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Monday, August 12, 2013

How to Develop Your Character's Achilles' Heel

It shouldn't be a newsflash for writers that readers don't want to read about perfect characters. We like 'em flawed, preferably more so than ourselves.
Everybody's Got Problems by Doug Savage

But what does this really mean, to say that something or someone is your character's "Achilles' heel?"

In Greek mythology, Achilles was predicted to die young. His mother Thetis didn't accept this prognosis and took him to the River Styx, where she proceeded to dip him in, as the river offered powers of invulnerability. She, ah, held him by the heel, so it didn't get washed in the water, which was why he was vulnerable from physical harm there.

The term "Achilles' heel" has come to mean an area of weakness or a vulnerable spot. It can by external, such as the oft-cited Indiana Jones' fear of snakes, or it can be internal, such as the evil wizard Voldermort's inability to love and form friendships.

The mythology behind the term is helpful to me. Achilles' mother blanketed him, so to speak, to prevent harm. Characters blanket themselves in the same way, putting on coats of armor to prevent others from seeing the parts of us that need work. And it's the author's job to crack that armor through plot, which is the fun part of writing. (Click to tweet!)

But how do you go about developing this? Here are a few ideas:

1) Hint at the vulnerability early on in the story.

Even within the first few pages, you can give the reader a glimpse that all's not well with your hero or heroine. The character can brush off someone's concern, allude to a secret, avoid a particular person...the possibilities are endless. But throwing the reader a bone early on is a necessity.

2) Have the character share page space with their vulnerability.

What do I mean by this? A character who's oblivious to their problems isn't a character people want to read about. So how do the two meet on the page? You can do this a couple of different ways:
  • Character denies the problem itself.
  • Character accepts the problem, but sees no need to change.
  • Character not only accepts the problem, but wants to change.
All of the above can form interesting character arcs. If a character denies their Achilles' heel, they are, in essence, acknowledging it. (Think about that.) Another good way to have the two share page space it in having your character expend time/money/energy in overcoming the problem. Denial can be expensive and timely to maintain.

3) Your plot eventually has to circle around the vulnerability.

At some point, the vulnerability has to take front and center. The main character duels with his greatest fear or biggest problem in a standoff that usually happens at the climax of the book. It's even better when you bring in the nemesis (if you have one) to capitalize on the opportunity.

4) Work out a realistic resolution.

Not everyone can pull an Indiana Jones and overcome their phobia of snakes in order to defeat the bad guys, get the girl, and save the world. In fact, I'd say most people can't. Character's don't have to overcome their fear, just face it. And it was apparent in later Indiana Jones flicks that he still hated snakes, even after his exposure therapy session in a pit where he faced them.

Just be real with the outcome of your story. If your character's flaw is alcoholism, that's going to be a flaw forever. True addiction doesn't just come and go (aside from miracles). But it could be possible for them to walk into a bar to save an old friend and not get sloshed. It's likely not possible for them to just have one sip. That's not realistic.

Let's Analyze

Do you find internal or external vulnerabilities better to read about? Why?