Make it Personal: Using Character Needs and Weaknesses to Create the Ultimate Conflicts for Your Protagonist

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Every story must have at least one antagonist.  The character or antagonistic force that tries to prevent the protagonist from achieving her goal.  The antagonist’s role is to provide the conflict that causes the protagonist to change from the beginning of the story to the end.  Often, we refer to the central antagonist as the villain of the story, and there are numerous resources on how to craft a great villain including articles from Story Grid editors Valerie Francis here and Marissa Frosh here

The best stories don’t stop with just the main antagonist, they throw all kinds of forces of antagonism at the protagonist, progressively complicating her journey along the way.  These antagonistic forces can come internally, from within the protagonist, from external characters, from the environment, or they can come from society.  They may even come from characters we perceive as friendly to the protagonist. 
The forces of antagonism that create the most conflict for your protagonist are ones that make the attacks against her personal.  When the attacks are personal, the conflicts they create will have special meaning to the protagonist.  She will have personal stakes in the outcome, and so more incentive to make sure it turns out in her favor.  So how do you craft forces of antagonism that really hit home for your protagonist?
It all starts with knowing your protagonist’s need.  When you know your protagonist’s need, you know her weaknesses.  When you’ve identified the protagonist’s weaknesses, you know what type of conflict to throw at her to challenge those weaknesses.

Unless you are brand new to the Story Grid, you know how important it is to identify your protagonist’s need.  A need is something that the protagonist requires to live a better life.  John Snow needs to realize that he is a leader, regardless of his birth circumstances.  In Toy Story 4, Woody needs to realize that there are more children who need him than the one he is with.  In The Wizard of Oz, the Scarecrow needs to understand that he is already intelligent, even without whatever he conceptualizes as a brain. 
Once you have your protagonist’s need, you can figure out his weaknesses.  Weaknesses are the characteristics or features of the protagonist we regard as a disadvantage or faults because they hold him back and prevent fulfillment of his potential. The weakness is the thing that the protagonist must overcome to get his need.  John Snow suffers from a lack of self-esteem that prevents him from realizing he possesses the qualities of an effective leader.  Woody’s weakness is that he is loyal to a fault which makes him hang on to kids who no longer need him when he could be out helping kids that need him.  The Scarecrow’s weakness is that he misunderstands the difference between a brain and intelligence, and so he pursues something he already has.
If you need more of a refresher on needs, why they are important, and how to identify them, check out this article from Story Grid editor Larry Pass here.

Once you know your protagonist’s weaknesses, you are ready to throw antagonistic forces at her that directly challenge those weaknesses.

Example of a Masterwork that Use the Protagonist’s Weaknesses Against him: Gone Girl
Gone Girl provides a masterful study in the setup of character weaknesses followed by attacks which take advantage of those weaknesses.  Let’s look at how Gillian Flynn made it so easy for the antagonistic forces, Amy, the police, the media and public at large, and even his twin sister Go, to create conflict in his life (I’ll be looking at the novel, but head here for a deeper look at the Editor’s 6 Core Questions on the movie adaptation, from the Roundtable).
What is it that Nick needs to live a better life?  He needs to find a conscious.  His life would go better for him if he had a set of values to guide his behavior when he faces a choice (to cheat or not cheat, to lie to the police or not lie, etc.).  Such values would help Nick understand that it’s better to tell the truth to the police even if it means he will look like a jerk for not making dinner plans for his fifth wedding anniversary. 
What weaknesses or character flaws can we find in Nick’s need? In other words, what does Nick need to overcome to fulfill his need? Nick’s lack of values comes from some strong internal conflicts that he has developed since childhood.  For one, he has no ability to show emotion and when we see him experience emotions, he suppresses them, making the reader wonder whether he feels emotions or if he is completely numb to them. 
He also lacks initiative to take care of himself, waiting for others to tell him what to do. He wants to be “mothered” as Amy says. This need to be taken care of means he relies on others to do everything for him, but also that he doesn’t think of anyone else’s needs (if he’s not taking caring of his own, how would he know how to take care of others).  He is self-centered with a desire to portray himself as a “good guy” at all costs, giving him an ego that is fragile and which he must go to great lengths to protect.
So, we can say that Nicks weaknesses are:

  • Ego – it’s all about him.  And, with his ego comes a need to please, so that his ego isn’t shattered by the judgment of others; 
  • Inability to show emotion and, in fact, a distinct drive to prevent his emotions from      coming through; and 
  • Self-centered – he relies on others to take care of him and doesn’t realize their needs.

Flynn does a great job establishing these weaknesses as believable results of Nick’s childhood. She does not portray Nick is a victim of his childhood, but the connections are there so we can see how someone with Nick’s experiences could develop such weaknesses. 

Then, once she’s set them up, she unleashes one of the most cunning antagonists in literature on him, his wife Amy, but doesn’t stop there.  The media/public, the police and even his most trusted friend and family member, his twin sister Go, all get in on the attack. 

Here are some examples of how she uses Nick’s weaknesses against him:

  1. Ego and the need to protect it
    a.     Set-up of the Weakness

Before anyone exploits Nick’s ego, the reader already knows it’s there.  Flynn establishes this weakness fully in the beginning hook of the book and, as with setup of his other weaknesses, I’ll list enough examples to give you a flavor for how she worked the weakness into the story.

From the start, we understand that Nick’s work is everything to him.  He needs the identity of being a writer to sustain his ego, which we learn from his outburst toward Amy when she loses her job and he tells her (essentially) that his career was more important because of how much harder he had to work to be a writer than she did.  We see his ego again when he explains his compulsion to tell Gilpin and Boney, the officers investigating his wife’s disappearance, about his former career so they understand he didn’t always live in small town USA running a bar.  Then he lies about dinner reservations for his anniversary, knowing the police will find out later that he didn’t have any, so he avoids looking like a jerk in that moment.  He explains his intense need to cooperate with the police, even when he knows he should get a lawyer, as a way to feed his craving for a “constant stream of approval,” remembering that his sister once told him he would “lie, cheat and steal – hell even kill – to convince people” he is a good guy.  And this proves to be at least partially true (absent the killing) when Nick explains that he didn’t tell Amy about the affair, but let their miserable relationship continue to fall apart hoping Amy would take charge and ask him for a divorce, allowing him to avoid disappointing Amy’s parents and making him look like the good guy.  
            b.     Exploiting the Weakness to create Conflict
Amy (external/main antagonist): She uses Nick’s ego to get him to follow the clues she left for him for her annual treasure hunt to celebrate their anniversary.  She knows if she gives him some easy clues, making him feel good about his ability to solve the riddles this year, he won’t give up and will lead the police straight to some of the most incriminating evidence she’s arranged to frame him for her murder.  Even after Nick realizes that she’s baited him, her kind words stroke his ego so much that he loses touch with the fact that she is playing him and buys into the idea that she wanted to reconcile. Not only does this set him up to find terribly incriminating evidence, she uses it to reveal to him she knows all the places he went with Andy to exercise their affair. 
Amy also confesses that everything she did to set Nick up was as much to punish him by turning the public against him as it was to punish him by sending him to prison, knowing how much it would hurt him to be “universally hated.”
The media/public (society):  Nick’s need to please overtook good sense in interacting with the public.  For example, he should have refused Shawna, a volunteer who showed up to help search for his wife, when she asked to take a selfie with him that ended up displayed for the world to see on one of the worst television shows a husband with a missing wife could end up on.  The photo started a media/public image hell for Nick that would have crushed him had his wife not shown up alive.  Shawna knew she baited him into the photo, and Ellen Abbott likely knew it too since she never chastised Shawna for asking him for it, but that stopped neither from exploiting Nick’s ego for their own purposes.
The police (external):  Boney constantly exploits Nick’s need to please, even reminding him she is his friend and “on his side” when she drops the news that they found Amy’s purse in Hannibal, where Amy led Nick on the treasure hunt after her disappearance.  Her ability to feed into his need to please gets Nick to talk to the police much more than he should have without a lawyer.
Go (external/ally): At the beginning of the story, Nick feels strongly about his connection with Go.  He explains that they don’t need to talk, that they can just read each other.  He thinks he doesn’t have to worry about his “need to please” with Go, because she understands him.  This makes her anger and her doubt about him even worse.  He breaks down when she points out that he lies about everything – who did and didn’t want kids, the affair, the state of his marriage, just so no one would think badly of him.  When he realizes, just from a look that Go gives him, that she is considering the possibility he killed his wife, he knows his fragile psyche will never fully recover from it and that hurt drives a permanent wedge between them.

2. Inability to show emotion; a distinct drive to prevent his emotions from coming through.
               a.      Set-up of the Weakness
Early in the story, Nick admits that he buries his emotions when he tells us “[i]n my belly-basement are hundreds of bottles of rage, despair, fear, but you’d never guess from looking at me.” In fact, he often references his suppression of emotion as a consequence of experiencing his father’s negative emotions growing up, and explains “[i]n my lifelong struggle to avoid becoming him, I’d developed an inability to demonstrate much negative emotion at all.”  Amy acknowledges Nick’s issues expressing his emotions when she explains in the diary that he grew up with a father that never apologized and so he does not know how.  Nick even admits some of his problems with Amy may have been avoided if he thought to tell her the good things he thought about her, such as when she looked really pretty in a dress, but the thought to speak his emotions never occurred to him.  As with the weakness of ego, all this setup occurs in the beginning hook.
              b.     Exploiting the Weakness to create Conflict
Nick- his own worst enemy (internal): Nick’s own internal desire to repress his emotions gets him in trouble a bunch of times!  One of the best examples is when he describes how his voice comes out stiff during the first press conference because he is concentrating on making sure it doesn’t waiver with emotion, reminding himself that his father always said real men don’t cry.  He is also so concerned with appearing to be a “douchebag” that he gives the camera a big smile at the end of the press conference, making him seem unaffected by his wife’s disappearance. 
Another lie he tells to avoid discussing his real emotions is his alibi for the morning of Amy’s disappearance.  Rather than tell the police where he went, he says he went to the beach which is a bad lie on his part because people were there but no one can verify his presence, and people know he doesn’t like the beach.  He tells this lie to avoid looking pathetic or talking about where he really went (and where he goes regularly) – to read back issues of the magazine he wrote for in secret in the garage of an abandoned house.
Go (external): Go hits hard at Nick’s inability to show emotion, which is gut wrenching for Nick because she is the one person he thinks he doesn’t need to show emotion to. Just after Amy has gone missing, Go pushes Nick to do something, talk to someone, act more concerned about Amy, and she isn’t satisfied with his answer that he is “just doing” what the police tell him.  This adds tension in the relationship Nick counts on the most, as Nick accuses her of trying to make him feel more inadequate than he already does.
Media (society): Ellen Abbott focuses on Nick’s demeanor and the pictures with Shawna to develop her initial attack against Nick.  It has nothing to do with any evidence against him, just the way he acts.

3. Self-Centered/Reliance on Others.
              a.     Set-up of Weakness
Boney asks Nick if he is the baby of the family within minutes of meeting him.  Why? Because his wife has been missing for several hours and instead of calling friends and family to find her, he sat in his house waiting on the police to come find her for him.  Just how much Nick internalizes the image of himself as less than a capable adult becomes clear from the fact that he knows its childish but he can’t help but obey when Amy’s mom tells him to get Gilpin (an adult) when he calls her from the police station.  When his mom begins treatment for cancer, Nick backs out of taking her and his mom takes the blame for it, telling Amy that Nick has trouble “doing hard things” because she babied him growing up.
              b.     Exploitation of the Weakness to provide Conflict
Amy (external/main antagonist):  Nick’s inability to take care of himself really manifests itself in how he lets everyone do everything for him.  He lets Amy pay the bills, open the mail, and purchase the life insurance policies.  When she messes with their finances – taking out cash little by little, increasing her own life insurance policy, taking out credit cards in his name, he doesn’t notice because he doesn’t take care of those things. 
Amy also uses Nick’s self-centeredness against him when she recreates certain aspects of herself in the diary and in real life, leading up to her disappearance.  For example, she fakes a fear of blood, in her diary, at the clinic and the doctor’s office, that she also tells Nick about, relying on his inattentiveness to make the lie seem believable.
Police (external): Although Boney claims she understands he acts like a baby because he’s been babied like her baby brother, the police take issue with the fact that Nick is slow to make phone calls and to go looking for his wife when she first goes missing.
Media/Public (society): The media hammer Nick for his selfish affair and for lying to protect his own interests once Amy went missing.  For the media and much of the public, this selfish act alone is enough to convict him of murder.
Attacking Nick’s weaknesses is not the only driver of conflict in the story.  This story is full of conflict from multiple sources, unrelated to Nick’s character. Amy alone provides enough conflict in her efforts to set Nick up to make your head spin – the idea that he is abusive, the credit card debt, and the injury to herself all provide conflict not reliant on Nick’s weaknesses.  But it is the attacks on his weaknesses that most naturally increase the tension in the story because the weaknesses are so ingrained in him he can’t see the attacks as traps.  He knows he was set up with the credit card debt because he did not make those purchases, so he his gut reaction when he learns about the debt is shock.  That’s a healthy reaction and if he had more of those, he’d probably have fared better in the first half of the story.  But, when he has time to think about his reactions, such as how he’ll act at the first press conference, his desire to prevent his voice from cracking makes him appear so stiff that he looks unmoved, and his desire to seem like a friendly guy makes him smile, leaving the impression that he is unconcerned.  He can’t help but act in line with his weaknesses, which make them such perfect tools to use against him.
And, let’s not forget, Amy repeatedly says she is punishing Nick for all the ways he wronged her not only by sending him to prison, but by making everyone in the world hate him, a personal weakness she knows will kill him as much as the death penalty she hopes to set him up for.

You’ve got a handle on your protagonist’s need (and if you don’t, pause here and go get one!), now you need to use that need to extract her weaknesses.  What must your character overcome to get what she needs?
Some examples include:
Need: to learn to trust her own judgment.
Potential weaknesses: no self-esteem, unhealthy reliance on the opinion of another, indecisiveness or inability to commit and fear of failing.
Need: to become vulnerable to have meaningful connections with another.
Potential weaknesses: superiority complex, untrusting, fear of rejection and self-hate.
Need: to find value in serving others.
Potential weaknesses: self-centered, prejudiced, materialistic and unforgiving.
Once you’ve figured out what your protagonist’s weaknesses are, you can really get creative throwing all types of antagonistic forces at her.  Don’t forget that these forces can be external, internal, and from other outside sources such as society or from the environment. The more sources of antagonism you throw at your protagonist, the more she will need to overcome to get what she needs!

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Renee Decker