Telling Stories: Your flaws weave a tale
Let’s start this off with a trivia question: what’s the difference between Iron Man and Batman, other than their powers?
If you think about it, they’re closer than you might think. Both of them are inheritors of immense fortunes while being brilliant in their own right. They both created weapons to fight against injustice and horrible things – sure, Iron Man built a suit of armor while Batman made himself a weapon, but the only reason Batman doesn’t have an armored exoskeleton is because the writers choose not to go that route. Yet you know the characters are very different in so many ways, despite their similarities.
At the core, it’s because of their respective flaws and weaknesses. For all their similarities, Tony Stark’s weaknesses do not belong to Bruce Wayne and vice versa. It’s sort of a supertype of avoiding cabinet flaws as I discussed two weeks ago, wherein a given flaw is directly related to the sort of problems that a character has and what sort of story the character works within.
Batman’s flaw, at the core, is that he’s gone to war with an idea by trying to make himself a bigger idea. I totally support the reading that he has, in part, been successful in this goal; crime in Gotham City is largely a different animal from crime in the rest of the country, thanks to Batman’s influence. But he’s still gone to war with a concept bigger than himself, and that’s why so many of his enemies wind up calling part of his ideals into question or reflecting them in some way. The Joker questions his sense of order, Poison Ivy and Ra’s al Ghul are just as idealistic with very different goals, the Riddler challenges his intellect, Mr. Freeze summons up that sense of loss again. His real struggle is to justify those ideas, to test them against a difficult world and try to stay true.
Iron Man, by contrast, doesn’t have a strong ideal so much as an inability to stay silent. His origin story always involves him being captured and making his armor as a last act of desperation, tying his survival to this fantastic creation. Beneath the armor, though, Tony Stark is frequently a small, petty man with selfish goals and a great deal of frailty. Iron Man is his ideal, someone capable of fighting to be a force of good in the world. For all his opponents, what Tony Stark is always really fighting against is himself.
If you’re familiar with both characters, you can see how the stories told for the characters line up very differently. Tony struggles with alcoholism, with deteriorating relationships, with his own image and his wish to be a knight in shining armor no matter how short he falls of that goal. Bruce struggles with a constant assault on his ideals, a never-ending struggle to ensure that what happened to him will never happen to another child, and to justify that his choice was a decent one.
This is something to think about when creating a character. Whatever their weaknesses are, that’s where the most interesting storytelling will be found. A character who refuses to kill another person won’t be producing interesting drama unless she’s put in situations where killing would be faster or smarter or otherwise convincing, but it by necessity requires stories where killing is a choice rather than a necessity.
For that matter, flaws reveal something about the world your characters live in. If you intend for your character to be heroic but she doesn’t kill, you are implying by definition that heroes can and do kill. Characters who struggle to be unaffected by their desire for glory imply that glory is a bad thing, that the heroes should not be pursuing glory for its own sake. Yes, your character lives in a society where practicing magic centering around blood is forbidden, but is that a fault of society or is that a problem that she struggles to overcome?
My main character in Final Fantasy XIV isn’t flawed because she will kill, she’s flawed because she kills whenever she sees it as absolutely necessary and she makes a habit of hiding her motivations and the truth – implying, obviously, that those traits are normally undesirable. In Star Trek Online, where I play the same character, her main flaws center around playing political games within Starfleet and being willing to collect information and deal with sources normally not sanctioned by the upper leadership. Similar flaws, but in one setting killing is perfectly appropriate even for heroic characters, and in the other even the most underhanded and unfettered character would be a villain if they killed without restraint.
Obviously, there’s room for flexibility in every setting. Your roleplaying in World of Warcraft might not include anyone being a killer, not because you don’t have an opinion on it but because “do heroes kill” simply isn’t a question you’re interested in. And that’s fine. The real thing to be aware of here is the ways in which a character’s flaws change the stories they fit into, alter their relationship with the world around them. You cannot tell a good Iron Man story by swapping in Batman, even though they’re similar on superficial levels.
There’s a lot of talk about examining a character for flaws, but not as much about examining a character for flaws that make sense with the sort of stories you want to tell. If your paladin can’t build a cabinet, to bring back that example, – boy, you’d better hope that your stories are going to be largely focused around carpentry projects, because that’s kind of pointless otherwise.
Next time around, I want to talk a little more about character introspection, self-analysis, and your own ability to evaluate a character divorced from that character’s ability. The week after that, let’s talk about the power and the drawbacks of wish fulfillment, where it has a place in roleplaying and where it’s completely inappropriate.
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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