Telling Stories: Avoiding cabinet flaws
Once you get the idea in your head that characters should be flawed, you don’t immediately know how to go about making that a thing. So you wind up with characters who have cabinet flaws, and over time you solve those flaws, and then suddenly your character isn’t flawed any longer. You’re right back to boring old square one, but you can’t not address the cabinet flaw, right? The whole reason it’s there just cries out to be addressed and rectified!
Of course, it would probably help if I took a step back and defined what I meant in the first place by a cabinet flaw.
See, the idea of character flaws is easy to comprehend. You want your characters to have problems, to have to struggle to overcome something. At their core, flaws are problems. So you give your character an obvious hole in their abilities, something that they distinctly cannot do rather than will not do. The archetypical example is a paladin who’s ruggedly handsome, brilliant, and fearsome on the battlefield – but per the name, he can’t fix cabinets.
The obvious problem with this sort of flaw is that it’s not terribly relevant, and that is a problem, but let’s assume for whatever reason that you have done the work necessary to make your paladin’s inability to handle cabinets super relevant in roleplaying. There are still two problems here, and the first comes with the fact that your paladin’s major flaw is lacking a skill. Yes, it implies a character arc for him, but the only fundamental change he goes through is a trip from ignorance on a skill to being versed in a skill.
And that also implies the other problem. Once he learns the skill… well, there’s his hook gone, isn’t it? He’s now just the guy who at one point couldn’t fix cabinets, and now he can. Other than that, his life is fine. No need for anything to change, no movement in any direction, whatever. He becomes boring.
You will make a few characters like this. I certainly did, and I’m pretty sure everyone who works in any creative capacity does this for a while. She’s really talented, but she doesn’t have any friends. He’s brilliant, but he can’t express how he feels. She can kill anyone with a knife but can’t use a gun. You get the idea. They’re an easy thing to fall back upon, because you get the idea that a flaw is a problem, and so you start thinking of problems that can be solved.
But entertaining character flaws can’t be solved. That’s why they’re entertaining.
A friend was commenting on my main character in Final Fantasy XIV the other day, noting that while she clearly grew and developed as a person she kept making the same kind of mistakes. Which was entirely the goal. Rhio is very smart and talented, but she lacks the ability to give herself direction and enjoys being duplicitous far too much, among other flaws. No matter how much she grows as a person, she’s still fundamentally limited by her same core problems. They’re not skills that she lacks, they’re blind spots in her reasoning that can’t just be fixed with a Time-Life book.
One of the reasons I love Spider-man as a hero is that while he’s super-strong, that usually makes him just stronger than normal humans; he’s never quite punching in his weight class, his villains always have strength he can’t match. Sure, he spends time figuring out his opponents, deciphering how he can circumvent his weaknesses, and manages to knock down his enemies given time. But he has to work around not being strong enough. He doesn’t just hit the gym for a bit and then punch out the Rhino, nor would those extra muscles do much good against many of his other consistent enemies.
Spike Spiegel is just killing time until he finishes up the long-delayed ending he know is waiting for him, and doesn’t care about much of anything else on the way. Malcolm Reynolds failed at something he cared about and is, on some level, afraid of succeeding again, not to mention he’s still fighting a war in his heart that he lost years ago. Lara Croft wants to study ancient cultures, but she has to kill to survive – and worse yet, it turns out she’s good at it. In none of these cases are the character flaws a product of problems that could be solved with a developed skill. These are elements deeply ingrained in the nature of the people in question.
That’s not to say that your characters can never overcome their flaws or move beyond them. But that doesn’t mean they just learn the flaw away; it means that they have to deal with different issues than before. In many cases, overcoming flaws is a matter of working around them rather than simply fixing them. Our flaws are often our strengths given too much freedom. The weaknesses your character possesses can inform their personalty just as surely as the strengths can do so.
So how do you avoid cabinet flaws? You keep this in mind. A flaw is not a weakness or something that can be easily overcome. Everyone knows that Superman is vulnerable to kryptonite, but that’s not his real weakness; it’s the fact that he can’t help but help people, that he wants to save everyone, even if sometimes he’s simply not able to do so. One of those flaws can be solved with a suit of kryptonite-proof armor that would keep him perfectly safe, but the other can’t be fixed, only dealt with. Watching him struggle against that flaw, try to live up to the ideal in his head, is what makes the character fun to read about in the first place.
And really, do keep it relevant. Odds are that your paladin is never going to need to fix a cabinet anyhow.
For our next installment, I want to talk about drugs and how they can influence both your characters and your roleplaying in general. (No, not by taking them.) Two weeks from now, it’s time to talk about how character flaws and your general character type contributes to the sort of stories you want to tell.
About expostninjaI've been playing video games and MMOs for years, I read a great deal of design articles, and I work for a news site. This, of course, means that I want to spend more time talking about them. I am not a ninja.
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