I finished the examination of Jeff Gerke’s book on building believable characters, but I found a great source that adds another interesting layer. It’s from John Truby’s book The Anatomy of Story. Truby agreed that all great heroes have an inner flaw, a weakness and a need that holds him back. Actually, there’s TWO: a psychological need and a moral need.
The psychological need is a flaw that hurts no-one but the hero. An example is someone who has low self-esteem.
The moral need involves a flaw in how he treats others. He hurts those around him, whether he means to or not. He needs to learn how to act properly toward others. An example is a man with an alcohol addiction problem. He thinks his drinking affects only himself, but he’s mooching money from his friends, he’s neglecting his loved ones, and he’s dishonoring his family name.
Truby says that by connecting the moral and psychological needs of your hero, you create a character who is much more sympathetic and will have a more powerful revelation (called the Moment of Truth in Jeff’s system). An easy way to find that connection is to push a strength so far that it becomes a weakness:
1. Identify a virtue in your character, then make him so passionate about it that it becomes oppressive. Or
2. Come up with a value the character believes in, then find the negative version of that value and have him deal with it.
Example #1: Your character loves justice. Everything should be fair, the law should apply to everyone equally, and no one should be allowed to abuse the law. This is a healthy virtue that makes for a polite society. Now take it one step further. Your hero is so passionate about justice that he becomes a vigilante. He kills serial killers (Dexter). He chases criminals (Batman). He seeks revenge for a gross injustice done to him (Patrick Jane from The Mentalist). In each of these examples, the psychological need for the hero is to uphold justice. His moral need is that he’s gone rogue and now justice no longer operates properly. Dexter’s moral need lead to the death of his wife. Patrick Jane’s moral need lead to the murder of a man who wasn’t the Main Bad Guy.
Example #2: Your character values family and honor. There is nothing more important than protecting the family. Then his brother defies the family and does something criminal and criminally stupid, so now your character needs to deal with the mess. That’s Michael Corleone from The Godfather.
By layering these needs in your character, you create a more powerful and emotional experience for the reader.