Character development is one of the most important big picture elements writers need to focus on when they begin a novel. Both internal and external development boil down to a character’s strengths and weaknesses.
The terms “character strengths,” “character weaknesses,” and “character flaws” are often used to describe internal and external markers (such as high intelligence, impatience, self-righteous, athletic, beautiful, etc.). They can be considered either positive or negative (although many can cross over) in the sense that they impede or benefit the character’s journey.
However, in this day and age of social consciousness, we have to be really careful how we use words like “weakness” or “flaw” when we describe a character and his behavior or personality. The backlash that a writer gets for saying that obesity or dyslexia (for example) are flaws is not unusual.
But for writers trying to build a three-dimensional character who needs to start his journey from a point of unfulfillment, dissatisfaction, or other lesser levels, a characteristic like “obesity” would be considered a flaw that needs to be overcome in some way. Either the character grows to accept obesity or loses weight—all depends on the journey the character is undertaking.
The problem though is if the characteristic we’re categorizing as a “flaw” is actually one that can’t be controlled by the character (dyslexia, ADHD, weight, age, etc.), you might rub your reader the wrong way.
I have been witness to more than a few arguments where people have gotten truly riled up at the notion that certain characteristics are described as “weaknesses.” I understand the argument, but in all honesty, writers need categories to help them stay organized so they can write realistic stories. There is usually (can’t speak for everyone) no offense intended, and yet, we still find ourselves embroiled in arguments all over how a word is defined and interpreted.
Because I got books to write, I decided that instead of “flaw,” “weakness,” or “strength” I will use the term “marker.” This seems to be a more neutral word and could be used to describe all strengths and weaknesses—without offending anyone.
That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
How to use markers to develop characters
You want to make sure your character has a healthy combination of markers that both impede and benefit his journey. Tie these markers to his story goal.
There can be many markers, but you want to settle on a few markers that define your character, that impact his journey and his arc from beginning to end of the book. Then sprinkle the less influential markers where appropriate, to keep things interesting.
Markers in a protagonist
1. List five markers that benefit your protagonist’s journey toward his goal.
2. List five markers that impede your protagonist on their journey.
3. Write a scene where your protagonist demonstrates at least one of each type of marker in the first five pages.
Readers will bond with your protagonist through beneficial markers, because they reveal the worth in your character. Protagonists are ten times more realistic and enjoyable, though, when they display markers that limit them in some way. That’s why it’s important to have a little bit of both going on.
Markers in a sidekick
Sidekicks are the buddies of your main characters. They usually offer a lighter side to the story, tend to see the nuances of what is happening, and often are the catalysts for your main character to pull himself out of his Dark Hole and take one more chance. For this reason, they need to be highly individualized so that the reader can believe the force of their impact.
1.List three markers that benefit your sidekick’s story goal
2. List three markers that impede your sidekick’s story goal
3. Write a scene where your sidekick demonstrates one of each type of marker so that it creates inner conflict.
Markers in an antagonist
The best kind of antagonist is the one who has compassion or reluctance to some degree—not necessarily for your protagonist, but to a person, environment, or idea in his everyday life. This will make him unpredictable and sympathetic—which actually makes him more dangerous because your protagonist may fool herself into thinking the antagonist has limits.
1.List three markers that benefit your antagonist’s story goal
2. List three markers that impede your antagonist’s story goal
3. Write a scene where your antagonist demonstrates one of each type of marker so that we see his main problem become worse.
Character markers that benefit and impede a journey are much more interesting than markers that have no impact at all, what would be termed as “neutral.” Test the markers you have to make sure they matter, that they aren’t simply there to “tag” your characters so that readers can keep them straight. Sure, brown hair could be a neutral marker OR it could be a defining quality that creates a problem for your character. Try to put all of your markers to use so we can see them in action and behavior. Any marker you find that can’t benefit or impede a journey, ask yourself if you really need it. It’s a great way to help you tighten your writing.
What are some of your favorite markers to use that benefit and impede a character’s journey? Share in the comments!
Have a writerly day!