I’m Steve Adams, a writer, writing coach, and a freelance editor who’s studied a wide range of artistic forms before landing, quite late, on prose. As I’ve always been fascinated by the artistic process, I decided to start working my ideas out on the page, using a quote from a writer or other kind of artist as a prompt. I hope my column, “About Your Writing,” is useful to you.
“I think the Greeks were the only people ever to nail character. Their heroes are deeply flawed.”—Marlon James
James is right about the Greeks. Consider their gods. They fight, cheat, seduce, slaughter, and use humans as puppets to play out their internecine struggles. These are not clean gods, and their messiness throws light on our own messiness.
Their “bad behavior,” of course, washes down to the Greek’s human heroes in their literature. Oedipus unknowingly has sex with his mother, then blinds himself when he finds out. Medea kills her children in a rage after her husband leaves her for another woman. Then there’s Odysseus, who is basically a thief and trickster (who else would’ve come up with the Trojan Horse?), the Amazon warrior women who self-mutilate by cutting off or cauterizing their right breasts for better bow control, and Atlanta (or Atalanta), one of the fastest of all mortals, who in an attempt to ensure her maidenhood has each of her suitors race her. If they win, she promises to marry them; if they lose, she cuts off their heads. (Spoiler alert: She cuts off a lot of heads.)
Their stories almost write themselves.
Why? Because flaws create conflict. “Wants” create conflict. And conflict powers stories.
So yes, as a basic writing concept, most of us know that our characters need flaws. But people sometimes think of a character flaw as a single, fixed characteristic, like black hair or skin color (e.g., she has “anger issues,” he is “shallow”). But I find it more useful to consider a flaw as a very directed energy source. Also, instead of thinking of character flaws in terms of fixed points, I place them on a spectrum via their intensity. Whether our characters are subtle or at the pitch of the Greeks, it doesn’t matter; the flaw does its work, driving the character through their story.
So let’s set up that spectrum. On one end we could place the very dramatic Greeks, with Medea and her rage. At the opposite end let’s put let’s put Elizabeth Bennet’s complicated pride in Pride and Prejudice. And in the middle why not drop Romeo, who has a simple, but very strong need for love. That’s right, a need, even for love, is a flaw. Because if we “want” anything, technically, it’s only because we’re incomplete. It’s worth noting one of the noun forms of the word, “want,” literally means “a lack.” A missing part. And since what characters do is move through a story, it’s no shock that a love story is always about love not working, until at last it does. And that’s the moment the story ends. No flaw: no story. It’s not surprising that acting teachers tell their actors to never walk onto a stage without knowing what their character wants.
Here’s another angle that might be helpful (especially if you ever step onto a C&W dance floor).
I’m from Texas. Much too late in life as a fully-grown adult I decided to learn my cultural dance, the Texas two-step. It’s very flexible. You can turn circles in a tight space with your partner, stretch out long and fast while cruising around the dance hall like it’s a roller rink, and twist in and out of complicated swing moves. The dance is fun when done simply; it’s fun when complex. But the steps themselves remain simple and constant.
Since I studied music most of my life, I had no trouble catching the beat at my first dance lesson in an Austin bar. Any country song suitable for the two-step will have four beats to the measure. And with my instructor present I didn’t notice anything off about the dance. It seemed easy. But when a friend and I decided to take a maiden voyage at an actual dance hall outside of town, it was a train wreck (we nearly got run over several times). The other dancers were embarrassed for us. So we got off the dance floor as quickly as possible. At our next lesson I saw what the problem was. The actual dance steps of the two-step add up to only three beats (like a waltz), but because of my musical training I was trying to force these three steps into the four beats of the song, and hence the train wreck. With the Texas two-step you are supposed to step 1-2-3 while the song beats 1-2-3, except when the song hits its “4” beat, you restart your own dance-step cycle back up at “1.” You could call this skipped beat a flaw, but it’s the kind of flaw you want.
And note: for every 4 times the dancers cycle through their 3 steps (3 x 4), the beats of their dance adds up to 12, which is a number of beats both divisible by 3 and 4, so there’s a sense of resolution before continuing. Not surprisingly, at the end of the song, the 3’s and the 4’s of the song land on one of those resolved measures. What matters though is, it feels resolved, whether anyone understands why or not.
The math on this may sound complicated, but the point is this: that missing fourth beat is propulsive, driving the dancers either in a tight circle or at length down the dance hall. Either way the dancers are trying, without thinking about it, to catch up with that missing 4th beat, and this provides focused energy and propels them. Like the characters in our writing striving towards that missing beat, so they can fill in the gap, heal that wound, solve their misbelief about themselves. Until finally, one way or another (for good or ill), they do, which is completion. The song ends. The multiples of the 3’s and 4’s are divisible and resolved. We step off the dance floor. The reader closes the book.
Steve Adams’s writing has won a Pushcart Prize and Glimmer Train’s New Writer’s award, been listed as a “Notable Essay” in Best American Essays, and anthologized. His prose is widely published, and his plays have been produced in New York City. He’s a writing coach and freelance editor at www.steveadamswriting.com, and you can follow him on Twitter at @iamsteveadams.