Creating Flawed Characters: Learning from Rebecca Roanhorse

Thursday, August 15, 2019
One of the best things about being an author is that I can call reading study. "Honey, can you finish dinner. I’m learning all about creating flawed characters.” 

This was definitely the case when I was reading Trail of Lightning and Storm of Locusts by Rebecca Roanhorse. In part, Roanhorse accomplished this by giving some of her characters supernatural abilities, called clan powers, that can also become flaws.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the books, Trail of Lightning and Storm of Locusts are both post-apocalyptic stories set in and around the Dinétah or Navajo homeland. Not only are resources limited, as anyone would expect in a post-apocalyptic world, monsters from the Dine cosmology now roam the land. Fortunately, people with clan powers are also a part of this new world.

Writing a hero, especially one with super abilities, is tricky. If you aren’t careful you give your character so much power that no one can defeat them. This makes it hard to build tension because your reader never doubts that the hero will prevail. Another problem is that in your quest to create the next Captain America, you mold a character who is too goody-two-shoes to tolerate.

Reader Beware: Although I’m not going to give the plot away, I am going to spoil part of the mystery of these books.

Roanhorse solves both of these problems with the aforementioned clan powers. Maggie has super speed and uncanny abilities in combat. The downside? After using her powers, she is so exhausted that she is vulnerable. There is also the temptation to solve problems with combat when negotiation might work even better.

Sometimes a character hides part of their abilities. Maggie knows that Kai was studying how to manipulate weather but it takes time to get to the bottom of his silver tongue.  He is the most persuasive person Maggie has ever met and then she realizes that his clan powers include persuasion. But she understands why he hides it. Who is going to trust someone who can magically manipulate them? 

 It is hard to remember you are human with powers like these.  Maggie in particular often isolates from others.

Other times, it isn't that the clan power has a downside.  Instead, how it works is off-putting. Ben is a top notch tracker and because of her clan powers the girl is fast and agile. After refusing to use her full powers, Ben shows Maggie how ingesting a blood sample enables her to find anyone no matter how far away the person now is. Ben herself worries what evil this drive to ingest blood might indicate.

Using Roanhorse's techniques you can make your character’s life as difficult as it can be by giving them a strength that can also be a weakness.   Make things even worse by putting this character in a situation where they don’t want to use their ability but they may have no choice.


To find out more about Sue Bradford Edwards' writing, visit her blog, One Writer's Journey.  Sue is also the instructor for Writing Nonfiction for Children and Young Adults. The next session begins September 23rd, 2019.


Sioux Roslawski said...

Sue--When I would interview for a job, if they asked, "What is a weakness of yours?" like most people, I'd try to think of one that was in reality a strength (from the employer's perspective)... something like, "I'm a bit of a perfectionist, and sometimes get too detail-oriented with my work."

As a student of writing craft, you're doing the opposite. Your deconstruction is intriguing.

When I read, I might try to think like you. It's not wallowing in a great book. It's necessary research. And it's deconstructing the plot and characters in order to become a better author.

Yeah, I'll say all of that... and more.

Sue Bradford Edwards said...

I think part of the reason that I do this is that I used to review books. So, as I read, I would contemplate who would like this book and why. Now I just extent that to consider what I write could learn from the book.

Renee Roberson said...

This is so interesting! I've been binging "Stranger Things" on Netflix and the character 11 has telekinetic powers. But like you mentioned in this review, she is also terribly weakened after using said powers. I have something similar going in my YA "Between" and may need to do some tweaking in the next round of edits after thinking about this. Hmm . . .

Sue Bradford Edwards said...

I don't think weakness is essential if the powers are limited. But there has to be an impact.

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