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Monday, April 13, 2015

Making Strengths into Weaknesses (and Vice Versa) through Context


When we create characters, we give them strengths and weaknesses to make them more realistic. Let’s say we create a character named Erin. We give her some strengths—she is a great teacher, productive, and focused—and also weaknesses—she’s prideful and a complainer. Just by giving her these strengths and weaknesses, we’ve already made Erin interesting. But you can play with this even more. I’m going to show you how strengths can become weaknesses and weaknesses can become strengths through a shift in context. This can add complexity to your story (and characters).

Taking it Further—

Most people generally agree on what is categorized as a strength or a weakness. If I gave a list of character traits to a class and asked them to separate them into strengths and weaknesses, they would probably all agree on what goes where. If I said “liar” they would probably say “weakness.” If I said “peacemaker,” they would probably say “strength.” But sometimes when we switch the traits’ context, we (if only temporarily) switch their category in the story.

For example, in the Harry Potter series, we learn that one of Harry’s traits is that he has what Hermione calls a “saving people thing.” He has to save people who are in danger, and he’ll go to great lengths to do it, including sacrificing himself. I think almost everyone will agree that this is a great strength.

But when the context changes, this trait becomes one of his weaknesses. Here is just one example. In Order of the Phoenix, Voldemort recognizes Harry’s “saving people thing,” and uses it to his advantage. He makes Harry think he has captured Sirius Black, Harry’s godfather. Harry is so fixed on saving Sirius, he flies all the way to London to rescue him without a second thought (when in reality, Sirius is safe at home). Even though Hermione nags Harry and tells him (accurately) it could be a trap, Harry can’t resist the opportunity to save someone.

Ironically, Harry’s actions result in Sirius’s real death; Sirius ends up having to go and rescue Harry, and dies in the process. In this scenario, Harry’s strength works against him. In fact, his “saving people” trait flip-flops between a strength and a weakness several times the books.

Weaknesses can also become strengths in the same way. Harry’s favorite spell is expelliarmus. In Deathly Hallows, when Harry has to go into hiding, Lupin chastises him for always using expelliarmus because it will immediately give away Harry’s identity. His enemies know it’s his favorite, so they will recognize him if he uses it. But Harry can’t seem to break the habit (a weakness).

But Harry’s inability to change becomes a great strength at the end of the series—expelliarmus is the spell he uses to defeat Voldemort.

Let’s get back to our character Erin. We can make her strengths into weaknesses (and vice versa), too. Perhaps Erin is such a great teacher, that she has difficulty getting out of her “teacher” mode when she is in other social gatherings. She can’t stop talking to people like they’re students. She has to explain everything to everyone, and can’t resist correcting (or “helping”) people who are wrong. Ultimately she gets on others' nerves and pushes people away. Her strength becomes a weakness.

Let’s make one of her weaknesses a strength. Maybe the fact that Erin is a complainer means that she usually gets what she wants—“the squeaky wheel gets the grease,” right? She’s not afraid to tell others what she dislikes. And people don’t want to ask her to do something she doesn’t like because they don’t want to hear her never-ending complaints. Maybe in the story this actually helps her be so productive and focused; she isn’t bogged down doing what she loathes.

Keep in mind that often traits that turn from strengths to weaknesses (and vice versa) are usually traits deeply ingrained into the character. Like Harry's—no matter what, he has to save people. (But that doesn’t mean they have to be obsessions.) J.K. Rowling demonstrates this with several other of her characters as well—Hermione can’t resist not being a know-it-all, Snape can never let go of the past, Dumbledore has a (somewhat hidden) thirst for power—in all of these instances, J.K. Rowling shows 1) how these traits are deeply set and 2)how these are both strengths and weaknesses depending on the situation.

Do any of your characters have ingrained traits? Try thinking outside the box to see how you can change the context to flip their strengths and weaknesses.


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