(minor spoilers follow for season one of The Wire)
I took Leigh Stein’s fiction workshop last week on plotting characters through weaknesses, needs, and desire. Weaknesses hold your protagonist back in some way, causing them to hurt themselves or others—preferably both. Needs are what your protagonist has to overcome within themselves in order to change or grow. Desire is the concrete thing that your character wants. In a class I took with Fatima Farheen Mirza, she had a similar approach, suggesting that every character should have 3 external wants and 3 internal wants. In the book Save the Cat! Writes a Novel, Brody distills this down to a problem (flaw that needs fixing), want (goal they’re pursuing), and need (life lesson to be learned).
These are all essentially variants of the same thing: strong characters have tangible and intangible aims. It sounds so basic and yet I struggle with this because my brain tends to jump to amorphous themes rather than situations or individuals. When I was going through this exercise with some characters from a half-written novel I started last year (I oscillate between two WIP novels and I swear I will finish one eventually!!), I felt most unlocked by the prospect of weaknesses and problems.
Weaknesses contribute to problems, and Brody recommends that the problems manifest in multiple areas of your character’s life. Perfect characters are often boring, but it wasn’t until this framing that I felt encouraged to actively stir shit up in my own characters’ lives.
This past weekend, I watched season one of The Wire, an HBO drama where each season centers on different institutions in Baltimore. The first season focuses on the drug trade and the police. The Wire is known for examining systems through intricate plots and “flawed characters.” I was really impressed by how willing it is to show characters’ weaknesses. Jimmy McNulty is a huge mess—hot-headed, obsessive, cheats on his wife, and drinks on the job. D’Angelo Barksdale is moody and passive in the face of violence that he and his uncle incur. Cedric Daniels is career-climbing and deferential to authority.
But a person’s greatest strength can also be their greatest flaw. The Wire leverages these connections exceeding well. McNulty’s obsessiveness is how they continue to get sign-offs on the wiretaps around which they build their criminal case. D’Angelo’s passivity grows into a sense of responsibility as he tries to protect the kids he works with in The Pit. Daniels steps up and fights his superiors at the expense of a promotion, but earns the respect of his team.
I texted my sister early on about how I hated certain characters like Prez and Herc. She responded with, “Keep watching.” Indeed (as Omar says), I grew to find each person’s arc interesting and satisfying. Plenty of them still remained unlikeable or flawed, but they seemed more complex and weren’t the same as when they started out.
Turning back to my own writing, I realized I’d been too nice to my characters and they felt flat as a result. It was weirdly liberating to brainstorm a list of flaws and negative traits, to not be afraid to put my characters in terrible situations of their own making. I invoked Marie Kondo’s spirit of “I love mess!” and was indeed excited! Weaknesses make characters feel like real people. Decisive moments that reinforce or refute those weaknesses chart growth.
Learn to embrace the mess! It may just be the perfect place to start.
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- “Turns Out It’s Pretty Good: Reading First Thing in the Morning” by Rachel Charlene Lewis
- A helpful Twitter thread on advice for submitting to literary magazines, like submitting to newer journals, building your online presence early on, and not trying to write a clever cover letter.
- In response to my last newsletter on writing and confronting shame, reader Anna Haines recommended this great piece by Thomas Page McBee: “Shame, after all, is a fear of disconnection. To connect despite that fear isn’t just life-affirming — it’s sublime. The irony is that shame can block you from recognizing the connections you already make with your work.”
- Food writer Priya Krishna put together some great advice and resources on working in food media/publishing.
Recent reads & other media
I read Zadie Smith’s small collection of delightful and meditative quarantine essays, Intimations. I also read Jessica Brody’s book on novel writing called Save the Cat! Writes a Novel (adapted from the famous screenwriting methodology of the same name). It veers towards more commercial, traditionally plotted (i.e. hero with a goal) story types and some of the terms used are a bit hokey. I nevertheless found the examination and analysis of different story structures really helpful. It felt like the concrete, novel writing 101 material I needed and provided helpful starting points for outlining and revision.
I’ve been watching The Falcon and the Winter Soldier but haven’t been enjoying it that much. Part of what annoys me is that it has all the elements of a good superhero story, which Marvel has down to a formula as evidenced by its 20+ movies, yet feels too scattered and poorly paced. The dialogue is so bad (all exposition!) I finally started watching The Wire, a show which is known for exceptionally good dialogue. The comparison of The Wire to a novel is definitely fitting.
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~ meme myself and i ~
When pranking your dog goes awry. This is better than a bookmark. I’m so scared for cicada summer. Religiously checking the Zoom mute button. The canonical backstory for the inventor of Gogurt. How it feels to read outside.