Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Fatal Flaws and You: A Compact Psychoanalysis

There will probably never be a movie based on chess.

Just try to picture it for a second: training montages, inspirational locker room speeches, conflict between teammates, the buzzer-beating final score that wins the day…none of the typical sports movie gimmicks will work with chess.

Why do I bring this up? Why is this in a post that’s supposed to be about writing? Why do I ignore the magnificent Pixar short, “Gertie’s Game,” which is about chess, and therefore chess needs no epic movie to justify itself?

Because for all the differences between chess and sports, they have at least one thing in common: you have to pay attention to strengths and weaknesses, your own and your opponents.

Writing is the same way. As the writer, you are the coach. Your heroes are your players, your villains (and sometimes the random bystanders who get in the way) are the opposing teammates. In order to win – to make your story feel real and draw readers in – you have to know their strengths and weaknesses.

You also need to know your own.

(Note: I should switch my major to psychology, then write this up in a self-help book and make a billion-kazillion dollars when it gets endorsed by Oprah. Doesn't the title of this post sound so...academic? New career goal.)

In Greek mythology, the main character always has a fatal flaw. There is one area in their life (pride seems to be a common one), evident early in the play that will bring about their destruction in the final act.

You’d think these characters would look around, see people dying, and think, “Hey, I’m probably in a tragedy. I should figure out what my fatal flaw is and get rid of it so the author can’t add me to the body count.”

But they never do. Why? Because, first of all, it’s hard to see your own weaknesses. Second, it’s not very fun.

As a writer, though, it’s also essential. I’m not talking about your various character flaws here (although that would probably be good to think about too). I mean what you’re good at and what you need to improve in your writing.

Have you ever taken the time to think through this? If not, you should. If you have, do it again. Writing styles change as you learn new things. That means you have plenty of new areas to work on if you feel like you’ve mastered one.

Here are some tips when evaluating your weaknesses:
  1. Ask someone else for help, someone you trust who’s read things you’ve written. Give them time to think of a thoughtful answer (i.e. don’t put them on the spot and expect a detailed, helpful answer). An outside perspective can be very useful.
  2. Reason from your strengths. Your weaknesses are usually either the opposite of your strengths or your strengths carried to an extreme. For example, if I know that I’m good at dialogue, chances are I’m neglecting my descriptions.
  3. Once you find your weaknesses, work on them one at a time. Have at least one editor who is strong in that area edit your work. Read books on the subject. Intentionally think about improving this area on your first round of edits. Whatever it takes. Get rid of that flaw before it becomes fatal for your manuscripts.

P.S. (Can blogs have P.S.s? Is that allowed? Can you even make P.S. plural like I just did?)

Want to know a secret?

I’ve never actually played chess. The entire opening is built on second-hand information that could be completely bogus. *Note: I have since been informed that there IS a movie based on chess: "Searching for Bobby Fischer." You should probably ignore everything I say after this because of my complete lack of chess-awareness.* I also know next to nothing about sports, and should really be writing about those either.

Therefore, I’m going to switch to games that I do know something about, some of my favorites, actually. This post was mostly about knowing your own strengths and weaknesses. On Saturday, I’m going to write about why I think playing games with people can teach you things about their personality that you wouldn’t know any other way. Then, over the next few Wednesdays, I’ll talk about applying this to fictional characters.

So far, the plan is for me to tell you how to play Settlers (a pioneer board game) with your heroes, Bang! (a Western card game) with your minor characters, and Mafia (a…murder card game?) with your villains to help you decide what their strengths and weaknesses are. It should be fun.

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