Want, Need, Flaw, Symptoms: How the masters do it

We’re looking at how the masters give their characters emotional wants and needs and character flaws.  Here’s what I’ve seen in the stories I’ve read lately:

Andy Weir’s The Martian

  • Character: an astronaut abandoned on Mars.
  • General Want: to survive
  • Specific External Goal: to modify the resources that were supposed to last six people thirty-or-so days so that he can survive for 500+ days.
  • Internal Emotional Need:  I’d say… none.  He’s a “perfect” character.
  • Supporting Backstory: Again… none.
  • Active Flaw:  None.  He’s fully competent and has no trouble motivating himself to do what he needs to do to survive. Survival is merely a matter of overcoming external obstacles, not internal.
  • Flaw Symptoms: None.

An impression:  Not having a flaw doesn’t necessarily make for a bad story.  This is a good story says I… and the people who’ve kept this book on the NYTBS list for over a year.

Romina Russell’s Zodiac

  • Character: a teenage girl who’s gifted at reading the future in the stars and is thus appointed leader of her people in the aftermath of the destruction of her homeland.
  • General Want: to save the rest of the zodiac.
  • Specific External Goal: to warn the other constellational groups that (i) the destruction of her constellation was caused by Ophiuchus, the supposed leader of a thirteenth constellation that none of the other constellational leaders believes is real, and that (ii) their constellations will be next and soon.
  • Internal Emotional Need: To believe in herself.  …except that while she talks and thinks in a way that suggests she doesn’t believe in herself, her actions from page 1 suggest she believes in herself just fine.
  • Supporting Backstory:  When she was little, she failed to speak up when she saw a snake that then attacked her brother.  Also, her teachers criticized her way of reading the stars.
  • Active Flaw:  Self-doubt…. but it’s not active, only internal.
  • Flaw Symptoms:  None.  Again, her doubt isn’t much of a hinderance; it’s just something to talk about.

An impression:  This story could have been stronger, in my humble opinion, if the flaw were dominant and caused the character to act in a way that made her situation worse.

A wonder:  ‘Self-doubt’ is the opposite of ‘belief in oneself,’ and I wonder if flaws are stronger when they’re related to the emotional need, but not necessarily the inverse of the need.  The other “Flaw” stories on this list have flaws that are related to, but aren’t the inverse of, the emotional need, and, in my humble opinion, they were more effective.  Or it could just be the active-not active thing.

A possible insight:  If your character’s Flaw isn’t going to take an active role in the plot, you might be better off just making your character a ‘perfect’ character.  Or, in other words, the internal monologue should reflect the external action, whatever that turns out to be.

Gayle Foreman’s If I Stay

  • Character: A girl who’s left in a coma after a car accident in the opening chapter.
  • General Want: Clarity
  • Specific External Goal: To decide whether to die or whether to come out of the coma.
  • Internal Emotional Need:  To belong.
  • Supporting Backstory:  All of her family died in the accident.
  • Active Flaw:  Denial
  • Flaw Symptoms:  All she can see is what she lost: her mom, dad, brother, her broken body.  While in limbo and out of body, she encounters but can’t embrace the significance of all the people sitting in the waiting room…. until, finally, she does.

Harlan Coben’s Caught

  • Main Character:  A widowed news reporter who exposes a pedophile in the opening scene.
  • General Want:  Truth
  • Specific Goal:  To uncover whether the guy was set up, and if so, by whom.
  • Internal Need: To learn forgiveness.
  • Supporting Backstory:  Her husband was killed by a third-offense drunk driver.
  • Active Flaw: Self-Righteousness
  • Flaw Symptoms: hostility, quick to judge, holds first impressions sacred.

A wonder:  In both Caught and If I Stay, the character was not aware of her flaw and her behavior came from the flawed place.  In Zodiac, the character was aware of her flaw, but it wasn’t active.  So I wonder…

Does it make for a more effective story when the character is not aware of her flaw?  Because then she can’t talk herself out of acting out the flaw?

Or is it just a matter of active-not active?  So your character can be aware or not aware of her flaw, either way, just so long as, if she is aware, the flaw still manages to dominate and influence her behavior… and the plot.

Well, that’s it for me.  What about you?  What stories have you read lately? Did the main characters have a want, need, flaw, symptoms?  And was that effective or no?  Tell us in the comments!

UP NEXT, ON FRIDAY We’ll see if we can flesh out the want, need, flaw, symptoms of the main characters in the one-liners we’re working on.  See you then!

If you found this post helpful, please feel free to share it, and please join the mailing list to receive updates about new tool posts. Thank you!

So... whadaya think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s