I want you to meet Tim.
Tim is a well-meaning, energetic writer – probably just like you.
But (hopefully) unlike you, Tim writes stories that are deeply flawed. And he isn’t alone. A lot of amateur writers make the same mistake, and its killing their readership.
Everything is (NOT) Awesome
Tim writes in the fantasy genre.
Appropriately, each of his stories begins with a portal, an assasin, a smiling villain, or some other familiar trope. His prose reads like this:
“Xander the Wise wasn’t a normal assassin. Without a word, he snapped his blade across the neck of a hapless guard, cleaving head from body. Xander caught the head in one hand as a smirk prowled over his pursed lips.”
Tim can certainly spin an image.
In fact, I’d dare say that he – and many of us – are too good at spinning images that make our characters, worlds, and conflict, seem totally AWESOME.
And that’s a problem.
Because when things are too cool, too powerful, and simply too awesome, a story is going to fail at one of its most important goals: Thrilling the reader.
And if your readers aren’t riveted, they’re going to find something better to do with their time.
The Pscyhology of Weakness
This may seem counterintuitive.
After all, Western society as a whole is obviously charmed by superheroes, given the bloated marketplace for characters who seem AWESOME.
But if you take a close look at the superhero stories that are successful, they aren’t the ones that focus on the hero’s strength. Rather, they focus on weakness.
Superman stories are strongest when they expose the man of steel to kryptonite.
Batman blew away expectations with The Dark Knight when the Joker kills Bruce Wayne’s girlfriend and immerses Gotham in anarchy.
And in a more recent telling, Wolverine’s story is strongest when he’s old and alone and burdened with the responsibility of caring for others, as in the wildly successful Logan.
There’s a reason we, as audiences, are enamored with a character’s weakness, but it takes courage to admit.
We are weak, too.
Weakness is something everyone can relate to.
While we’re not all the same, EVERYONE has experienced at least one or more of the following:
- Humble beginnings
- Physical weakness
- Physical truama
- Disappointing the ones we love
- Failing to live up to our own expectations
- …and on, and on, and on!
Weakness is a fundamental truth of life.
And while it is hardly the only fundamental truth of life, it is an undeniable one, and it is a core impetus for storytellers.
Readers Quit When Characters Are Too Awesome
When we seriously consider the psychology of our readers, these ideas about weakness begin to make complete sense.
Don’t get me wrong: Readers love it when our characters are awesome, too!
But that awesomeness – that STRENGTH – must come at a price the reader can relate to.
In other words, Strength must come with sacrifice.
It must be earned.
Think of how hard it is to be phsyically strong, to be a muscular specimen, a paragon of the weightroom and marathon course.
Think of how hard it is to be morally strong, to follow rules and stand up for justice despite overwhelming pressure to take the easy route.
And think of how hard it is to be spiritually strong, to discipline and deny yourself, to study and trust in your god, to live for a higher calling.
These forms of strength have a cost, and that cost is sacrifice.
What must be sacrificed? Here’s an idea:
- Expedience (convenience)
- The will of the self
- …and on, and on, and on!
And that’s how a story works: A character journeys from weakness toward strength by taking sacrificial steps.
Can Tim have his awesome fantasy cake and eat it, too?
But it’s all in the timing.
I’m fine with an awesome assasin, but I want to see the work it takes to become so awesome. Or, I want that assasin to be a strong villain while I cheer for the weak hero to overcome him.
Because strength is boring.
But weakness becoming strength is infinitely fascinating.
Story Secret #4: Focus on Flaws
To build a complete picture of weakness in your protagonist, try to give him/her two forms of weakness:
- Personal weakness, or a Flaw
- Story weakness, meaning the Setting or another Character is vastly stronger at the story’s start
To truly capture the psychology of weakness, you must include both.
First, you have to craft a flawed protagonist because this is the nature of humanity. We’re limited. We’re imperfect. And our choices bear consequences that can devastate us.
The flaw need not be devastating in itself, but it must taint and sway his/her choices in pursuit of the goal (See Story Secret #3).
Second, you have to build a world around the protagonist that resists his/her pursuit and exhibits incredible strength, at least at first.
When Frodo sets out from The Shire, he is incredibly weak and wouldn’t last a day in Mordor. But throughout the journey, he makes sacrificial choices that give him the necessary strength to bring the One Ring to Mt. Doom.
When Harry Potter first attends Hogwarts, he is nowhere near ready to face Voldemort. But by taking the hard route, by not being selfish (a Slytherin), he gains the strength to finally stand up to He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.
Note: The stand-off between Harry and Voldemort in the book is SO MUCH BETTER than the fight in the movie. Seriously – if you haven’t read Deathly Hallows, do so. It’s a masterclass in strength/weakness manipulation.
Remember: All of this is about thrilling your reader.
And thrilling your reader need not be violent. There is a weakness-to-strength dynamic in every successful dramatic, romantic, and literary publication. It’s in your daily life.
This psychological principle is the essence of human pain, and your reader subconsciously expects your story to tell it like it is.
So plan ahead. Revise with this in mind. Ask your Beta Readers and feedback community to analyze your characters’ weakness-to-strength dynamic.
And when you publish, enjoy the thrilled reaction of your readers as they come back for more, again and again, because they trust you.
Remember, you can discover all 10 Reasons readers quit your book, and the Story Secrets that will win them back, in my FREE new book, The 10 Reasons Readers Quit Your Book (and How to Win Them Back)!
Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you next week!
What do you think? Is Weakness actually more interesting than Strength, or is there more to it? Leave your thoughts in the Comments below!
Image Credit: haiyang1593269, Creative Commons