Welcome to FiYoShiMo Day 9. We’re still working with characters, and whereas yesterday we talked about their skills, today we’re looking at their weaknesses.
Not every character is supposed to be, or even can be, good at everything. Are you good at everything? I’m not either.
When we talk about weaknesses in people, it’s easy to become judgmental or critical, assigning some power dynamic or superiority to one person or the other, so that the weakness is some shackle or proof of the not-fun-kind of bondage.
As my many therapists and caregivers point out to me on the regular, weaknesses are only limitations if you let them be so. They are not the bars on your prison cell, they are just activities you do where you don’t do them as well as other things you do. I like that definition, even when I struggle with any associated inadequacy.
So let’s be objective about weaknesses. Let’s not fall into the spiral of whose weaknesses are worse or which weaknesses aren’t really weak, and let’s break down the types of weaknesses characters have.
Yes, there are types of weaknesses. When I first heard about it, I never really thought about it, I thought weaknesses were just one group of sucky things. But in finding out there are classifications, I also found that weaknesses in fiction characters need to be there, so that the good parts of characters can stand out in contrast. Contrast is critical in building relatable characters.
Should we define what a weakness is? A character weakness is a reduced capacity or inability to perform or function due to belief, skill, existence, or environment. This definition is clinical, but it also sets up the classifications for weaknesses.
Wait, let’s pause here to talk about why flaws aren’t weaknesses. A character flaw is a defect of some size that may or may not impact the rest of the character. A character might be blind, but they can still be a spouse. A character might fear aging, but they can still be a bus driver. Flaws are not weaknesses because flaws don’t stop a character from taking action. Weaknesses are where there’s a reason a character can’t do something. Flaws are the things that keep a character from doing something perfectly.
A weakness of belief is where a character thinks they can’t do a thing, so they can’t do it. It’s Neo unable to jump across the rooftop. These weaknesses are all about perceptions, how the character views the moment and views themselves in that moment. These are often the most emotional of weaknesses, and they’re great fodder for emotional beats.
A weakness of skill is where a character can’t do a thing because they don’t know how. It’s the character on the first day of a new job, it’s Crocodile Dundee not understanding bidets. When you use this for comedy, this is where we get fish out of water situations. When you use this for drama, you’re often highlighting how serious the action needs to be, and you’re showing the character as brave or gritty or strong for trying to do it.
A weakness of existence is where a character can’t do a thing because they’re physically unable. Like a toddler can’t slam dunk or reach the gas pedal in the car while sitting behind the wheel. Sure, some people are going to get all screamy about privilege here, or that any character should be able to do whatever they want, because they’re not defined by what they can’t do … and yes, that’s true, but we need the character to not do these things, so that when they try and succeed, we celebrate. Their inability (not their disability) is why we invest in their story.
A weakness of environment is where a character can’t do a thing because of something external. This is Superman and Kryptonite, or Indiana Jones and snakes. Some element of the story, often an object, is inhibiting the character’s success. When the element is a thing, it’s an “object of weakness”, when the element is a circumstance (like the guy who books two dates at the same restaurant at the same time, and tries to keep the two people from catching on), it’s a “situation of weakness”, because it affects the power dynamic and control of a scene (we’re going to talk more about that starting on Day 13, when we talk plots).
The above list isn’t comprehensive, there are other classifications for weaknesses or other names for the classifications, but there’s enough here to get you started.
Write out your character’s weaknesses. Then see if you can apply these types to them. No, a character doesn’t need one from each type, and chances are your character is only going to have one or two of these weaknesses at best, when we talk about their best skills or strongest personality traits.
So far, we’ve mapped out a character’s motivations, philosophies, skills, and now their weaknesses. We’ve looked at what they do, how they do it, how well they do it, and how they don’t do it. So what’s next?
Tomorrow, we talk about why they do it, when we talk about character goals. See you then.