I’ve been working my way through listening to the podcast, Writing Excuses, and an episode that got me thinking is their discussion of Flaws & Handicaps. After defining flaws as internal and handicaps as external, they talked about how flaws can drive comedy and how handicaps can create constraints that define the story. But the really intriguing discussion was about the interaction between flaws and character growth.
Characters are supposed to grow and change (unless you’re writing a sitcom) as they struggle to defeat the challenge that you, the author, throw at them. One way they can grow is by dealing with or overcoming their flaws. Or you give your character exactly the handicap that makes it harder to meet the challenge. This all sounds so calculating about constructing characters and story, which made review the stories I’ve read recently, to see if I could find some where you can see this happen.
I’m not used to thinking about things this way, but I found a few examples where flaws drive the story. In “I Bought A Little City,” the narrator’s flaw is his desire to meddle where no meddlers need apply. When he sees the results, he says he’s learned his lesson. But you don’t really get to see how he changes because of this. In “Bullet In The Brain,” the narrator’s flaw is that he has to mock everything in his life, and he’s lost the ability to appreciate things for what they are. In this case, his flaw destroys him, and what the reader sees is how he acquired his flaw.
I can see flaws driving change most clearly in “The Cambist and Lord Iron.” Olaf’s flaw is his timidity, and his handicap is his powerlessness (the classic handicap of the Little Guy) which make it doubly impossible for him to refuse the conundrums foisted upon him. His pride in his knowledge gives him the courage to speak up, and the logic of his argument persuade the powerful to heed him. In the course of the story, he grows more sure of himself, and his experiences give him a new perspective on the adventure novels he loves. Conversely, Lord Iron also changes, though you don’t see it directly. His flaw is overindulgence, but at the beginning, you get a hint that he is beginning to regret it, and by the end he repents and accepts a life of service. Even then, it might be more comfortable to live like Olaf, but his readers still want to imagine being the old Lord Iron. But that’s another story.