When you’re on the team at Writer’s Digest and you’ve listened to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s brilliant Hamilton soundtrack as many times as I have, it’s natural to start analyzing the work as a story, not just a source of entertainment.
And who can blame me? If current ticket prices and audience demand are indicators of quality, Hamilton is most certainly a piece of art worthy of our attention as writers. Having never seen the show (I’ll refer you again to those ticket prices), I’m left to suss out the story and its characters from the soundtrack—but what rich material it is to study and explore.
Take, for instance, the titular character. Alexander Hamilton—at least the Hamilton that exists within Miranda’s mostly true, slightly embellished narrative—is a fascinating, deeply flawed person to whom we nevertheless feel a connection. In fact, I’d argue that it’s Hamilton’s flaws, more than his strengths, that make him truly relatable—a character worth rooting for, and worth connecting with on an emotional level.
Without flaws, our characters will be lopsided, uneven. They feel sanguine and Pollyanna-ish; they might even read as smug. Without flaws, our characters have no hope of emulating humanity.
Here are four ways that Hamilton’s flaws make him a distinctive, memorable character:
[Note: This post contains Hamilton spoilers. If you’d rather not know details of the story, don’t continue!]
1. His character flaws are extensions of his strengths.
Miranda’s smartest decision was to connect Hamilton’s flaws in some way to his strengths. For instance, Hamilton doesn’t lack in ambition. It’s a strength that allows him to rise through the ranks and become George Washington’s right-hand man, to become a figurehead within America’s fledgling government, and to successfully implement a financial system that pulled the country out of debt and into prosperity. But Hamilton’s ambition also makes him obsessed about his legacy, a trait that ultimately leads to his downfall and a very public disgrace.
Likewise, Hamilton is principled and passionate, but he’s also overly outspoken about his beliefs, and he doesn’t know when to keep his cards close to his chest (or, really, when to keep his mouth shut). He’s hardworking and driven, but he doesn’t put aside time for his family and wife, and he works himself to the point of exhaustion. (In one scene, his wife, Eliza, pleads with him: “Look around, isn’t this enough? What would be enough to be satisfied?”)
By presenting these flaws as extensions of strengths, we’re shown how any person’s characteristics exist on a continuum, and can fall on either side of the edge of a knife. One need only slip over that edge to take a strength too far.
In what ways can your characters’ strengths also be their flaws? In what ways can they take their strengths too far?
2. His flaws lead to consequences.
Hamilton runs into trouble again and again due to his personal flaws. His stubbornness and sense of pride cause him to disobey Washington’s orders and serve as second in a duel with General Charles Lee; Washington sends him home as a result. His outspokenness earns him several powerful enemies (Thomas Jefferson among them) and leads him to being fired from his cabinet position when Jefferson becomes Vice President.
Perhaps most noteworthy, though, is how Hamilton’s tendency to put work above all else, and to work himself into exhaustion, makes him vulnerable to the prospect of an extramarital affair. Despite the pleas of his wife and sister-in-law, he declines to take a break. Thus, he finds himself in a sorry state: “I hadn’t slept in a week / I was weak, I was awake / You never seen a bastard orphan / More in need of a break.” It’s at this point that he is approached and seduced by Maria Reynolds. When her husband later blackmails Hamilton over the affair, this sets up a series of events that leads to Hamilton’s public disgrace: In order to avoid accusations of embezzlement and speculation, he confesses that he had an affair, which ruins his prospects of ever becoming President, as well as his marriage to Eliza.
How can you illustrate your characters’ flaws through scenes and events, rather than just telling the reader outright? How can their flaws lead to consequences large and small?
3. He knows—and acknowledges—his faults.
There’s a moment at the end of Act I in which Hamilton approaches his longtime friend and rival, Aaron Burr, to assist him in defending the constitution in a series of essays. Both are practicing law at this point, and Hamilton starts his plea by acknowledging the ways in which he falls short: “I know I talk too much, I’m abrasive / You’re incredible in court. You’re succinct, persuasive …” He realizes he’s a loudmouth and a pain in the ass, and that he needs his friend’s help to meet his goals. This level of self-awareness is refreshing.
Can you give your characters at least partial awareness of their own flaws?
4. He is given a moment of redemption.
The Reynolds affair is arguably the biggest black mark against Hamilton’s character; it’s difficult for any character to redeem himself after infidelity. However, immediately following the affair and Hamilton’s public confession, Hamilton’s son, Philip, is shot and killed in a duel. The Hamiltons move uptown and quietly mourn their terrible loss. In one of the musicals’ most poignant songs, we learn that Hamilton is a changed man: No longer does he desire to insert himself within the narrative of his new country. His chief concern is for his wife and remaining children. He pleads with Eliza:
Look at where we are
Look at where we started
I know I don’t deserve you, Eliza
But hear me out. That would be enough
If I could spare his life
If I could trade his life for mine
He’d be standing here right now
And you would smile, and that would be enough
I don’t pretend to know
The challenges we’re facing
I know there’s no replacing what we’ve lost
And you need time
But I’m not afraid
I know who I married
Just let me stay here by your side
That would be enough
Hamilton’s response to this tragedy is one of the most important moments in his character development. We sense that he’s grown enormously as a result of his pain and loss; he seems wiser and more selfless than ever before.
What moment can you give your characters to help them overcome their flaws? Have you given them the chance to redeem themselves?
—You want to know how to write a novel with artfully crafted character
—You need help choosing point of view, developing dialogue and bringing characters to life
—You’re interested in weaving in antagonists and second characters into your story
Rachel Randall is the content strategist for the Writer’s Digest community.