What Happens When They Lose?

Posted: March 7, 2012 in Scribe Scribbles
Tags: , , , ,


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!



  1. Kaleb says:

    *comic geek mode automatically activates*

    Back in Action Comics #1, Superman was nowhere near as powerful as he got in later time periods. He could jump really high, but not fly. He could run fast, but not as fast as he could later. Bullets wouldn’t pierce his skin, but larger weapons would.
    He didn’t have these gigantic Earth-shattering foes either. Most of them were just normal criminals, gangsters especially. Or scientists whom he’d have to out-think to defeat.
    He also later had lots of inner conflict, because despite everything he had, he wanted to be human. He was very vulnerable inside.
    Later, he got more weaknesses as well.

    • Kaleb says:

      Oh, and not all have my characters have weaknesses, because they don’t need them. They’re pulp heroes. The focus is the adventure, not them. They just need to be resilient, adventurous, and cool.

      The rest, will have weaknesses.

      • I get what you are saying about the pulp heroes, Kaleb. And you’re spot-on. Most are a two dimensional character that is a vehicle only for the plot. I think though, and this is just my thoughts so take them as such, the ones that are really remembered, are the ones that have a weakness.

        “King Solomon’s Mines” written by Sir H. Ridder Haggard in 1885, while is classified as a Victorian Adventure/Lost World Adventure, I think of as one of my favorite pulp fiction tales.

        It has the wonderful Allan Quartermain as the quintessential adventurer with nothing really to lose and in the adventure for the sole purpose of money. His honor, however, is his weakness. It causes him to risk and to risk dearly. Even though it is a commendable attribute for him to have, it is his Achilles Heel. Not all weaknesses need to be negative attributes.

      • Kaleb says:

        I think just about every pulp character whose stories I’ve read have that weakness. That was part of what made them heroes back then.

        *wonders if he’ll have time to write a blog post on heroes*

  2. Nathanael Scott says:

    This was something I encountered as I wrote my first book when I was more than halfway through. The MCs had created a powerful starfighter, with a weapon capable of easily taking on heavy cruisers. For those who aren’t scifi literate, basically think of a speedboat taking on a ship the size of an aircraft carrier loaded with massive weapons. The authorities were the ones that had them invent it to deal with a serious threat to their federation. Then I realized that this unbelievably potent weapon/defense system made them practically invulnerable when inside these fighters. That’s no fun. So I had to go over the mechanics of the whole thing and try to work out a scenario in which these ships could be taken down or at least temporarily disabled. Especially considering that certain members needed to get into danger. It took me awhile but I was finally able to come up with a couple, not including human judgment error. Still, it’s hard, and I may have to come up with another problem. -.-

    • It sounds like you needed to give the Death Star it’s ventilation shaft. 😀 I’m sure you worked it out better than Lucas did though. He’s a lousy writer in my opinion. He’s a fantastic producer, but he’s lousy at writing and directing.

  3. Nathanael Scott says:

    It’s almost like playing chess against yourself. I have to come up with a power that poses a convincing threat to a ginormous threat, but yet I have to give them a weakness in many areas to allow for the danger sense. the reason I have to do this is to make the space battles interesting. After all, a teen piloting a starfighter with an energy weapon capable of eating and dispensing energy on the levels of stars and microscopic missiles that can get through energy shields and download a virus into the enemy ship can do pretty much anything he wants. (this becomes a problem in the second book) And no, I’m not going to say their problems. And, as Kaleb did say, not everyone needs weaknesses. there are supporting cast members that do not.

    • There I disagree. If you want your characters to be liked, they need to have a weakness. They need to have some point where they don’t do what they should do, or conversely it is because they are honorable, or can’t lie, that becomes a problem for them. It will make them multi-faceted and in this writer’s world, two dimensional characters are seen as poor writing. 😀 And that’s not just me.

  4. Nathanael Scott says:

    Oops, forgot to click the box to follow this conversation. -.-

  5. Maybe I don’t want some of the supporting cast to be liked. 😉 I tend to give weaknesses to any character I go beyond surface deep with. I don’t do too much character building with others that are more like props. But characters you go in deep with, they’re supposed to be life-like. For some reason I forgot about good being a hinderance. The MC of my book leads a small group of teens for the ISF. He takes his pledge to protect and serve the people of the Federation and thereby the Federation very seriously, and the protection of his members are a close second. This causes him to forbid the use of their volatile superweapon in a highly populated area when attacked. Other than that weapon, they are lightly armed, and his twin sister gets shot down because of his orders. He wasn’t even in the ISF at this time except through the Academy. However, he still keeps that pledge in mind at all times. It could be considered a weakness many times throughout,but then you really want to cheer him on cause he’s dedicated 🙂

  6. Kathy Black says:

    I really liked this post. It was interesting as well as very informative.

Be brilliant, be peculiar, be peculiarly brilliant.

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