Back in high school and college, friends sometimes set me up on blind dates. Nice guys all, but nothing clicked. How, as a writer, can I set up an enjoyable blind date between reader and character? They’ve never met before the reader picks up the book. My hope is to craft a character with whom readers will click.
Writing advice is clear and consistent: A relatable character needs strengths, quirks, and one fatal flaw. The narrative must carry the main character through an arc of personal growth that involves facing the flaw head-on and overcoming it to do what must be done, revealing a theme in the process. All without coming across as formulaic.
I get it, or think I do, up to the moment I sit down to write. Then the questions bubble up: Who among us has one and only one significant bad habit? What’s the flaw for Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Gamache to overcome, kindness? In an ongoing series, does character arc mean conquest of the same flaw again and again, like Sisyphus’s stone rolling back down the hill?
Script consultant Dara Marks defines fatal flaw as “a struggle within a character to maintain a survival system long after it has outlived its usefulness.” Going back to my novel-in-progress, I’ll try stepping away from moral judgments or bad habits to ask what old way of being no longer works in my character’s new situation. Perhaps I might even step away from fiction to ask the same question of myself.
What a comfort to be told that what we believe is true! Even if our belief feels unpleasant, to hear it affirmed is somehow to be reassured. In sooth, this affirmation soothes, as any soothsayer might predict.
Sooth and soothe come from the same Old English root. Soth was originally an adjective meaning “genuine” or “true.” The noun form meant “truth”; the verb form, “to verify or show to be true.”
Soothe emerged in the 1560s for humoring or flattering others by asserting what they said was true. It denoted the comfort of uncritical agreement, not the pain of truth confronting falsehood. Soothe meaning “to calm gently” appeared in the 1690s, finally detached from any relationship to truth.
To learn the error of a former belief is disorienting at best. It may be exciting, it may be distressing, but it rarely soothes. Small wonder we go to such lengths to avoid it. Small wonder our efforts to persuade others (or theirs to persuade us) by facts and logic are often met with deaf ears.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.