Plot holes are not simple things. Oh, sure, editors and readers can recognize them when they see them, but the fact is, making concrete observations about plot holes can be difficult because fiction is so diverse in its genres, tones, themes, and purposes. To that extent, a problem may qualify as a plot hole in my novel, but a parallel problem might not constitute a plot hole in yours.
One such type of plot hole occurred to me as I sat down to write this post. I do a lot of thinking about character and character development, so it’s related to that. And the hole is: when a character’s flaws or weaknesses fail to create problems for him or her.
This comes down to a fact that I often mention, because it has such a large bearing on fiction and how we as human beings relate to fiction and what we seek therein. In fiction we want things to come together. We want to see a complete, tidy, and full picture in a way that we can’t see a full picture in real life. That “full picture” includes justice. And if someone isn’t forced to confront his or her flaws and evil, then we don’t have a complete picture. We feel that something’s missing.
Think about some famous examples of characters facing up to their flaws, willingly or otherwise…. The famous end of “Gone with the Wind” has Scarlett O’Hara’s selfishness catch up with her. In “Les Miserables,” Javert’s utter hostility to and misunderstanding of mercy becomes his own undoing.
Harry Potter is headstrong and often fails to think, ask advice, or notify people more capable than himself before acting, and he pays the consequence for it. One of my favorite Dickens novels, “Dombey and Son,” has an egotistical father who takes the love and devotion of his kind daughter utterly for granted; he is brought to the brink of losing her forever before he is able to understand what he’s done.
To what extent, then, does failure to make a character confront his or her flaws constitute a weakness in plot development? Some factors we unconsciously weigh to determine this are:
- Genres that are more fanciful or absurdist are affected less by this than genres that purport to be truer to life.
- HOW MUCH ATTENTION DOES THE AUTHOR GIVE THE FLAW? No words or scenes are wasted in good literature. Like Chekov (I think it was) said, if a gun is shown in Act I, it better go off in Act III. Thus, the more attention we give to a character’s flaws or to a character’s evil acts, the more the reader will be anticipating that flaw or act to influence the plot somehow. To come into play.
- Is “getting away” with some evil or flaw a thematic point that is confronted and recognized? Does it contribute to the story’s mood and fit in with the fabric of the tale? Is “getting away with it,” which can and does occur in real life, a component of the story’s “point”? If so, anyone would recognize it’s not a plot hole because it obeys what we just discussed…. It influences the plot and comes into play. The gun has gone off.
- HOW IMPORTANT IS THE CHARACTER? We’ll give great weight to the issue if a protagonist or important contributing character doesn’t rightfully find himself in a mess of his own creation. If the character is a bit character, this is much less critical.
- THE DEGREE OF THE FLAW. We all understand that there are degrees of fault and of evil. If a character tends to be impatient and a bit pedantic, and isn’t necessarily called on that, we can accept it, depending on how realistic his or her relationships are with the other characters. More serious issues, like breaches of fidelity, perjury, or physical assault, we expect to have repercussions in a character’s personal life even if it makes sense that legal repercussions might not occur.
Which leads to another good point. Repercussions, the way a character’s flaws bear bad fruit, don’t have to mean total calamity or legal, “official” punishment. We all know that many vices aren’t illegal but rather poison our personal lives, our personal relationships, and our professional standing.
Also, repercussions don’t necessarily mean that a character is humbled and brought to repentance by the ill effects of his choices. (Think of the end of “Sunset Boulevard.”) It may make sense, for a number of reasons, that a character fails to recognize bad fruit as bad. If bad fruit must logically be borne given the circumstances, it’s enough that the reader sees it.
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