How to Write a Novel: Weaknesses and Need

There is a lot of excitement brewing about the upcoming live-action remake of Disney’s Mulan, and I have to say, I am one of those folks. I am stoked. Mulan was the first movie I saw in theaters when I was seven years old, back in 1998. It was absolutely amazing, and stayed my favorite movie of all time for years. I sang the songs, pretended to do kung fu, and wished I had an imaginary dragon like Mushu. I didn’t just love her, I wanted to be Mulan. And now, after viewing the trailer for the live-action remake, I am reminded of what I loved so much about the original movie.

There is a reason Mulan is in the official lineup of Disney princesses, despite not having ever been a princess. She’s a soldier, a badass warrior, who held her own against a man like Shan-Yu not because she was an especially good fighter, but because she was cunning and resourceful. Mulan got the conversation started about what it meant to be an “action girl,” a conversation sparked anew by the arrival of movies like Captain Marvel and the imminent Black Widow film. Mulan’s story didn’t center around getting the man of her dreams by being pure of heart and rebelling [nominally] against the societal order, then marrying the handsome prince; she rebelled by putting her life on the line, trained to become a soldier and saved her country. The handsome love interest was not the prize at the end of that journey, but someone who eye she caught incidentally by being herself.

She was the very first “strong female character” that I think really spoke to me, and continued to for years. There is so much to love about her story, but it’s her growth as a character that really stands out. For that reason, it’s her powerful story that I will use for this post on designing your character’s weaknesses and needs.

This is the first of John Truby’s seven steps of story structure (if you don’t remember these steps, check out my post: How to Write a Novel: Design Your Central Conflict). Every hero has one or more weaknesses that are holding her back from having a fulfilling life and achieving her desire. These weaknesses tend to be outside forces that are somehow preventing your hero from getting the thing that she wants. Weaknesses are inherently necessary from a storytelling standpoint, because without a weakness, there would be no reason the hero shouldn’t already have the thing they want and removes any conflict from the story.

In the 1998 film, Mulan had many weaknesses holding her back from her desire. For some examples, let’s take a look at the beginning of the story. Mulan lives in a society with many sexist cultural norms, and from the first moment we see her she is preparing to face the matchmaker who will assign her a husband. This custom is based on attractive appearance and being “quiet and demure, graceful, polite, delicate, refined, poised, and punctual” – qualities we learn quickly that Mulan does not have. She is rebuked for speaking out of turn, told that she is “too skinny” to bear healthy sons, and when she fails her matchmaker’s exam, she is told quite forcefully that she will never bring her family honor. Basically, she is made to believe that she is lazy, useless, and an embarrassment to her family.

Later on in the movie, Mulan disguises herself as a man and joins the army in order to save her infirm veteran father from forced conscription. Here, she is put through boot camp led by Captain Shang. All of the recruits disappoint Shang initially, but Mulan starts out at the bottom of the class. She is weaker than the other soldiers, unskilled, and fails every lesson. Shang and the other men see her as utterly incompetent and borderline insane. Chi Fu, the emperor’s councillor and representative even remarks, “I can see why [Fa Zhou never spoke about him], the boy’s an absolute lunatic!”

Needless to say, all these weaknesses certainly hold Mulan back from a fulfilling life and achieving her desire of saving her father. Now, let’s talk about Mulan’s need. What does she need to overcome in order to have a fulfilling life and be a better person? It sounds like I am talking about her weaknesses again, but there is a difference: a need is what the hero must fulfill within herself. If all the other weaknesses were absent, what would still be holding your hero back on the inside from having a fulfilling life?

For Mulan, it was the belief that she was unworthy. Unworthy of a match in a husband, unworthy of her family’s honor, unworthy to continue training as a soldier, unworthy of breaking that glass ceiling, and unworthy of making her father proud. In order to have a fulfilling life, Mulan needed to believe that she was in fact worthy from the beginning, when she was being herself. This need is what sets up the entire story, and it’s the lesson that Mulan will learn by the end.

This is what is known as a psychological need; in most stories, the hero needs to overcome a serious flaw within themselves that is holding them back, but no one else. Other stories may also have a moral need: a flaw that the hero needs to overcome within themselves that is also harming others. For example, a hero may be misogynistic, greedy, selfish, aggressive, a bully, or bitchy. It’s a moral flaw that they must overcome in a moment of self-revelation not just because it would give them a more fulfilling life, but also because that flaw hurts the people around them. It could be argued that Mulan’s moral flaw is that she is actually pretty lazy; she cheats at her matchmaker’s exam, get’s her dog to help her with her chores, and almost allows Mushu to help her cheat at her training lessons. I would agree that it’s a possibility, but Mulan overcomes that laziness pretty quickly during the training montage. There’s no moment of deep self-revelation, and it’s never referenced again.

It is highly important that your hero, whoever they are, are not aware of their need at the beginning of the story. If they were, then there would be no journey to discover it and the story becomes less satisfying. The hero does not become aware of their need until the moment of self-revelation, at the turning point of the story. It is at that moment that the hero, face-to-face with themselves, must make a decision. Do they overcome their need and rise as a better person, or do they give in to it and fall. This is the crux of the story, the change the happens for your character.

To create a weakness and need for your character, you must dig into the moral argument you wish to make. Ask yourself what lesson you want your hero to learn by the end of the story, or what sort of person you want them to be. By the end of the film, Mulan learned to be confident in herself both as a person and as a leader, and had learned that she was indeed worthy of the respect of her fellow soldiers, her family’s honor, and her father’s affection. Who do you want your hero to be? From that lesson, reverse-engineer a weaknesses that may be holding your hero back. Weaknesses can come built-in to the time period and setting of your story, such as the sexism of ancient China was for Mulan, or they may come from other sources such as family dynamics, physical disabilities, a toxic work environment, or religious practices. Then, give your hero both a moral and a psychological need. Remember the difference: a psychological need affects only the hero; a moral need must be hurting at least one other character in the story.

There are two good ways to develop a moral need: connect it to the psychological weakness, or turn a moral strength into a weakness. For example, if your character is timid, impulsive, easily angered, anxious, reckless, etc., ask yourself what sort of immoral actions could come out of these weaknesses. Perhaps the character may run from danger, even when people need their help, or maybe they might put others down to get ahead, or they might lash out at those around them. There are no shortages of immoral actions that can be natural expressions of a psychological weakness. The moral need, then, would be to recognize those actions and their source.

The second way to develop a moral need is to take a strength and push it into a weakness. Maybe your hero is virtuous, but they are so passionate about that virtue that it becomes toxic and oppressive. Take any value, then find the negative version of that value. Your hero could become self-righteous, puritanical, obedient to a fault, neurotic, shallow, clingy, or a wallflower. All of these faults can be derived from moral values that have been twisted or pushed into being negative. Then the moral need of your hero might be a journey of finding a balance between the good and downsides of those values.

Are you ready to try? Choose either technique that works for you, and come up with a list of possible weaknesses and needs for your hero. This is the first step to building the central conflict and moral lesson that will drive your story.

How to Write a Novel: Decide Your Central Conflict

When asked what author inspired them the most to write, many writers will name JK Rowling. Indeed, her books are quite phenomenal. I adored them growing up, and I would be lying if I said she wasn’t on my own list of inspirational authors. She single-handedly changed the face of young adult literature, and then set a very serious standard for the writing craft. I have praised her skill with foreshadowing (see my post Wreck-it Ralph and the Art of Foreshadowing) and there is a reason she is so good at it. In interviews, Rowling has said that she planned the seven books of her Harry Potter series very carefully before the first book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, was ever published. She allegedly imagined the entire plot and the forest scene in Deathly Hallows, which was the inspiration for the full series.

Now, I don’t know how much of that is true, and I’m as much of a Potter fan as anybody,  and I will agree that there are many problems with the works that Rowling has written since then, but that’s a different conversation to be had at a later time. Readers of this post can learn a lesson from the series and the success Rowling represents – “begin with the end in mind.”

By this point, if you’re following my blog and abiding by the instructions in my How to Write a Novel series, you should have a working premise. If not, go back and read my post, Turning an Idea into a Story. The very next step in writing your novel is to design your central conflict. What is conflict? Webster’s dictionary defines it as the opposition of forces. In fiction writing, this is where the entire plot of your story boils down to one issue: the driving theme, the moral choice that the hero must make. In essence, the central conflict is the story being told. It could be stated as an answer to the question, “Who fights who over what?” But, truly, it runs much deeper than that. The conflict of your story begins at the beginning and ends when the last line is written. Without a central conflict, the story does not exist.

Let’s play a quick game of pretend. Imagine that a friend invites you out for a drink and he begins to tell you about his day. “You wouldn’t believe it,” he says. “The smoke detector kept me up all night! So, this morning, I went to the store, bought a new battery, and when I got home, I replaced the old one.” This would likely earn a half-hearted, “That’s great,” from you, and isn’t exactly a thrilling tale; your friend had a problem and successfully solved it. These aren’t the kind of stories that draw readers in and keeps them engaged. These aren’t the stories that are talked about around the water cooler at work or anticipated when you sit down to read. This shows that conflict drives story; without a conflict, a story just becomes a string of facts.

Let’s pretend again that your friend tells you about his day, but a this time a bit differently. “You wouldn’t believe it,” he says. “The smoke detector kept me up all night, so this morning I left the house to go buy a new battery. But, I was so tired from staying up all night that I fell asleep at a red light and got rear-ended by another car. I pulled off the road and exchanged insurance information. When I got into the store, I saw my ex-wife Gretchen and she was standing right by the batteries, so I hid in the produce section to wait for her to go away and avoid talking to her. Finally, I buy the battery and make it out to my car, only for all the fluids to have leaked out because of the accident, so guess how I got home? Gretchen gave me a ride.”

Now, that’s a much more interesting story. The conflict gave us a sense of uncertainty, and a desire to see how it all would end. We were engaged, trying to piece together ahead of the storyteller what would happen next, rather than being fed a series of facts.

As a character in a story, we knew what your friend’s goal is: he wants to buy batteries to stop his smoke detector from beeping. Why? So he can sleep. This is the goal that he wants to accomplish, and the rest are obstacles standing in his way. We have a clear conflict driving this short story.

Now, in your novel, a central conflict is necessary to drive the story from beginning to end. To create one, I use the seven steps from John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story, and apply them to my chosen main character:

  1. Weakness and Need
  2. Desire
  3. Opponent
  4. Plan
  5. Battle
  6. Self-revelation
  7. New equilibrium

Each of these steps will be discussed in-depth in upcoming posts, so don’t worry. I’ll just go over them briefly here before we dive in to each one.

1.Weakness and Need.

You need to determine your hero’s weakness and need, and remember that these are two different things. Your character’s weakness is whatever obstacle, internal or external, are holding him back from accomplishing his goal, and it’s okay to have more than one. The more weaknesses a character has, the more dramatic the process of overcoming them. They can be personality traits, situations, or other characters. For example, in Harry Potter, Harry’s weaknesses are his living situation, bullying family members, and that so many people in the magical world want to kill him. In Toy Story, Woody’s weaknesses are his arrogance, selfishness, and how much he covets being the favorite toy. Batman’s weaknesses are his grief over the death of his parents and in many instances, the fact that he’s only human going up against super-powered villains.

These are not the same thing as a need, which is what your main character must fulfill within himself in order to have a better life. Woody’s arrogance certainly got in the way of accomplishing his goal of getting back home to Andy because of all the hijinks it led to, but what he really needed in order to have a fulfilling life was to learn to be a friend, and accept the friendship of others. Harry’s need in Harry Potter was to overcome his fear and accept his status as the Chosen One. Both weakness and need are vitally important to your story, and set up all the other steps. Average, mediocre stories (*cough* *cough* Captain Marvel) have only weaknesses holding your character back from their goals, but this does not foster deep self-revelation within your characters. Good stories always have a need that the main character or hero becomes aware of, leading to struggle and inner change. Even better stories have both a moral need and a psychological need. A moral need means your character is hurting others in some way at the beginning of the story, and must learn of his moral need not only to have a better life, but also to be a better person.

2.  Desire

Your hero wants something; that’s why they set off on this adventure/journey/quest to begin with. What does your character want in this story? What is his goal? Maybe he wants to attend a school for witchcraft and wizardry in order to escape his awful home life. Maybe he wants to destroy a certain ring of power. Maybe he’s lost in a strange city and wants to get home. Whatever it is, that’s your character’s desire. It’s what sets the story in motion. For your friend earlier in this post (remember him?) it was buying new smoke detector batteries, and we all went along on the journey to see if he eventually got what he wanted.

Now, in most stories (read: mediocre stories) the character’s desire is, in some way, connected to his need. When he fulfills his desire, he shortly thereafter fulfills his need. For example, you write a story where character’s desire is to find a home or where he “truly belonged,” and his need was to learn the true meaning of family. By the end of the story, he finds a physical home and learns that the schmucks he was traveling with this whole time were his “real family all along.” Boom, story over. Need and desire should serve different purposes in writing your story. Your hero’s desire will move him physically throughout the story world, guiding the decisions he makes, but the need will be the process of overcoming personal flaws and growing in some way as a person. Whether or not he reaches his desire should not be what causes inner change, and personally, I like to place those two things in opposition to each other. I like to make the character’s desire a red herring and even an obstacle to overcoming his personal flaws; if he reaches his desire, it will actually hold him back from fulfilling his need. Anyway, the point here is that the story doesn’t start until your character recognizes his desire, but desire is what your character wants, not what you, as the writer, want for your characters.

3. Opponent

This is not necessarily a “bad guy,” or anyone evil. The opponent, also called antagonist, is a functional tool of the story, someone who stands in the way or actively impedes the hero from accomplishing their goal. In a good story, the antagonist will not only be trying to stop the hero from achieving their desire, but will also have their own goal to achieve. The audience will become more invested in stories like these, because they want to see which side, hero or opponent, will achieve their desire. In even better stories, the hero and opponent will compete for the same goal. To create a good opponent for your story, you must examine the desire of your hero and determine that your opponent will want exactly the same thing. For example, in Harry Potter, Harry and Voldemort are both competing for the fate of the magical world, and represent two very different pathways for the future of this world. Voldemort represents fascism, division, and oppression, while Harry represents freedom and the courage of people to stand up for others.

It is in competing for the same goal that your hero and antagonist will come into contact with one another organically, building their relationship.

4. Plan

The plan provides the bare bones of how your central conflict will progress throughout the course of the story, but with a caveat: this is how your character thinks he will defeat the opponent and achieve his goal, not necessarily how it will actually come about. Your hero must make decisions; otherwise, your story will go nowhere and the desire is pointless. Stories where things just happen out of nowhere to progress a character through the story are few, and are rarely done well. Your audience must become invested in your character as they see whether or not his decisions actually move him closer to the goal.

5. Battle

Your hero and opponent will come into contact with each other eventually, and must vie for achievement of the goal. They can’t both have it, because the hero and opponent are fundamentally at odds with each other. Someone must lose. The battle is the final conflict between there hero and opponent, deciding the result of the story.

6. Self-Revelation

The battle with the opponent leads to change. It should be a dramatic experience, different from anything your hero has dealt with up to this point. Therefore, it will lead to a discovery about himself and who he really is. This self-revelation should come directly from your hero’s weakness and need, what he needed to overcome to have a better life. Perhaps your hero thought his weaknesses were the only things holding him back. Perhaps he saw his need, but denied it. Either way, the facade will be stripped away for the first time. Now, his need is staring him straight in the face, and he must recognize it. What happens next will make your hero either better or worse, depending on the type of story being told.

This is a good litmus test for creating a good opponent. If your opponent cannot force this a self-revelation in your hero, then perhaps he is not the right character for the role. A good opponent makes your character struggle; a great opponent knows exactly how to dig into your hero’s mind and make him see himself clearly for the first time. But, more on that later.

7. New Equilibrium 

At this stage in the story, everything has reached a new normal. Your hero tried to achieve their desire, and either succeeded or failed. He has come face to face with his need, what would have led to a better life, and made a decision. A self-revelation has occurred, and your character is a different person than he was before. If he accepted his need and changed positively, then he will rise to be a better person and life will have improved. Comedies often go this way. The hero rises, learns a lesson, and the story ends with everything that was wrong is now “fixed.” In tragedies, the hero often rejects his need. He refuses what would have made his life better, and changes negatively. These are the kinds of stories where what is wrong becomes worse, and the hero falls.

 

Using these seven steps, you can structure your story with a central conflict that will pull your character through the story. I recommend outlining your story with a minimum of ten events, and see if you can identify these seven steps within those events. If not, then consider what events are happening. Does your hero have a desire? Does he go after it? What are his weaknesses and need, and how are these shown in his actions? When does he become aware of the opponent and how are they at odds with each other? When does the battle occur? How does your hero respond to that?

Here again, we can take a look at JK Rowling’s example of beginning with the end in mind. If you cannot see the structure within your story, then begin with the self-revelation. Determine whether your hero changes positively or negatively, if he learns the lesson that you believe he needed to in order to have a better life. Be specific. Then, go back to beginning and outline the need and desire. Be specific with these, too. Come up with as many as you possibly can, and remember that the deeper these needs are, the more dramatic the change will be. Force him to take action; your story events should include decisions that your hero is consciously making. This planned structure will guide and shape the telling of the story as you flesh out the scenes from beginning to end. It will ensure that whatever happens to your hero, he is always on track toward the true ending and reality he will find in the new equilibrium.