I was asked a interesting question not too long ago, and that was “What happens when the hero loses?” It got me thinking that probably the number one issue I see young Scribes battle, is the Superman Syndrome with their characters. What’s the Superman Syndrome? Well, it’s having a character that has no weaknesses. They win every battle, they vanquish every foe, they never hurt anyone’s feelings or do anything wrong. There’s never any internal conflict. In short, they’re perfect. How do I know that young Scribes do this? Well because I did it too, when I was younger. There’s a strange ego-trap connected to a writer’s characters. Because they come from our minds, and are part of us, making them have weaknesses is an anathema. We don’t want to do it. But, it’s important that we do. Why? Read on!
When Superman first appeared as a comic in 1938 (if you’re interested the wiki has a good article on it but, careful where you click I’ll link at the end) Action Comics #1 he had no real weaknesses. It was years later that his creators Jerry Siegal and Joe Schuster allowed the introduction of an outside weakness, kryptonite. It appeared first in the radio broadcasts, and later in print but the point of it was, to give Superman an Achilles heel. He needed something that could undo all his superness and make him like everyone else. Why? Because only when he was stripped of all his superhuman strength did the readers really begin to empathize with him and fear for his safety. When bullets were bouncing off his chest, or he was flying faster than the incoming missile, no one had any worries. But when he was stripped of his larger than life greatness, it was then that the reader saw the core greatness. It’s one thing for a man to stand between the injured police officer and a bad guy with a gun when bullets bounce off his skin. It’s another thing for the same man to stand between the injured police officer and the fellow with a gun when they don’t.
Giving your characters weaknesses is hard. The weakness needs to fit the character, and it needs to be believable. The entire mythos behind Superman’s weakness brought about by kryptonite is well thought out and unique to his character. Make sure that you do the same, and tailor the weakness or flaw to your paper tiger. You’ll be pleasantly surprised by the depth that this unlocks even in the characters you thought you knew well.
I’ll go one further than that. I say not only give them a weakness, but let them lose. Why? Because when a character loses, especially a hero/protagonist, they gain a vulnerability and likeability that nothing else can give them. Now I’m not suggesting that they lose against the antagonist, unless it’s briefly, I like a story with a happy ending. But this week, let them lose against something or someone. Put the loss in their past if you don’t want to write it, but let them have a history where they weren’t always the one who triumphed.
In the comments, let me know what weaknesses you are thinking of giving to your unsuspecting paper tigers. Or, tell me why your character doesn’t need to be vulnerable
Encourage one another, Scribes.
Here are two links, as promised. They go to the wiki so careful where you click!