When a writer is first shaping a new character, it’s often first instinct to make a character either “smart but weak” or “dumb but strong.” This stereotypical assignment of attributes is designed to give characters a strength and a weakness, to have them be strong in one respect but flawed in another. The problem with this attribute distribution arises because it is simply not realistic, especially when every character in the story is designed in such a way. Real people have a slew of talents and weaknesses, some of which are very specific. It is too broad to say, “My character is weak but very smart.” Is he weak at jumping? Or is he just weak when it comes to lifting heavy objects? This lack of specificness leads to very one dimensional characters who all share the same weaknesses and strengths. To illustrate this, let’s make up a few characters and see how their strengths and weaknesses play out.

We have a young fighter named Alec. He’s very smart, a genius in fact, but he is small and thin, with no physical strength to speak of. He easily defeats stupid opponents with his cunning, but those whose intelligence rivals his pose a huge problem. So then his friend, the unintelligent but strong Karl, steps into the fight. While Alec distracts them, Karl is able to crush the opponents with his brute strength and speed. It might seem as though this scenario will result in constant victories for Alec and Karl. but what happens if Karl is somehow wounded or killed? He’s in the thick of combat, so unless the author ignores all realism Karl will, at some point, be injured. Here the problem arises. The only other person who can help Karl fight is his twin sister Anna. She also is very smart, but has absolutely no brawn. Now Alec is at a disadvantage and, unless they somehow manage to create a very clever plan that will allow them to escape their superior opponent uninjured and with their fallen companion, they will lose the battle.

Thus, the author hems himself in by creating characters with such imbalances. The characters’ strengths and weaknesses, because of how inflexible they are, prevents them from being put in situations with other characters who share their same weaknesses. Characters therefore become plot devices, only being able to function in very limited ways. This gives the whole story a stiff, one dimensional feeling.

Take, for example, Eragon from the Inheritance Cycle. At the beginning of the story Paolini makes it clear Eragon is not physically gifted, being only a “weak” human. But through his own character’s extremely broad weaknesses, Paolini backs himself into a corner. Galbatorix, Eragon’s enemy, is written to seem invincible both through his cunning and in his strength. Eragon on the other hand is a weak human, who cannot defeat even the weakest of elves. In order to make Eragon strong enough to defeat Galbatorix, Paolini has to resort to a deus ex machina, giving Eragon the physical prowess of an elf. In doing so he causes two problems: One, Eragon no longer has any obvious weaknesses or shortcomings. He is a super human, one that readers cannot relate to. Two, in order to have tension in the final battle against Galbatorix, Paolini will have to make Galbatorix even stronger than Eragon (who is already infinitely above normal human levels of strength), pushing the reader’s limits of belief in the story. It will cause the reader to set down the book with a snort, saying, “Yeah, right,” simply because the strengths of the characters and their lack of weaknesses leaves no room for any struggle that the reader can relate to.

In order to prevent characters and subsequently the entire story from becoming inflexible and improbable, the author simply needs to diversify his characters. Rather than have Alec be weak but smart, let’s make him a poor runner. Thus his weakness is brought down to a more specific, natural level. No longer is he necessarily incapable of any physical strength, making him more flexible as a character. And maybe saying he is an all around genius isn’t a good idea either. Giving him a more specific talent, such as being a good strategist, not only makes him easier to relate to but also makes him more valuable as a character. It gives him individuality and prevents him from becoming an omniscient character who must have no weaknesses in order to win.

Having characters with a diverse range of talents and weaknesses is just as important as having characters with a broad spectrum of vices and virtues. Just as a character, in order to be realistic, needs to have good traits and bad, he also needs to have areas in which he excels and areas where he is flawed. This creates a realistic, well balanced character who is not limited in large areas and thus becomes more useful and flexible.


  1. VikingBoyBilly on 8 November 2011, 17:13 said:

    I liked this article. I’m tired of the “dumb jock” trope.

  2. Snow White Queen on 8 November 2011, 22:14 said:

    Interesting twist on the idea of personality flaws. It’s an aspect I hadn’t considered.

  3. swenson on 8 November 2011, 23:41 said:

    I like this. It’s a good point. In real life, sure, there’s plenty of people who conform to the stereotype, but if you really look around, there’s plenty of people who don’t! Even in stories, you don’t always get people who conform to these stereotypes either.

    For example, a very classic character archetype is the wise, noble warrior. Aragorn in Lord of the Rings, for example. He’s very strong, very powerful, an excellent fighter… and no one is going to deny that he’s also wise and very intelligent. On the other hand, you always get the cowardly, weakling dumb guys who break easily under the villains’ pressure. To take another example from Tolkien, Grima Wormtongue. Not necessarily all that smart on his own, he’s not very strong either. He’s kind of a pushover who obviously is working with the bad guys.

  4. Fell Blade on 9 November 2011, 13:29 said:

    Great article; those are some really goot things to consider while writing!

  5. RandomX2 on 14 November 2011, 20:29 said:

    Paolini examples are always the best way to communicate an idea. It’d be interesting if Eragon remained at Brom-level strength throughout the books and had to rely on attributes other than OP super-human powers to beat enemies.

  6. War Wizards are the best on 20 November 2011, 01:45 said:

    What’s OP?

  7. Quilloasa on 22 November 2011, 07:10 said:

    Overpowered, I assume.

  8. Scarlet Specter on 6 July 2012, 16:50 said:

    “Two, in order to have tension in the final battle against Galbatorix, Paolini will have to make Galbatorix even stronger than Eragon (who is already infinitely above normal human levels of strength), pushing the reader’s limits of belief in the story.”

    I’ve noticed this issue is overwhelmingly common in Shounen anime. They tend to follow either “Hero must fight progressively stronger enemies” or “enemy goes through progressively stronger tranformations” purely as an excuse for the hero to get stronger and gain a new power to defeat him. This has resulted in entire series’ hinging on formulaic plot devices that will quickly fall apart once their logical inconsistencies catch up with them (coughBleachcough).

    It really is an obnoxious trend since it feels like many writers want to absolve themselves of puting actual thought into their stories and complex worldbuilding by coping out the most predictable character devices.