Character handicaps can lead to flaws (and strengths)

I’ve been listening to old episodes of Writing Excuses during my lunch breaks at work. If I was hardcore, I’d write while at work, but I find that I generally don’t have enough time to get into writing mode. Plus much of my work involves writing and editing, which also doesn’t help in terms of switching gears. So instead I listen to Writing Excuses and soak up the advice.

Today I listened to episode six of season 1: “Flaws vs. Handicaps“. I enjoyed it and was it interested to see what the listeners thought about it so I glanced at the comments section where I was surprised to discover that I had written one. It was a good point so in order to remind myself of it, I’m going to reproduce part of it here and expand on it:

Often a handicap can lead to flaws (and/or strengths). That is, the handicap can change how a character approaches the world. Two of the best examples that come to mind are Tyrion and Jaime Lannister in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. I won’t talk about Jaime’s handicap because that’s a spoiler. But for those who have read the books, recall how much he changes after his circumstances change — how much how he views himself post-handicap affects how he then relates to people and his environment.

Tyrion is a complex character. And yet is there any doubt that the fact that he is a little person is not just an external handicap (and an actual physical handicap), but it also has an effect on his internal flaws (and strengths)? For example, two of Tyrion’s character flaws are that he is defensive and impulsive. These flaws are sometimes also a strength (as many flaws ares), but both can be traced back to how he reacts to how he is treated because of his handicap.

I think that one should be careful not to take the clichéd way out and create characters that are defined mainly by their handicap and have that solely drive their flaws. You don’t want to stack the deck. But at the same time I also think that the best characters have interplay between their handicaps and flaws. Handicaps are there to expose flaws and strengths. A handicap that one has lived with for quite some time will often create and/or change flaws and strengths.

And it’s important, of course, to document that process because it reveals character. I mention Jaime Lannister above. The remarkable thing about the series is that we, as readers, change our feelings about Jaime during the course of the narrative because of how he changes in character — a change precipitated by the imposition of a handicap.

Now, of course, as the Writing Excuses team mentions a handicap is any limitation imposed on a character. It need not be as literal as the two cases mentioned here.

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