What is the principal occupation of a fiction writer? What is the one thing that he or she must do above all else in order to write a successful story? Task Numero Uno? Do or die?
That’s easy! Everyone knows the answer. Readers know it. Writers know it.
An author must … TORTURE THE PROTAGONIST.
And, yes, writers agonize about making life miserable for the characters we create. After all, our characters are our children. We suffer at their birth. We nurse them from infancy. We watch them toddle and grow. We cry when they are sick, and we cheer when they succeed. We teach them to walk and talk. And they teach us so much more in return. We know them more intimately than any reader ever could. And so, our every wish is for their happiness. We want them to win.
But … it is the author’s duty to be merciless. Without obstacles, there is no plot. Without challenge, a character cannot grow.
A novel may be described as a series of tensions compounding toward critical mass. The story is a crisis rising from first page to last. And the conclusion is the resolution most necessary to character, plot, and theme. It is the release of the pressure that the author has built.
Story develops through conflict. Character is revealed through adversity. Putting obstacles in front of the character is an absolute requirement of fiction. Whether the ending is happy or sad or bittersweet, the character cannot achieve or fail to achieve their goal without traversing a gauntlet.
These are tenets of the craft of authorship. Without conflict, a novel will not stand.
External conflict is endemic to creating plot–i.e., the protagonist needs to take action in the “real” world for a story to take place. That action cannot come easily. Success must be impeded.
External conflict is provided by antagonists–which can take the form of an individual (an antagonist–i.e., an adversary), a group, an environment, or even a god. For there to be a story, there must be a source of external conflict. For every hero, there is a villain. For every mountain climber, there is a mountain to be climbed.
However, a well-rounded story requires that the protagonist experience internal conflict(s) in addition to the external conflict(s).
Internal conflict takes place inside the mind of the character, rather than in the “real” world of the story. Internal conflict occurs both as the character receives and reacts to ongoing external stimulus and as the character continues to ruminate over and reacts to events of the past. Internal conflict leads to decision, and decision leads to action.
Internal conflict is an element of transitioning between scenes as well as slowing down the pacing within an ongoing scene. Moreover, internal conflict reveals the rationale for a character’s actions. This makes internal conflict a vital tool to the author for making the story believable. As important as that function of internal conflict is, internal conflict also humanizes the character. Not only does internal conflict give the character depth, but it also makes the character more identifiable to the reader. We empathize with characters with whom we identify. And if we empathize, we root for them. We care about them.
But not every conflict should be a major calamity. In fact, balance requires that we ramp up the tension over time. If we do not, then the story peaks too early and the conclusion ends up dragging. That adds up to an unsatisfactory experience for the reader. Complications are meant to enhance the central conflict and are usually best employed by not superseding the central conflict by overpowering it with a different conflict but rather by making the central conflict even more extreme. In the parlance of the craft, we call this “raising the stakes”.
Character flaws are a spice we can add to the personalities of our characters in order to give the characters verisimilitude and to make them more intriguing. They can also be employed to create conflict. Often, character flaws come with a stigma attached–usually dependent upon the degree of the severity of the flaw. Flaws can be minor, major, or even tragic (fatal).
Flaws can be minor and ancillary to the story or they can become integral to the plot and/or theme.
Examples of character flaws from film, television, and/or literature include (but are in no way limited to):
Minor: Shyness (Amelle, Amelle; Carrie, Carrie; Lucy, While You Were Sleeping), Overly Competitive (Monica Geller, Friends); Germaphobia (Sheldon Cooper, The Big Bang Theory); Unkempt/Slovenly/Poor Self-Image (Severus Snape, Harry Potter; Columbo, Columbo; Eeyore, Winnie The Pooh), Histrionic (Elaine Benes, Seinfeld)
Major: Miserliness (Ebenzer Scrooge, A Christmas Carol), Paranoia (The Red Queen, Through the Looking Glass), Borderline Personality Disorder (Dr. Gregory House, House)
Tragic: Jealousy (Othello, Othello; Jake LaMotta, Raging Bull), Pride (Oedipus, Oedipus Rex), Excessive Curiosity (Victor Frankenstein, Frankenstein; Dr. Faustus, Faustus)
Character handicaps are disabilities, inherent physical or psychological extremes that present functional challenges. Like character flaws, character handicaps can be ancillary to the story or they can be a driving element to the plot and/or theme.
Character handicaps can vary by degree and can be roughly divided into Physical Challenges, Mental Challenges, Physical & Mental Challenges, and Supernatural Challenges. Frequently, how the character deals with their handicap and how their handicap affects their lives is a major element in character arc. However, this is not necessarily the case.
Our population includes individuals with a diverse range of disabilities. It is fully possible to include a disabled person in the cast of characters without the disability being or having to be a major element of the story. In the interest of inclusive (and realistic) fiction, we as authors should think on occasion not only to diversify our cast of characters to include characters of different ethnic backgrounds and of different faiths and genders and sexual orientations (without any of these characteristics being a major issue in the story) but to widen our perspectives and include disabled persons.
Breaking down barriers and ending prejudice is facilitated through the arts. As authors of fiction, we can facilitate social evolution in two fashions.
First, we can write works with main and/or major characters who belong to groups who are prejudiced against and are otherwise ostracized or not typically included in depictions of our society. By showing such individuals as people with real hearts and real minds coping with the challenges of their condition, we build public awareness and promote acceptance.
Second, we can simply write works that include main and/or major and/or minor characters who are prejudiced against and are otherwise ostracized or not typically included in depictions of our society … and show such individuals being accepted without any issue at all. By showing acceptance, we build acceptance.
In deference to Disabled Persons we shall avoid the charged term “Handicap” and instead refer to Disabilities or Challenges.
Examples of Character Disabilities from Film, Television, and Literature include (but are in no way limited to):
Blind: Zatoichi (The Tale of Zatoichi), Matt Murdock (Daredevil), Frank Slade (Scent of A Woman), Geordi LaForge (Star Trek: The Next Generation), Marie-Laure (All the Light We Cannot See), Ashford Egan (Russian Dolls)
Missing One or More Appendages: Fang Kang (The One Armed Swordsman), Captain Hook (Peter Pan), Long John Silver (Treasure Island), Edward Scissorhands (Edward Scissorhands)
Paraplegic: Professor X (X-Men), Lt. Dan (Forest Gump), Jake Sully (Avatar), Joe Swanson (Family Guy), Dr. Strangelove (Dr. Strangelove), Timmy (South Park), Maxwell “Max” Kane (The Mighty)
Cerebral Palsy/ALS/Paralysis: Christy Brown (My Left Foot), Margaret “Maggie” Fitzgerald (Million Dollar Baby), Stephen Hawking (The Theory of Everything), Lou Gehrig (The Pride of The Yankees)
Disfigured: Roy L. “Rocky” Dennis (Mask), Frankenstein’s Monster (Frankenstein), Enrique Claudin (The Phantom of the Opera), John Merrick (The Elephant Man), Quasimodo (The Hunchback of Notre Dame), Igor (Frankenstein), Cyrano de Bergerac (Cyrano)
Deaf: Sarah Norman (Children of a Lesser God), Helen Keller (The Miracle Worker), Garth (The Talismans of Shannara), Catherine Cormery (The First Man), Linda Snopes Kohl (The Mansion), El Sordo (For Whom the Bell Tolls), Sarah and Francis Barber (To Kill A Mockingbird), John Singer (The Heart is a Lonely Hunter), Daniel Peck (Searching for Caleb)
Overweight/Obese: Precious (Precious), Sir John Falstaff (Henry IV), Kasper Gutman (The Maltese Falcon), Joan Foster (Lady Oracle), Dorothy (Two Girls, Fat and Thin), (Sheila Levine is Dead and Living in New York), Dolores Price (She’s Come Undone)
Underweight/Anorexic/Bulimic: Billy Halleck (Thinner), Nick Charles (The Thin Man), Nina (Black Swan), Daisy (Girl Interrupted), Casey Powell (The Best Little Girl in the World)
Gigantism: Fezzik (The Princess Bride), Prof. Gerald Deemer (Tarantula), Iron Giant (The Iron Giant), Hulk (The Incredible Hulk)
Dwarfism: Tyrion Lannister (Game of Thrones), Willow Ufgood (Willow), Scott Carey (The Incredible Shrinking Man)
Addictions/Substance Abuse: Sherlock Holmes (The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes), Paul Atreides (Dune), Ben Sanderson (Leaving Las Vegas), Jules Cobb (Cougar Town), Raoul Duke (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas), Arthur (Arthur), Blair (Wake Up, Sir), Claudia Steiner (In The Drink)
Insane/Delusional/Multiple Personality Disorder: Chief Bromden (One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest), Hannibal Lector (Silence of the Lambs), The Mad Hatter (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland), John Nash (A Beautiful Mind), Sybil (Sybil)
Obsessive/Compulsive Disorder: Captain Ahab (Moby Dick), Batman (Batman), Adrian Monk (Monk)
Autism/Asperger/Down Syndrome: Forest Gump (Forest Gump), Lenny (Of Mice and Men), Charlie Gordon (Flowers for Algernon), Raymond “Ray” Babbitt (Rain Man), Becky (Glee), Corky (Life Goes On)
Invisible: Dr. Jack Griffin (The Invisible Man), Harvey (Harvey), Sam Wheat (Ghost)
Lives Backwards through Time: Merlin (The Once and Future King)
Dead: Olivia “Liv” Moore (I, Zombie), Count Dracula (Dracula), Dr. Christopher Nielsen (What Dreams May Come), Spawn (Spawn), Deadman (Deadman)
Immortality: Deep Ones (The Shadow Over Innsmouth), Werewolf (The Wolf Man), Vampires (Dracula), Gods (Myth), Spirits (Myth), Dorian Gray (Picture of Dorian Gray), the Wandering Jew (Myth), Lazarus Long (Methusaleh’s Children)
Discrimination (Bigotry): X-Men (X-Men), John Prentice (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner), Aibeleen (The Help), Kabuo Miyamoto (Snow Falling on Cedars), Shmuel (The Boy in the Striped Pajamas), Elizabeth Bennett (Pride and Prejudice), Archie Bunker (All In The Family), Estrella (Incantation)
*Social Challenges manifest depending upon the group in which the character is at present. Obviously, skin pigmentation is neither a genetic defect or the result of accident or injury (unless we consider albinism or skin bleaching). A social challenge is exhibited in the form of prejudice through verbal and/or physical harassment, stereotyping, refusal of service, and/or exclusion from membership or participation. The challenges of bigotry do not typically manifest between individuals of the same ethnicity, creed, gender, or sexual orientation. (However, this is not always the case, as bigotry may instill self-doubt and feelings of inferiority as well as a justified sense of persecution which may be expressed within and between members of the group that is prejudiced against.) Any character is susceptible to experiencing a social “handicap” when they encounter an individual who belongs to a different race, class, gender, or creed than the character in question. The conditional nature of social handicaps make them unique when compared to physical, mental, or supernatural handicaps — which are experienced whether the individual is alone or in company. Although social handicaps are real, pernicious and pervasive, they require a specific set of circumstances in order to manifest. Bigotry is also unique in that the harm goes both to the victim and to the perpetrator. Ignorance punishes itself.
For your next project, when you are planning on how to make your protagonist miserable or when you are doing your character sketches and wondering how to make your characters more interesting and unique, consider not only Character Flaws to add into your mix but Character Disabilities as well.
And if you are writing speculative fiction (like me), you might consider looking at some of your supernatural elements as disabilities or as social challenges and see how it colors your tale and how it adds flavor and depth. And, of course, how it makes your character’s goal that much more difficult to achieve.
One last word (or many): I have not attempted to be exhaustive. Comments are encouraged, as well as offerings of additional example(s) and questions for consideration.
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