what she wanted, not because Jean Valjean’s protection was excessive.

    Course, Hezekiah’s response does make me think that perhaps the author doesn’t have complete control over what the reader will deem as a flaw. Readers are free to decide if a character has a flaw even if the author did not intend for that character to have a flaw. Readers are also free to ignore what a author may have intended to be a character flaw.

    I still think that for some characters, they have exernal traits that are more than handicaps. The Miracle Worker without a deaf and blind Hellen Keler doesn’t work. Helen Keller may have some internal character flaws, but her external handicaps are driving the conflict of the story. Being deaf and blind are part of her character and drive many of her other character traits, if not all of them. For many characters there are just many external factors that are central to their character.

    Course, I’ve heard people argued that Helen Keller is really the antagonist in the Miracle Worker and I can see that as valid.

    Also, I guess I’ll always think if Superman as a protagonist even when there are no apparent flaws in him. I don’t know if he needs a flaw.

    Antagonist seem like they may need character flaws more than protagonists need them. In fact, I’m not sure it’s a good idea to give flaws to protagonists in stories where there is suppose to be a strong contrast between good an evil.

    I’ve probably written too much, I’ll shut up now.

  17. Let’s be clear on something: while lots of good literature features main characters with flaws, obviously exploitable character flaws are NOT a requirement. If the story works without them, you don’t have to retcon your analysis of the story, or redefine “flaw” so that the theory fits.

    This is art we’re talking about. Not mathematics. It is not absolute.

  18. Hezekiah and 42, I think you both make some really good points, but I maintain my stance that Valjean is not a main character in the second half of the book–not because I have an over-restrictive definition of a protagonist, but because I just don’t think the book is about him any more. Of course, it’s been 15 or so years since I read it, so I might be remembering wrong.

    Howard said it best–don’t get bogged down trying to assign hard definitions to a fluid, artistic medium.

  19. Dan – specifically responding to your earlier response to me but – EXACTLY. I think that’s one of the major appeals of Dexter – he often talks about having to put on a mask to appear normal to everyone else, which is very much a sociopath but… as a geek working in a very old fashioned southern office, it also describes how I feel on a daily basis as well.

    Everyone here talks about hunting and football while I keep my opinions on my most recent comic books to myself. :)

  20. I just wanted to say that I am really enjoying these ‘casts, as I am working towards [hopefully!] getting published someday.
    That being said, I chose a slightly different road for my character. My main character–a “sociopathic mercenary” to combine the terms used in this ‘cast, is at all times viewed from the eyes of the woman who is slowly falling for the tormented inner him, the person he would be if he could lay down his vengeful quest. It starts out simply, and continually works towards complication. She can’t stand him, then she admires his professionalism, then onward.
    That being said, I certainly wouldn’t turn down advice from real, published authors………… ;-)

  21. I just recently started listing to Writing Excuses. I loved the episode about killing darlings and now I’ve started thinking. I know that it’s very easy to have the main character become your darling. I’ve done this before and I know it’s a big mistake. My question is this: would giving the character a really good flaw be enough to remedy the situation, or would you have to get rid of the character (and probably the whole premise of the story)?

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