Ran across this article today. What caught my attention was the title, or part of it: What’s Your Greatest Weakness?
Granted, the article is about job seekers (and no, if my boss is reading this, I’m not looking for another job. I like the one I have!) and the common interview question potential employers like to ask just to see how you answer. I almost dismissed the article as another standard how-to-shine-at-your-interview piece, until I got about a third of the way through it. I’ll let you read it. Come back when you’re done. (in the meantime, imagine the Jeopardy theme song playing)
My first instinct was to blog about how, as a writer, all of your characters should have weaknesses, especially the protagonist(s), but you know that already. I skimmed the article, and stopped. You know the spot if you read it (okay, I’ll wait for you to go skim the article. You’ll find the spot.). It’s that paragraph that starts with “Who kills a Quaker person?” Then I backed up a couple of paragraphs to get the intro to that statement. What struck me about that part of the article is how a person’s strengths can actually be weaknesses. Again going back to the article and the statement about the ill-begotten passing of Mary Dyer, I can see the strength of Puritan convictions being in truth the weakness that drove the assailants to kill someone who was likely just as devoted to her method of religious practice as the Puritans were to theirs.
Can you see it, yet? How a strength can be a weakness? We’ve seen this sort of thing play out all through history, even to the extent that Christians marched thousands of miles to Jerusalem just to kick the Muslims out because they weren’t Christian. Fast-forward from medieval times to the 21st century and replace Christians with radical Muslims, replace Muslims with everyone else, and replace Jerusalem with Syria and Iraq. The rest of the article is valuable as well, so don’t forget to read it, but it just got me thinking about characters and how we can use our characters’ strengths against them and the rest of the world.
Put another way, if your protagonist’s strength is being tenacious when investigating a crime, think about how that strength could go against her. Does her tenacity force her to follow a lead “into the lion’s den”? Does it mean even after she nails the criminal she keeps working on answering that one lingering question that no longer affects the case, and because she’s distracted she misses a clue on her new case? What about the field doctor who’s greatest strength is his ability to keep even the most grievously wounded soldiers alive? How could that come back and bite him or someone he loves?
Okay, now try this for fun. Think about someone you know–better yet, someone you admire for one reason or another. Now, create a character modeled on that person. List that character’s greatest strength; what is the one thing that character is known for in his circle of friends? Generosity? Loyalty? Humor? Kindness?
Okay, here’s where your muse’s strength comes in (didn’t think I’d get that in here, didya?). Think of something that character does, good or bad, because of his personal strength: rescue lab animals, spend time helping clean up after disasters, volunteer at a homeless shelter. How could that strength actually turn into a weakness? Is she so much against animal experimentation that the mice she releases infects the world with a plague–on purpose? Or does her rescue effort mean her sister’s fatal illness doesn’t have a cure? Is she behind a human trafficking ring operating under the guise of relocating disaster victims to locations where they need people (slaves of any sort)? Or does she discover she’s given a crime ring new territory? Is he secretly sterilizing homeless people of child-bearing/child-fathering age or killing them because they’re leeches in his mind? Or does he inadvertently create a rapist or gigolo who knows he can’t father any children and takes advantage of the fact?
Let your muse run wild with the possibilities. You may wind up with your next protag/antagonist who could create quite the storyline if you let him.