How to Give Your Character an Achilles’ Heel

*Guest post by Lesley Ann McDaniel*

Every hero needs an Achilles’ heel. But what exactly does that mean?

In one of my current manuscripts, the hero gets an opportunity to rescue the heroine in the climax of the book. What kind of hero would he be if he didn’t, right? Since the story takes place on an island, it makes sense that the water surrounding it would figure into the final mêlée. I knew from the start that the hero would jump in to save the heroine, but when the time came to write that moment, he wouldn’t do it. He wouldn’t jump.

It was then that I discovered his Achilles’ heel. It’s his overwhelming fear of water.

Direction

So, what exactly is an Achilles’ heel, and where does the term come from?

According to Greek mythology, Achilles was an exceptionally brave warrior. When he was born, his mother tried to make him immortal by dipping him in the River Styx, which presumably held magic powers. Unfortunately, the heel she held him by remained dry and, therefore, vulnerable. All an enemy had to do was aim for the one part of Achilles that was still mortal.

So any weakness, whether in a person, a thing, or an idea, can be referred to as an Achilles’ heel.

As writers, how do we apply this to our characters? Think of it as their greatest fear or weakness, like Indiana Jones and his fear of snakes.

Why does this matter? Because it’s an effective way to raise the stakes for our characters, and a reliable tool to prevent a “sagging middle” in our stories. Knowing a character’s Achilles heel lets us create more difficult decisions for him, if we do it right.

In the example of my poor water-fearing hero, his choice has been elevated from ‘save-the-heroine or not-save-the-heroine’ (a pretty ho-hum choice) to ‘face-my-darkest-fear or continue-to-be-a-coward’. The moment is more powerful because he has to face his greatest weakness.

Here’s how to effectively utilize a character’s Achilles’ heel:

  1. Set it up early in your story.

As with every story element, this shouldn’t announce itself as a set-up. Reinforce this component of your character, but don’t project the pay-off. Let the reader’s curiosity build.

2. Your character must acknowledge his weakness early on.

He can either deny it, decide he’s fine with things just the way they are, or maybe even express a desire to overcome it someday.

3. If your character has a nemesis, that nemesis has to take advantage of your character’s Achilles’ heel.

4. Let your character face his weakness in an interesting, unexpected way.

Ideally, this would come at the 2/3 inciting incident, or the climax. Maybe both, as long as the second event is even more creative and unexpected.

5.   Your character doesn’t necessarily have to overcome his greatest fear, but he does have to face it.

Be creative. What’s the most interesting Achilles’ heel you can come up with?

 

LESLEY ANN MCDANIEL writes romance, romantic suspense, and young adult fiction. Her new book, “Lights, Cowboy, Action” will be released through Heartsong Presents in June, 2013. Contact her at lesleym3@juno.com or visit her website at www.lesleyannmcdaniel.com.

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5 Responses to How to Give Your Character an Achilles’ Heel

  1. Laurel April 19, 2013 at 9:23 am #

    Good advice for writers, and good information for readers!

    • Lesley McDaniel April 19, 2013 at 12:53 pm #

      Thanks, Laurel! I’m glad you enjoyed it. It’s good to let readers in on the secrets of writers.

  2. allison April 19, 2013 at 9:51 am #

    Great post Lesley. You have forced me to evaluate my protagonist’s achilles’ heel. It definitely will increase the stakes in my story to work in some more internal struggle for my main character when the inciting moment occurs. Thanks!

    • Lesley McDaniel April 19, 2013 at 12:55 pm #

      It’s really fun to see how knowing this about your characters affects your writing. You’ll be surprised at how his fears and weaknesses impact his choices. Boy, can he ever get himself into some hot water.

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