Roughly a month ago, I wrote about the positive traits of antagonists. Today, I am taking it from the other side: how a hero’s traits can slow him/her down from a potentially invincible problem-solver to a relatable character.
There are different ways to achieve that. It might be an outright character flaw. It might be a trait that is not really a flaw but slows one down nevertheless. It might be a memory of tragic past one is unable to put behind or an “attachment” to someone else in any form. I’ll go through some of the cases and delve into them.
Why not start with something I know very well first-hand? Writer’s doubt is something many writers face and thus they can relate to doubt and its many forms. A hero likely won’t doubt his writing skills but the feeling is not that different from having doubt in anything else. Sometimes, a hero just doesn’t have a good choice, only several choices on different levels of bad. If it’s impossible to say at the moment what is worse and the situation demands a quick decision only to later see there were better options, it might lead to doubt in making (good) choices. Making a mistake that leads to a friend’s death will lead to doubting one’s leadership skills or the ability to protect others. Failing to prevent a catastrophe might lead to doubts regarding one’s ability to persuade others about the significance of the looming threat. The options go on and on…
This can follow from the previous. If events pile on the doubt, it might turn into fear. Fearing that whatever you do, it can’t stop what’s coming – that can cripple even the most brilliant mind. It might lead to attempts to hand the responsibility over to someone else or seeking validation/advice from someone who has more experience. It might lead to moments of solitude and introspective to find a way out.
And, of course, there might be smaller fears – like fearing spiders or snakes or whatever creepy crawlies come to your mind. Sounds insignificant but when you have to go into a place filled with them, it’ll test you.
I’ve touched this point in a standalone post once. To sum it up – if a character has morals, making a decision on the spot gets increasingly difficult if one has to consider whether or not it’s right to take a given course of action. A hero will usually not kill needlessly if there’s a hope that the ‘target’ can reform. Breaching one’s morals, even when pushed to it in extreme conditions, might lead to doubts – either about one’s skills or the point of morals in general (probably likely in ‘fall to darkness’ type of story).
The main difference tends to be that protagonists take consequences into account when deciding how to deal with an enemy. If they are holed in a well-defended city and ready to use the inhabitants as cannon fodder, they’ll not give the command to start a siege and try infiltration instead. They might choose a more difficult path because the easy way would have consequences they might not be able to bear. It might bring a different type of character conflict when they vouch for a tactic that has lower consequences while those making the decision would opt for a more straightforward approach with massive collateral damage. They might want to take the time to understand their enemy to make sure that their approach will bring an end to the conflict instead of creating countless zealots willing to cause even more trouble in their attempts to avenge their defeated mastermind.
Curiosity is a double-edged blade. It can lead a character to try finding a better way to deal with a problem. It can lead it on a side-journey for something that’ll not come close to the impact one hoped for – and thus give the enemies more time to prepare in his/her absence.
It can also lead to situations when a character is so wanting to find a better way, spending days and weeks in research, to the point that his/her focus will backfire and the character won’t spot something he/she’d otherwise spot instantly because of being too submerged into it and not having the necessary distance. It’s something I know well from writing – and something that gave me a few lessons.
Emotions are something that makes the characters relatable. Probably the most. Events can trigger a variety of emotions which, in turn, change how a character reacts compared to having a clear mind. Someone who is a pacifist might be brought to violence in a fit of rage when provoked. Seeing something one is not prepared for might cause grief, helplessness or desire for revenge, based on the character.
An emotional response might eventually lead to introspective about the choice and eventually doubt. Or to a desire to learn more in order to avoid making bad decisions when taken over by emotions.
Friendship and love
Probably the most realistic ‘hindrance’. I already touched this topic when I wrote about romance elements in fantasy. If there’s something that sets protagonists and antagonists apart, it’s the fact that most protagonists will make sure those they care for are out of danger and, if they get in danger, that they are safe as soon as possible. While both friendship and love are strong external motivators, they are also realistic external weaknesses as they can lead to difficult decisions or hostage/ransom situation. These are moments that can significantly strengthen or weaken a character, even forever.
Love can also lead to memorable moments that most antagonists can’t even dream of. Managing to prove yourself worthy to your love interest is a moment that can boost a hero’s confidence. First kiss (or first intimacies) are unforgettable moments that can be used to remind someone of the fact that there are people that care for you, someone worth willing fight for even when everything seems lost. On the other hand, cutting a strong bond might send a character the other way, towards misery and doubt – and is something the bad guys will often try to exploit.
So, this is what I came up with. Did I miss something noteworthy? Let me know in the comments. Know a good story (preferably fantasy/Sci-Fi) you can recommend featuring a hero with realistic flaws? Let me know as well. Want to just ask or add something on the topic? Feel free to comment.
See you next time.
Also, thanks one more time to M.L. Davis and her post about character traits that inspired me to write the post about positive traits of antagonists and eventually this post.